Anonymous painting of apothecaries and drug-makers from 1740s or 1750s Paris. University R. Descartes, Faculty of Pharmaceutical and Biological Sciences, Paris, France.

The Age of Intoxication: Drugs in the Early Modern World


International drug cartels and the pharmaceutical industry are two of the most commercially successful and culturally influential enterprises in the world today. How did they begin?

The Age of Intoxication analyzes scientific correspondence, state documents, pharmacopeias, Inquisition trials, and travel accounts to map the global circulation of tropical drugs in the 1640-1820 period. It argues that this earliest phase of the global drug trade entangled indigenous, enslaved and creole inhabitants of the tropics with natural philosophers, merchants and medical consumers in Europe.

The rise of the global pharmaceutical industry and the illicit drug trade, I argue, are the twin Janus faces of this process.

In preparation

Annotated table of contents

Ch. 1: “To Make Discoveries of Drugs”: Bioprospecting in 17th Century Amazonia

In the seventeenth century, the Amazonian state of Maranhão was a colony distinct from Brazil. Following the re-assertion of independent Portuguese rule in the 1640s, it became a contested zone where Iberian, Dutch, French, English, Spanish, and indigenous Brazilian groups contended for access to the natural abundance of the Amazon basin. Colonists attempting to “make discoveries of drugs” (bioprospectors) traversed the region in search of new substances that might rival sugar and brazilwood as lucrative sources of income.

This chapter challenges existing accounts of the history of bioprospecting by showing how even seemingly solid categories like “plant” or “medicine” became destabilized in zones of encounter. e result was an improvised empiricism that blended European and non-European knowledge even as it effaced indigenous social and spiritual contexts for that knowledge. By searching for drugs in the tropics, therefore, bioprospectors were also in many ways inventing them, seeking to transform local cures into mass- market drugs whose purported properties made them appealing to consumers back in Europe. More often than not, however, these attempts ended in frustration. The chapter takes the abortive search for an eastern Amazonian variety of cinchona bark as its primary case study, showing how Portuguese colonists in Maranhão tried and failed to integrate Spanish and Dutch learning that had reached them via printed sources with on-the-ground information from local Tupaya informants.

Ch. 2: Drug Merchants and Early Modern Globalization

Who did colonists expect to sell their drugs to? Although historians have long recognized that the seventeenth century witnessed a transformation in the boundaries of medical authority and an expansion in the material cultures of healing, little is known about the drug merchants who helped make this shift possible. This chapter argues that many seventeenth and eighteenth century physicians and apothecaries doubled as wholesalers of “Indies drugs.” While these figures defended the popularity of novel medicines, some also contributed to an emerging public backlash against them by selling counterfeited or mislabeled wares. Furthermore, many of these drug merchants were women and Jews, making the apothecary shop a space of quasi-illicit commerce in the eyes of some. Certain apothecaries, like João Vigier in Lisbon, shed these associations by aggressively pursuing patronage at court and vehemently defending themselves in print. Others, like Maria Coelho, a crypto-Jewish “apothecaress” (boticaria) who was tortured by the Inquisition and deported to Brazil as a criminal, were not so lucky.

What emerges from this survey of drug merchants is both the vast diversity of the trade and its importance in establishing global networks of exchange. The drug merchant was the early modern go-between par excellence, a figure that transformed local products into a Wunderkammer-esque display of exotic goods, and who mediated the boundary between the exterior world of nature and the interior world of the body.

Ch 3: Fetishizing Drugs: Medicines and Poisons in Portuguese Africa, c. 1650-1750

Why do African products scarcely appear in the drug catalogs of early modern merchants? In seventeenth-century African slave entrepots and the independent states surrounding them, drugs took on a different societal role than in either the New World or Europe. Here, the emphasis of European observers was initially on poisons, venoms, and their cures: substances that could be used in slave insurrections, or antidotes that might offer protection against a tropical landscape that Europeans regarded as inherently “venomous” and potentially fatal. Even as Europeans feared the venoms and poisons of Africa, however, they sought relief by appealing to local healers who used intoxication as a medium for wielding spiritual forces. The first sections of this chapter explore the complex ways that psychoactive substances—such as palm wine, European-traded tobacco and rum, or even African-grown bangue (cannabis)—informed West Central African healers and diviners.

