The Age of Intoxication

From the sickly sweet tobacco that helped finance the Atlantic slave trade to the inebriating cannabis that East Indies merchants sold in coffeehouses, drugs have been entangled with science and commodification for five centuries. The Age of Intoxication explores the origins, and continuing impact, of the first global era of drugs.

The Age of Intoxication
Origins of the Global Drug Trade

Benjamin Breen

Dec 2019 | 304 pages | Cloth $34.95
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Table of Contents

Introduction. At the Statue of Adamastor

Part I. Inventions of Drugs
Chapter 1. Searching for Drugs: Inventing Quina in Seventeenth-Century Amazonia
Chapter 2. Selling Drugs: Early Modern Apothecaries and the Limits of Commodification
Chapter 3. Fetishizing Drugs: Feitiçaria, Healing, and Intoxication in West Central Africa

Part II. Altered States
Chapter 4. Occult Qualities: British Natural Philosophers and Portuguese Drugs
Chapter 5. Uses of Intoxication in the Enlightenment
Chapter 6. Three Ways of Looking at Opium

Conclusion. Drug Pasts and Futures


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

At the Statue of Adamastor

O reckless people . . . you have breached what is forbidden!
—Adamastor to Vasco da Gama, Os Lusíadas, 1572

In a city known for its spectacular vistas, one place in Lisbon stands out: a small patch of grass and stone called the Miradouro do Adamastor. It is sleepy during the day, frequented mostly by tourists and the occasional stray cat eager to take in its panoramic views. But as the sun sets over the Tejo River, revelers from the city's nightlife districts crowd the south end of this tiny plaza. Dealers in MDMA, hashish, and cocaine begin to ply their wares. By nightfall on a typical Friday, the Miradouro do Adamastor has become one of the busiest drug markets in Portugal.

The north end of the plaza is very different. This side is dominated by an elegant building that happens to house Lisbon's Museum of Pharmacy. One spring evening several years ago, I watched an intoxicated man climb on top of the stone statue that stands at the center of the plaza, his back to the museum. "Lisbon doesn't care about me!" he shouted in Angolan-accented Portuguese. The people behind the statue pretended not to notice. With time, however, the tall iron fence that divides the museum from the plaza began to seem to me like a statement in its own right. The fence proclaims the museum's symbolic and physical distance from the drug dealers and drug users beyond: the scientific realm of the medical, standing apart from the messy world of intoxication.

And as for the statue at the center of it all? The sculpted figure, rising out of rough-hewn rock, is an imperial Portuguese imagining of an African demigod. In The Lusiads, the sixteenth-century poetic epic of the Portuguese Empire, Adamastor is the name given to a giant who battles the navigator Vasco da Gama. As da Gama and his men round Africa's Cape of Good Hope, a "deformed and enormous" figure rises in the night air "like a second Colossus of Rhodes, most strange to see . . . its hair curly and filled with earth . . . its mouth black." Adamastor, the "Spirit of the Cape," tries and fails to repel the Portuguese from reaching the "strong and potent drugs" of the Indies. Today, Lisbon's Adamastor stands frozen in an expression of futile rage, staring out to sea. A tiny figure of Vasco da Gama perches on the edge of his beard.

It would be hard to find a better starting point for the stories told in this book. The African god and his Portuguese enemy, united in their silent contemplation of a gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. The drug sellers below, often recent immigrants from Brazil, Angola, or Mozambique, whose personal journeys map onto the older pathways of Portugal's vanished empire. And, looming behind them, the silent wall dividing the street drugs of the miradouro from the medical drugs of the museum.

The Age of Intoxication argues against this division. It is a window into a time when there was no barrier between the museum and the marketplace—or between the drug dealer and the pharmacist. Here the reader will encounter merchants, slaves, shamans, prophets, feiticeiros, inquisitors, witches, alchemists, and natural philosophers. I don't claim that these figures all saw themselves as participating in the same profession, trade, or worldview. On the contrary, the global drug trade emerged out of conflict and difference. It was, and is, rooted in a spectrum of beliefs that are difficult to draw together. A random selection of opinions held by individuals in this book would include the following: Eating the powdered flesh of an Egyptian mummy may cure the plague. Distilled poppies reduce melancholy. A Turkish drink called coffee increases alertness. The arterial blood of a murderer is the best thing for an epileptic, especially when collected and drunk immediately after the murderer's public beheading. Tobacco cures cancer. Possessing an enemy's toenail clippings may allow you to kill them.

