Points Interview: “Serrano Communities and Subaltern Negotiation Strategies: The Local Politics of Opium Production in Mexico, 1940–2020,” with Nathaniel Morris

Editor’s Note: We’re continuing our series of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, ADHS’s journal, published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. Nathaniel Morris, whose article you can see here. Dr. Morris is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow attached to the History department at the University College London. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article, or any other article from SHAD’s history.

Tell readers a little bit about yourself

Screenshot 2020-06-01 at 7.34.59 PMI’m a historian, and sometimes I pretend to be an anthropologist, I suppose. I’m from London, England – or Great Britain, or whatever else this strange old island is calling itself at the moment. I’ve been interested in Latin American history, politics, cultures and all the rest of it since I was an undergraduate – which I now realise is way longer ago than I would like! – and I’ve always been drawn to Mexico in particular. I’m halfway through a 3-year postdoc at University College London, researching the history of indigenous militia groups in Mexico and trying to work out the links between armed community guard units that emerged during the Revolution in the 1920s and 30s, and the contemporary ‘autodefensa’ militias that are playing a key role in the ‘Drug War’ ongoing in many parts of the country. This research has followed on from an earlier project on indigenous relations with the Revolutionary state in a particularly rugged, diverse and beautiful bit of western Mexico, which – completely shameless plug alert – is coming out as a book with Arizona University Press this autumn. It’s called ‘Soldiers, Saints and Shamans: Indigenous Communities and the Revolutionary State in Mexico’s Gran Nayar,’ and you can pre-order a copy here.

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Points Bookshelf: “Imperial Twilight” by Stephen R. Platt

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Screenshot 2019-09-05 at 8.18.45 AMWithin the field of Chinese history, the Opium War, fought in the southern port city of Canton (Guangzhou) and its environs from 1839-1842, is among the most exhaustively researched of topics. Scholars have long argued for the significance of this nineteenth-century clash between the British and Chinese empires, representing it as the beginning of the latter’s infamous “century of humiliation” at the hands of the great powers. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of the China’s Last Golden Age (Knopf, 2018) does not dispute this view of the conflict as a watershed marking British ascendancy and Chinese decline. However, Stephen Platt’s highly readable and original book does overturn various longstanding assumptions about the events leading up to the war. In particular, he shows how small moments of frustration and miscommunication changed the course of history. 

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SHAD Interview: “The Philippines, the United States, and the Origins of Global Narcotics Prohibition” with Anne Foster

Editor’s Note: This is our last week of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to Dr. Anne Foster, an associate professor of history at Indiana State University and co-editor of the journal Diplomatic HistoryYou can read Foster’s article in its entirety (until May 1!) here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

I teach a variety of courses in History at Indiana State University, where I have worked since 2003.  I also co-edit the journal Diplomatic History.  I’m interested in the varieties of ways that the United States has exerted power, with a particular focus on imperialism and Southeast Asia in the late 19th to mid-20th century.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

I was in the archives in The Hague, researching for my dissertation, which had nothing to do with drugs, and in a box I pulled, saw a number of folders headed “opium.”  I had to read those! One document, from the 1910s, featured a Dutch official complaining that the US prohibition of opium in the Philippines was leading to increased smuggling of opium in the region, including into the Netherlands Indies, where opium was perfectly legal.  The Dutch official was irritated because this smuggling was undercutting Dutch profits from taxing opium. I thought that was interesting, and a different take on the effects of efforts to control or prohibit drugs. I have ever since been interested in the period of transition about opium in colonial Southeast Asia, from the 1880s, when opium was legal nearly everywhere and highly profitable to the colonial governments, to 1940, when opium was prohibited in some places and to some peoples, and highly regulated throughout colonial Southeast Asia.

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Dr. Anne Foster

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender wouldn’t find boring.

Did you know that if you lived a bit more than 100 years ago, that opium was perfectly legal and widely consumed in most places?  Probably you did know that. Yes, lots of patent medicines in the United States contained opium, and yes, Coca-cola did contain cocaine.  I’m really interested in how opium went from being so widely accepted and consumed to prohibited within only a few short years. I mostly study how that happened in the colonial Southeast, where the U.S. colony of the Philippines was. Opium was consumed in Southeast Asia for both recreational and medicinal purposes in the late 19th and early 20th century, and provided from 15% to as much as 50% of government revenues for colonies there.  The United States worked to prohibit opium in the Philippines pretty soon after acquiring the colony, even before opium was prohibited in the United States itself. And then the United States tried to get the other colonial governments to prohibit opium too, which they mostly didn’t want to.  But for the U.S. officials, legal opium in the areas near the Philippines meant that people could easily smuggle opium into the Philippines. I argue that this means the U.S. “war on drugs” approach starts all the way back in the early 20th century.

Is this part of a larger project?  What else are you working on?

