The British Empire Library

Colonising Plants in Bihar (1760-1950): Tobacco Betwixt Indigo and Sugarcane

by Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This book is unlikely to be a best-seller yet it is packed full of interesting information and draws on the memoirs of several early BACSA members, who came from planter families in the area. The author's thesis is that not only a country, and its peoples, can be 'colonised' by a foreign power, but that the very vegetation of the country can be too. If this sounds bizarre, then consider for a moment the frenzy for indigo in the late eighteenth century, when every lady of fashion had to have a blue-dyed gown. This was orchestrated by the East India Company, anxious to make a profit for its Court of Directors in London. The history of tobacco in India began earlier when European explorers to the Americas introduced the plant and there are accounts from the beginning of 1600 of it being smoked in the sub-continent. Smoking is not the only thing one can do with tobacco, of course, as the author points out. It can also be chewed, or inhaled as snuff.

The topic of why India and the Middle East adopted the hookah, where smoke is passed over scented water, while the West preferred pipes, cigars and cigarettes, could have been explored more fully. But there is plenty of fascinating detail here - the difference between desi (local) and vilayati (export quality) tobacco grown in Bihar ; how the loss of Britain 's American colonies at the end of the eighteenth century incentivised the East India Company to begin tobacco planting in India, and why cash crops are not necessarily a good thing. Land that could have been used for growing food grains and vegetables to feed local people, was instead given over to crops that made money for the East India Company; for the British Government in India, and for European planters. One has to weigh up the benefits for economic growth against the fact that local people simply didn't have enough to eat. Amitav Ghosh's splendid book Sea of Poppies (which is not referenced here) relates in heartbreaking detail how villagers around Ghazipur suddenly found their landscape transformed with the planting of opium poppies by East India Company staff.

This is a rich book. The author has consulted a huge number of sources and she draws her examples from a wide and eclectic range of published material. One senses that English is not her native language but the occasional infelicity really only adds to the charm of this book. There are a number of black and white photographs, some taken by the author herself, others from relevant publications. Recommended.

British Empire Book
Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff
First Published
Review Originally Published
Spring 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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