The global drug trade was an emergent property, born of a ferment of different beliefs, practices, and conflicts, following a course that was neither planned nor expected. But I believe that it is important to try to see the drug trade as a unified whole. In the early modern era (the period spanning roughly 1500 to 1800 CE) the drug trade became truly global in scope—and the world changed in ways both familiar and forgotten. This book's title, The Age of Intoxication, is a deliberate provocation in this regard. It has fallen out of fashion for historians to refer to an "Age of Reason" in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the term continues to resonate in the popular imagination. I argue that the globalization of drugs during the same period was an event with impacts on global health, material culture, and intellectual life that were arguably even more transformative than the unevenly distributed intellectual currents of the Enlightenment. Rather than limiting this book to the study of only medicinal drugs or only recreational ones, I have thus chosen to study psychoactive and medicinal drugs in tandem so as to better capture the full scope of their impacts.

The substances we will learn about fall into different categories today. There are pharmaceuticals like quinine, so-called "traditional remedies" like St.-John's-wort or rhinoceros horn, New Age and homeopathic cures, food-like drugs or drug-like foods such as sugar, and illegal narcotics like heroin. In chronicling how these substances circulated during the first era of globalization, it became clear that the permanence of such divisions—between illicit and licit, recreational and medicinal, modern and traditional—is illusory. These boundaries were radically different in the past, and they are shifting beneath our feet today. In order for people of the present day to guide drug policy toward a fairer and more informed course, we first need to understand who and what set it on its present trajectory.

The chapters that follow trace the drug trade's emergence on a world stage, the main points of contact and conflict that key early modern drugs initiated, and the accompanying backlashes. For instance, the Atlantic slave trade was not just a trade in human beings but also a commerce in psychoactive drugs. The Scientific Revolution, likewise, was partially inspired by questions about how novel "Indies" drugs acted on mind and body, and what latent "virtues" they concealed. The shape taken by globalization was forever altered by this early modern era of drugs. In understanding the age before the pharmacy museum and the recreational drug market became separated by physical and ideological walls, we will learn more about how the modern world itself came into being—and about the age of intoxication that we still live in.

Why Does Drug History Matter?

The range of substances that early modern Europeans classified as "drugs" was truly vast. The term encompassed everything from herbs and spices (like nutmeg, cinnamon, and chamomile) to deadly poisons (like lead, mercury, and arsenic). Some early modern drugs, such as oil of roses or lavender, appealed to the senses. Others revolted against them, like the 1609 recipe that called for the sick to consume "the corpse of an unblemished twenty-four-year-old red-haired man . . . torn into strips and sprinkled with powdered myrrh and aloe." An early modern apothecary—a vendor and preparer of drugs—might sell Egyptian mummies, Neolithic artifacts, narwhal tusks, bird beaks, powdered pearls, and drinkable gold. Drugs could dispel or enact curses, increase sexual desire or banish it, ease the pains of childbirth or induce abortion, kill in agony or dissipate all sensation in an opiated haze. Amid this enormous diversity, however, there were also common traits. The unifying definition of the substances called "drugs" in this book is that they are things consumed to alter the mind or body. I sometimes use terms like "psychoactive" or "intoxicating" to refer to these effects, but it is important to remember that contemporary medical definitions of psychoactivity and the more capacious one that I use here are not identical.

It is also worth noting that most of the drugs surveyed in these pages were not effective by modern medical standards. A few, like opium or cinchona bark, are botanical precursors of contemporary pharmaceuticals. In some cases, studying premodern or non-Western drugs has led to significant breakthroughs, like the Nobel Prize-winning antimalarial drug artemisinin (i.e., qīnghāosù,青蒿素), brought to market on the basis of a traditional Chinese remedy, or ibogaine, a compound found in the root of the African Tabernanthe iboga tree,which has shown potential for treating addiction. Nevertheless, most drugs studied in this book likely have no empirical therapeutic value. So, leaving aside our natural curiosity about the weird, wizardly contents of apothecary jars or the remarkable lives of drug merchants, cultivators, and consumers, why do their histories matter?