I am working on a book about the transition from legal, profitable opium in 1880s colonial Southeast Asia to highly regulated, often restricted or prohibited opium in that region in 1940, on the eve of World War II.  I am looking not only at the transimperial politics of opium regulation, but also at smuggling and the transimperial efforts to stop smuggling.

The book also explores the context for discussion of opium of changes in medical knowledge and practices, which is significant.  Finally, racial, ethnic and gendered components shaped the politics of opium consumption and regulation. The book is a little unwieldy at the moment, but I am hoping to finish the manuscript in the next year.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

I am excited to see how drug history is exploring the ways that drugs are linked to so many various aspects of life, from how drugs are related to broader histories of consumption, to how drugs and health and developments in medicine are interrelated, to the environmental implications of source control efforts against illicit drugs.  These histories don’t neglect the powerful political effects of the war on drugs, but demonstrate how drugs are integrated into our lives in ways we don’t (yet) fully understand.

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

This is a harder question than I thought it would be.  I am most tempted by the ability to resurrect scholar friends who have recently died, and have one last dinner.  But in what I take to be the spirit of the question, I will name someone I don’t know whose work I have always admired.  My choice is idiosyncratic: Jean Gelman Taylor, who wrote one of my favorite books: The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia.

Taking Opium in 1861: A Reporter’s Weirdly Funny Story

Newspapers are extraordinary historical sources in their sheer number and their accessibility. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of them as research on opium in the late 1800s. During this age of cheap print, high literacy rates, and early investigative journalism, much ink was spilled on the puzzling and alluring vice of opium in all its forms.

A number of reporters ventured into the verboten interiors of opium dens in San Francisco and New York to write first-person accounts, or tried it at home or among friends. Their assessments of the experience of smoking opium varied wildly: some wrote about seeing God and paradise, while others dryly concluded the drug was good for little except falling asleep.

Some journalists’ accounts of the opium use of others are stern, Progressive-spirited exposes, while some are sensational and colorful (yellow, to be exact).

But in the newspapers, this era also belonged to humorists. One of Mark Twain’s earliest pieces of reporting described the “comfortless operation” of opium smoking, whereby an experienced smoker “puts a pellet of opium on the end of a wire, sets it on fire, and plasters it into the pipe much as a Christian would fill a hole with putty; then he applies the bowl to the lamp and proceeds to smoke—and the stewing and frying of the juices would well-nigh turn the stomach of a statue.”

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Teaching Points: Opium, Empire, and State in Asia

Today’s post is from Dr. Bruce Erickson. He is currently the chair of the department of history at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.

In recent years I have included in my rotation two courses that begin with the narcotics trade, “Coca, Culture, and Politics in Latin America” and “Opium, Empire, and State in Asia.” These two classes began life as one that tried to combine “Wars on Drugs” with Wars of Drugs,” so really they were and are less about drugs themselves than about the politics of drugs. Or better, they use the study of narcotics to explore larger histories. In their conception my classes are simply a commodity chain approach to studying and teaching history. What differentiates coca, opium, and their derivatives from other commodities goes beyond their effects to their inconsistent and shifting legal status, the social consequences of their introduction, and their social, political, and economic importance at particular times and places. Continue reading

Of Ragamuffins and Dens: State Legislation, Municipal Enforcement, and Opium Smoking

On May 26, 1888, the Boston Daily Globe reported the death of a young Harvard student named Frank Mills. The front page headline read: “Fatal Opium.” According to the story, having decided that life at Harvard would not be complete without the experience, Mills and three fellow students had ventured into Boston with the hopes of securing some opium. Following suggestions from their classmates the foursome sought out a man known as Nicholas Gentleman who sold opium in the South End. The boys had “refused to go to an opium joint,” as they feared a police raid, but told Gentleman if he would come to Harvard they would “make things all right for him.” He readily agreed after several assurances that Mills was “an old hand at smoking.” That evening Mills continued to claim he was a frequent smoker leading Gentleman to oblige his numerous requests for another pipe. Mills and the others soon became ill and by early morning the group suffered in obvious agony. Medical doctors were summoned, yet the group took great care to keep the opium smoking quiet. In the end, all but Mills recovered, their secret was revealed, and Gentleman arrested.  Continue reading

The Book of Smoke

Editor’s Note: This cross-posting is part of a series featuring items from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo collection recently acquired by Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Thanks to rare book cataloger Ryan Wheeler for producing the original post at Houghton’s Modern Books and Manuscripts blog.

The opium dens prevalent in France and the United States during the 19th century, as well as the culture surrounding them, resulted in copious literature, such as this rarely-seen work: Le livre de la fumée, by French author, musicologist, and student of Chinese culture Louis Laloy. This treatise on opium’s use and history both domestically and in China features a preface by Claude Farrère, author of the novel Fumée d’opium. It was published in 1915 by Dorbon-Ainé in a lavish limited edition of 220 numbered copies with illustrations throughout.

