The Age of Intoxication

The Age of Intoxication
Origins of the Global Drug Trade

Benjamin Breen

304 pages | 6 x 9 | 35 illus.
Cloth Dec 2019 | ISBN 9780812251784 | $34.95a | Outside the Americas £28.99
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the series Early Modern Americas
View table of contents and excerpt

"Nature gives us opium poppies and Cannabis sativa; culture turns them into overprescribed opioids and overcriminalized dime bags. In his important new book, Benjamin Breen argues that all decisions about intoxicants are judgments about cultural difference, with roots in the early modern imperialism that spun many drugs into global circulation in the first place. The Age of Intoxication is a lively, edifying, wholly convincing book."—Joyce Chaplin, author of Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit

"The Age of Intoxication is a fascinating, important, and evocative look at early modern 'drugs'—widely redefined—and their roles in European expansion, medicine, pharmacy, and culture. Benjamin Breen has a striking historical range, tying together histories of the Portuguese and British empires, of the Americas, of Africa, and of South Asia. Combining archival and conceptual depth, the book reveals a connected world of unsung, often subaltern actors. Breen strongly suggests that contemporary distinctions between 'illicit' and 'licit' drug cultures are rooted in this crucial era of global encounters."—Paul Gootenberg, author of Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug

"Innovative, smart, accessible, and a pleasure to read, The Age of Intoxication is the first history of drugs as cultural products. In Benjamin Breen's hands, this history contains as many lessons about society as it does about modern science."—James Sweet, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"The Age of Intoxication is an incisive, vividly recounted analysis of two vast yet interwoven imperial histories, using individual life stories, plant itineraries, medical recipes, and mercantile networks to tell the stories of 'failed' drugs we do not normally include alongside more 'successful' commodities such as chocolate, coffee, and tobacco. In engaging prose and humorous asides, from Portuguese Angola to the wilds of Brazil, Java, and beyond, Benjamin Breen takes us on a colorful historical trip through the mind-altering passageways of the early modern world, leaving no stone (or hallucinogenic mushroom) unturned."—Neil Safier, The John Carter Brown Library

"The Age of Intoxication shows how greater attention to the ambiguities of drugs and their history significantly enriches our understanding of many key features of modernity including colonialism, globalization science, medicine, commerce, and consumption. Benjamin Breen makes a strong and impassioned case for why early modern history is relevant to current discussions and public debates regarding drugs in society and the global drug trade."—Matthew Crawford, Kent State University

Eating the flesh of an Egyptian mummy prevents the plague. Distilled poppies reduce melancholy. A Turkish drink called coffee increases alertness. Tobacco cures cancer. Such beliefs circulated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an era when the term "drug" encompassed everything from herbs and spices—like nutmeg, cinnamon, and chamomile—to such deadly poisons as lead, mercury, and arsenic. In The Age of Intoxication, Benjamin Breen offers a window into a time when drugs were not yet separated into categories—illicit and licit, recreational and medicinal, modern and traditional—and there was no barrier between the drug dealer and the pharmacist.

Focusing on the Portuguese colonies in Brazil and Angola and on the imperial capital of Lisbon, Breen examines the process by which novel drugs were located, commodified, and consumed. He then turns his attention to the British Empire, arguing that it owed much of its success in this period to its usurpation of the Portuguese drug networks. From the sickly sweet tobacco that helped finance the Atlantic slave trade to the cannabis that an East Indies merchant sold to the natural philosopher Robert Hooke in one of the earliest European coffeehouses, Breen shows how drugs have been entangled with science and empire from the very beginning.

Featuring numerous illuminating anecdotes and a cast of characters that includes merchants, slaves, shamans, prophets, inquisitors, and alchemists, The Age of Intoxication rethinks a history of drugs and the early drug trade that has too often been framed as opposites—between medicinal and recreational, legal and illegal, good and evil. Breen argues that, in order to guide drug policy toward a fairer and more informed course, we first need to understand who and what set the global drug trade in motion.

Benjamin Breen teaches history at University of California, Santa Cruz.

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