Because this book is about the early modern era, I don't enter here into debates about the deep human past. However, I do proceed from a broad perspective: I believe that it is impossible to understand human history without accounting for the centrality of drug taking as a fundamental human impulse. The desire to alter mental and physical states by ingesting natural products appears to number among the defining traits of our species. It is a behavior that arguably deserves a position alongside the more celebrated human expressive modes, like dance, music, or language. And if the intentional alteration of conscious or physical states is a fundamental element in human behavior, then so, too, is the desire to find meaning in these states. Humans are the only animal that prepares, trades, and explains drugs. Drugs play a significant role in human societal differentiation, cultural and material exchange, and, in some cases, conflict.

Today, nonmedical drug use is often given the label "recreational," but this is a deeply inadequate phrase. The desire to escape the mind's confines is an ancient and profound one. Sometimes the impulse can be destructive; other times, it offers an outlet for dispelling fear or frustration, making sense of hardship or gaining knowledge. In either account, the impulse runs deep. Some archaeologists have theorized that the introduction of alcohol can be identified in the archaeological record of Bronze Age Europe, when new ceramic forms appear to have been linked to the emergence of rituals of intoxication. For the most part, however, the early chapters of drug history stretch so far back into the human past that they remain unwritten and, perhaps, unwriteable. Indeed, humanity's ancient alliances with caffeine and alcohol have become so deeply embedded in many societies around the world that we rarely reflect on the fact that these everyday substances even are drugs. They are part of the fabric of our world—and our shared histories, from Peru to Africa to China.

Almost as ancient as the evidence for alcohol and caffeine use are the archaeological records of the use of drugs sometimes known as entheogens, a word deriving from the Greek ἔνθεος (éntheos), meaning "god within" or "inspired by a god." In Mesoamerica, archaeological records documenting entheogens like peyote (Lophophora williamsii) stretches back at least as far as the Olmec era, circa 1200‒400 BCE. We should be wary of drawing a clear line between the use of these drugs in spiritual, recreational, or medical settings. They often serve all three simultaneously. An emerging scientific consensus points to the utility of drugs like mescaline and psilocybin as treatments for disorders such as alcoholism, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and severe depression. They have been lauded as tools for obtaining "self-knowledge and psychological insight." But as we'll see, substances like peyote and psilocybin have also been attacked as dangerous intoxicants. Today, the United States, both remain classified as Schedule 1 drugs. In the end, I suspect it is impossible to draw a clear line between recreational and therapeutic use of a drug. But this has not stopped modern societies from attempting to do just that.

The chapters that follow document how the early modern drug trade emerged, grew, and split into licit (medicinal, scientific, legal) and illicit (recreational, irrational, illegal) branches. This book will also explore how drugs have served as a kind of advance guard for both the allure and the dangers of global trade, and as a catalyst for slave traders, scientists, and agents of empire. Newly globalized psychoactive substances from the tropical and subtropical regions, which Europeans called "the Indies," prompted new racialized and religious fears of foreign drugs, as well as new scientific questions and methods.

Today, legacies of the early modern globalization of drugs shape our world in ways both seen and unseen. In the Philippines, an estimated 7,000 people were executed by police and vigilantes because of supposed links to drug dealing in late 2016 and early 2017 alone. Roughly half of the inmates in U.S. federal prisons as of 2015 were serving time for so-called drug offenses. Meanwhile, the trade in legal drugs has emerged as one of the planet's largest and most powerful industries. One in six Americans is thought to regularly consume psychiatric drugs. In 2015, an estimated 38 percent of American adults were prescribed opioids. And substances like tobacco, coffee, and alcoholic spirits (which all fell under the early modern definition of drugs) account for a truly massive portion of global advertising budgets and consumer spending.