These “fetisheers” (feiticeiros in Portuguese) became an Atlantic-wide phenomenon, appearing in Inquisition trials in both Portugal and in Brazil. eir practices even passed over into the everyday folk magic and medicine of Portuguese colonists, as evidenced by a 1718 manuscript about a Congolese “bark of life” written by a cavalry officer named Francisco de Buytrago. A final section takes Buytrago’s manuscript as a case study of the ways that African spirituality, hybridized Catholic healing practices, and the disruptions of the slave trade led to new practices of drug consumption in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world.

Ch 4: The Royal Society, Chymical Medicine, and the Prehistory of Alkaloids

In some ways, the history of the alchemical creation of drugs, or “chymical medicine,” can be thought of as standing outside the history of the drug trade, because it relied more on the preparation of naturally-occurring European minerals than on global networks of exchange. But this is false dichotomy. Pushing back against the tendency to study these two strands of early modern medical innovation in isolation from each other, this chapter shows how the rise of experimental chemistry in the late 17th and early 18th centuries was closely entangled with the Atlantic drug networks explored in the first three chapters of the book. In particular, I hone in on links between members of the Royal Society of London and individuals in the Portuguese empire to demonstrate the degree to which novel substances from places like Brazil, Angola and India served as catalysts for developments in experimental natural philosophy within Europe. This chapter argues that the rise of experimental medicine relied upon the convergence of new technologies (like the microscope) with the cross-cultural exchange of knowledge and materials, much of which reached natural philosophers in London via Portuguese maritime networks.

Ch. 5: Intoxication in the Enlightenment

This chapter grapples with the issue of psychoactivity in early modern debates about drugs. It takes up a number of case studies: Jesuits observing ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon, Indies merchants sampling cannabis in South Asia, missionaries struggling against poisonous trials in Africa, and the strange story of a French impostor, briefly famous for impersonating a Taiwanese nobleman in c. 1700 London, who anonymously authored what is perhaps the earliest autobiographical narrative of opiate addiction. This chapter also explores a feature of early modernity whose impact has yet to be fully recognized: the globalization of the technology of smoking. Pipes were powerful sacramental objects in the pre-Columbian Americas, but also played an important role in premodern Africa (where tobacco was unknown but cannabis widely cultivated), as highlighted by the fact that the Portuguese word for pipe (cachimbo) is of African origin. As a vehicle for the delivery of psychoactive and addictive alkaloids, pipes were a radical new technology of drug consumption in regions, like Europe and East Asia, which had no prior access to them, contributing to both a newfound recognition of psychoactivity and to new fears of foreign imports. This chapter argues that the convergence of these material and conceptual innovations set in motion the split between licit and illict drugs that would become enshrined in the legal codes of Europe, China and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ch. 6: Three Ways of Looking at an Opium Ball, 1600-1820

This short final chapter shows how the arguments introduced in previous chapters can alter our understanding of what was arguably the most important early modern drug. In so doing, it pushes the chronological scope of the narrative up to the discovery of alkaloids in the 1810s, setting the stage for the Opium Wars and the modern era of drug history. Opium tends today to be thought of in orientalist terms, but the latex of Papaver somniferum had actually been used since the Neolithic times throughout the Mediterranean basin. Therefore, in some ways it doesn’t seem to fit into this book’s emphasis on non-European, tropical drugs. Yet as this chapter argues, opium was transformed into an exotic foreign drug over the course of the Enlightenment. The expansion of the Indies trading companies shifted the medical discourse regarding opium from the prosaic household usage enshrined in Galenic style remedies towards exotic tales of opiate-addled Turkish warriors, harem maidens, and hallucinating Indian princelings. This entangling of chemical novelty and orientalism highlights the larger historical trajectory of drugs at the dawn of the Romantic era. Over the course of the eighteenth century, opiates simultaneously became both newly scientific and newly non-Western. Contained within the history of opium from c. 1600 to c. 1800 is a portrait of modernity in the making, and the seed of the later history of drugs, which continues to blend the exotic and the scientific, the material and the immaterial, the local and the global, and the legal and the illicit.