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  • Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina by Gerard Sasges
  • Eric Jennings
Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina. By Gerard Sasges. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2017. viii+ 280 pp.

This study stands out, first and foremost, for its meticulous and original research: the author has made fine use of previously unutilized library collections in Dijon, France, of archives in several locales in Vietnam, Cambodia, Paris, Aix-en-Provence and beyond. In addition, Imperial Intoxication makes original contributions to multiple fields: political economy, the history of science and technology, the study of environment and space, the history of the colonial state, the study [End Page 720] of development, and the impact of French colonialism and its limits, to name only a few.

Sasges shows the staggering size of the douanes et régies administration (customs and monopolies), pointing out that it stood at more than twice that of the colony's next largest department, and more than five times the size of Indochina's fledgling education system. He follows different alcohol regimes and uses multiple analytical tools to reveal major differences between the north and the south, and between the lands that now comprise Vietnam and Cambodia. Sasges' nuanced and sophisticated study challenges the often arbitrary and overly simplistic conceptions of colonial modernity or colonial hegemony, and demonstrates how oppressive and exploitative this pillar of the French colonial economy proved to be. The study also reveals the entanglements of medicine with alcohol production. Sasges contends that the "conceptual distance" (p. 31) between the science of vaccines as practised by the Pasteur Institute's Albert Calmette and his implication in the lucrative distilling business "was not as great as it might first appear" (p. 31).

Some of the micro-biographies that emerge from the book are truly fascinating. Calmette, the enterprising scientist just mentioned who was famous for his tuberculosis vaccine, left a mark on industrial alcohol production during his brief three years in Indochina. By studying the fermentation of Chinese and Japanese rice liquor, Calmette was able to more than double the yields of traditional methods—although this did not guarantee that his product would be considered tasty; quite the contrary. Similarly, A.R. Fontaine's remarkable rags to riches—and back to rags—saga as the monopoly's distillery magnate strikes me as emblematic of French Indochina's own boom and bust cycles. So too, incidentally, was Fontaine's shrewd but ruthless and corrupt business model. Sasges makes wonderful use of previously neglected sources from Fontaine's personal library to formulate conclusions on his political and social iconoclasm. Fontaine is depicted with considerable nuance. His later involvement in the new student quarter in Paris (Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris) highlights the ways in which colonial magnates [End Page 721] attempted to manage and navigate the dusk of empire back home in the metropole.

In the realm of the history of science, Sasges rightly highlights the impact of Jean Effront on Albert Calmette. Effront's invention of a terrifying product known as viandine, a meat substitute derived from waste, manifestly influenced Calmette in his cooperation with Fontaine. The two devised a scheme whereby byproducts of the rice transformation process could be channelled into a product known as amylosine, which in turn was introduced into a supposedly improved version of the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce. Rice, fish sauce and rice wine became major capitalist stakes, linked as they were to the French colonial state monopoly of alcohol that was enacted in the late-nineteenth century, and to the staples of Vietnamese cuisine.

Taxation, extraction and coercion also represent important leitmotifs in this study. Sasges rightly underscores how the alcohol monopoly's influence "waned as distance increased from the centre" (p. 81), rendering it essentially non-existent in Cambodia, where a market of rival distillers kept costs low and unreliable communications curtailed French fiscal efforts to extend it westward. Sasges charts forms of opposition and resistance, from individuals turning a blind eye to cheating, to villagers refusing tax officials entry past their gates, to armed revolt in the face of either appalling colonial violence or blatant cultural or religious insensitivity. The trappings of colonial...


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