By reframing certain drugs as foreign invaders or markers of societal decline rather than acknowledging drug taking's ancient role in nearly all human societies, modern states have committed unspeakable crimes. The assumptions underlying drug criminalization include concerns about bodily and mental purity and the trope of intoxication as an enemy of civilization. This book shows how these associations arose out of early modern conceptions of racial difference, fears of non-Christian spirituality, and the commercial imperatives of merchants, slavers, and medical professionals. Drugs became illegal not because of the arbitrary decisions of government leaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but because of deep-seated epistemological, commercial, and social structures that emerged during an earlier age of globalization on the plantation, on the slave ship, and on the surgeon's table.

Defining Drugs, and How to Study Them

In modern English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, drug/drogue/droga has a well-known double meaning. It can signify either "a natural or synthetic substance used in the prevention or treatment of disease" or "a substance with intoxicating, stimulant, or narcotic effects used for cultural, recreational or other non-medical purposes." But the genealogy of the word is more tangled than this distinction might imply. It first entered English and several other European languages in the fourteenth century (seemingly from a Middle Dutch word related to dryness, droge). At this early stage, the word referred simply to dry goods, from medicinal herbs and spices to dyes, soaps, incenses, or pigments. As we will see, the meaning of "drug" changed subtly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gaining associations with exotic spices, medicines, and poisons. Dictionaries state that it was not until the late nineteenth century that the word drug gained a formal secondary association with recreational usage. Yet, the links among drugs, intoxication, and the illicit actually begin to emerge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as goods like cannabis and opium acquired labels like "drogas narcoticos," or "stupefying drugs."

These changes in the meanings of "drug" were directly linked to the global expansion of European empires. When Columbus and da Gama sailed in search of the Indies, for instance, they sought not only gold, silver, and slaves but also especiarias (spices) and drogas (drugs). By the early decades of the sixteenth century, the word droga was increasingly being applied to exotic medicinal imports from the New World and Asia but in a way that continued to blur the boundaries between drug and spice. In a 1525 letter, for instance, a Portuguese factor in Cochin named Manuel Botelho sent the crown a list of drogas that included cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, and cloves (Figure 2). Simão Botelho, another colonial official, wrote in 1552 that "the trading contract in drugs [contrato das drogas] which we maintain with Ormuz, is the most important remedy for [supplying] the necessities of this land [of Goa]." Botelho was referring to items like nutmeg, cloves, mace, and cinnamon, not to substances commonly classified as drugs today.

Given the protean nature of the category itself, any history of drugs must address several different facets of human experience: economic, social, scientific, and spiritual. Historians of early modern science and medicine have studied medicinal drugs like cinchona, guaiacum, and opium as examples of how post-Columbian botanical networks altered ecological practices and theories of nature. Viewed from another angle, the early modern drug trade is a story of profit and loss, of competing participants in a "medical marketplace," and of oppressed workers whose lives were defined by labor and drawn together by the vast wheels of commerce. Finally, this book is indebted to historians who see economic motives as threads in a larger fabric of social relations, cultural practices, and that deep reservoir of unstated beliefs about how the world functions that informs both the history of science and the realm of the spiritual.

This book focuses on the Portuguese and British Empires because these two colonial regimes had what I consider to be the most significant influence on the early modern globalization of drugs. The Portuguese Empire was central to the globalization of drugs and spices; no other empire or state played such a wide-ranging role in the redistribution of flora and fauna that historians call the Columbian Exchange. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the British Empire emerged as a would-be inheritor of Portuguese dominance in the drug trade. In this aim, British natural philosophers and colonists largely succeeded. However, the story of early modern drugs was not confined to any one region or power. This book takes a broad view, shifting from a Portuguese to a British imperial focus (and at times moving freely beyond either) because drugs themselves had a stubborn tendency to ignore the boundaries imposed by both humans and geography.