Fumee-1-largeThe Santo Domingo Collection includes several of the 220 copies; the one shown here is bound in full tan morocco with gilt stamping and embroidered cloth endsheets by the French bindery Marius Michel. The binding preserves the publisher’s original wrappers, themselves sumptuously illustrated in color.

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Conference Report: Law and Society Association Annual Meeting

The 2013 Law and Society Association Annual Meeting (May 30-June 2) in Boston concluded yesterday. As an interdisciplinary conference of considerable size (over 600 panels) that attracts a diverse range of policy, academic, practitioner panelists and attendees, this annual meeting seems to offer rich opportunities to venture outside of one’s narrow subfield and to have unexpected yet fruitful conversations.

ImageGiven the overlapping interests of those who work on law and psychoactive substances, this conference may be a future forum of interest for ADHS readers.  The conference has been extant for several decades, deriving its institutional origins from the founding of the Law and Society Association (LSA) in 1964. This year’s theme was “Power, Privilege, and the Pursuit of Justice: Legal Challenges in Precarious Times.” Continue reading

Translating Addiction? Some Speculations*

Many scholars of drugs and alcohol that are engaged in comparative work within plural linguistic environments are already aware of the problems of translation. The encounter with compilations of mistranslated signs and slogans that many of us may have had in our first language courses have constituted some of our earliest brushes with the pitfalls of translation. (E.g.: Bangkok Dry Cleaner’s sign: “Drop your trousers here for best results” or an earlier version of KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan—“Eat your fingers off” 吃掉你的手指头.[1]) Translation, it seems, can be dangerous.

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Identified as in Shanghai, but likely a sign for Beijing’s Ethnic Culture Park.

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Shanghai Reflections: A Final Postcard

Editor’s Note: As a final word, here are a few thoughts from Diana L. Ahmad of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and a participant at the conference.  Thanks to Diana for taking a moment to prepare these thoughts.

 In late June, over forty scholars from four continents and eight countries gathered at Shanghai University for a conference devoted to drugs and drink in Asia.  The presenters ranged from graduate students to well-published scholars in the field.

The historic efforts to control the use and spread of opium dominated the topics.  The papers clearly demonstrated that opium impacted more than India, China, or the United States, but indeed, included much of Asia and Europe.  In the Dutch East Indies, for example, the Dutch imperialist government went so far as to exclude the Chinese from selling opium, keeping the business and profits for themselves.  The impact of opium in the Golden Triangle through the years, as well as in Afghanistan, highlighted several of the papers.  The importance of nation-building in areas impacted by opium in the former colonies of the Dutch, British, and French demonstrated the significance the drug had on the politics of the region.  The influence of the drug in Japan and Korea also explained the economic, social, and political impact on those nations, even showing that the Japanese considered themselves superior to the Chinese because of the Chinese opium problems.

The efforts of governments around the world to control opium’s use and sale could be heard in nearly every paper.  Christian missionaries, for example, attempted to eliminate the substance from their areas of influence in Yunnan and Wenzhou, while journalists in the American West campaigned to abolish smoking-opium from their communities.  A significant number of the papers dealt with the impact of opium on the economies of nations.  The imperialist nations that held possessions in Asia had become, willingly or not, importers or exporters of the drug, as opium had become a world trade good in the nineteenth century.  Governments over time, such as Great Britain, China, and the Dutch East Indies, all claimed to dislike opium, but few of them denied that the money was desirable for their nations’ treasuries.  Some suggested opium sales allowed government taxes to be kept to a minimum, such as in Qing China.  Opium, then, produced benefits for nations, not just problems.

Although the conference covered a wide range of topics, including a discussion of modern China’s approach to opium, it would have been great to see a few more papers on other features of the drug.  For example, although the Golden Triangle was noted in several papers, a more thorough discussion of the importance of opium in that area during the conflicts of the twentieth century would have been a good addition.  Although the PRC’s approach to opium was briefly discussed, an analysis of Chairman Mao’s opium policy would have provided an added insight to the panels on modern China.  A few more papers about the social side of opium would have been good to show the impact of the drug on everyday life.  The conference leaned heavily on opium for its papers, although cocaine and marijuana were represented, as well as only one paper on alcohol.  A few more scholars of drink would have been great.

This well run conference provided wonderful accommodations at Shanghai University, terrific meals, and easy flowing conversation.  Student assistants helped conference attendees obtain Shanghai University t-shirts, brought us snacks, tea, and water, and served as phenomenal translators.  It was truly great fun to have a conference in Shanghai, made all the more exciting by the fact that the 1909 Opium Conference was held nearby.  Heartfelt thanks go to the directors of the event….Joseph Spillane from the University of Florida, Yong-an Zhang of Shanghai University and the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies, and James Mills from the University of Strathclyde.