It is also important to remember that terms like the "Portuguese Empire" or "British Empire" can conceal as much as they clarify. Studying early modern empires requires a highly skeptical view of claims to geographic power. From the idealized perspective of a cartographer, Portuguese holdings were vast indeed. Through the personal union with Spain under the Hapsburgs, the joint monarchs of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns laid claim not only to the kingdoms of Iberia but also to a selection of territories including Athens, Corsica, "the Eastern and Western Indies," "the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea," Burgundy, Flanders, and Jerusalem. After the restoration of an independent Portuguese monarchy under King João IV of the House of Braganza (1640), the kings of Portugal continued to claim a litany of royal titles that included "the Conquest, Navigation, and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India." In reality, however, Portuguese power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rarely penetrated further than a few dozen miles beyond the empire's key colonial outposts: the coastal cities of Brazil; Luanda in present-day Angola; Goa in present-day India; and Macau in present-day China.

Overlaid onto this secular power structure, like a second empire, lay the missionary enterprises of the holy orders. In parts of South America and Asia, Society of Jesus "provinces" (frequently dominated by Lusophone Jesuits) exerted quasi-governmental control. The Franciscan and Dominican Orders also wielded considerable influence in Goa and Macau, as did the Capuchins in seventeenth-century Angola. Still, the combined population of both missionaries and colonists was surprisingly small. By one estimate, fewer than 10,000 "able-bodied Portuguese" inhabited the colonies claimed by the king of Portugal at the end of the sixteenth century.

Perhaps the defining geographic and demographic feature of the Portuguese and the British Empires was their reliance on the forced labor of captives. Although the largest group of these unwilling immigrants were enslaved Africans transported along the networks of the Atlantic slave trade, they were not the only group to suffer confinement and transportation. In the British context, a substantial proportion of naval crews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries consisted of individuals who had been unwillingly conscripted into the Royal Navy—often while they were deeply intoxicated. A significant proportion of Portuguese soldiers, similarly, were degredados (exiled convicts) who demonstrated little allegiance to the Portuguese state that had prosecuted them. The "empires" we will encounter in this book were zones of contested control, guided by forces and individuals that often evade the notice of histories focused on a single state.


This book's first part, centered on the Portuguese colonies of Brazil and Angola and on the imperial capital of Lisbon, examines the process by which novel drugs were located, commodified, and consumed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The British Empire, I argue, owed much of its success in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to cannibalizing these Portuguese drug networks. For this reason, the second part of The Age of Intoxication expands into British sources relating to the drug trade. Here, I argue that the global drug trade can offer an alternative history of the Scientific Revolution and its entanglement with the rise of global capitalism. Although cultural understandings of intoxication vary widely, by the eighteenth century a new, more global understanding of intoxication emerged, one guided by both empiricism and orientalism. The division between drugs and pharmaceuticals sprouted in this racialized soil of Enlightenment-era debates about intoxication, science, and empire.

This book's approach, with its emphasis on unusual details and forgotten characters, is an attempt to do justice to a history that has too often been viewed as a simplistic binary between good and bad. As I wrote it, I became convinced that one of the central problems in how societies deal with drugs has been, and remains, a profound lack of empathy and imagination. In this regard, I've found inspiration from the companionable titles of some early modern drug manuals. These books, written in vernacular languages rather than Latin and priced to sell, promised that "the Treasury of Drugs" would be "Unlock'd" for all to see, announced their desire to be "Useful to the Public," or offered entry into the "Watchtower of Life Against the Hostilities of Death." The secrets of drugs were revealed to "the Poor Man" and "Every Woman." The titles of those old drug manuals over-promised: they were often repetitive lists of prescriptions that had been copied and recopied for centuries. But they did manage to cover a surprisingly rich array of topics, from how to make perfume to the proper way to die, from deadly plagues to melancholy, and from tropical poisons to garden herbs. I have tried to evoke something of that eclectic and inquisitive spirit in this book.

Today, deep-seated preconceptions and fears continue to structure how we think about drugs. By understanding the historical origins of these assumptions, we can overcome bias and rethink obsolete policies. What is at stake here is not just our knowledge about a crucial and understudied aspect of world history. My hope is that in some small way, these pages can push contemporary societies toward tolerance and compassion, and away from an obsolete legacy of criminalization and stigma