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  • The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade by Benjamin Breen
  • Pratik Chakrabarti
Benjamin Breen. The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade. The Early Modern Americas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. viii + 280 pp. Ill. $34.95 (978-0-8122-5178-4).

The Age of Intoxication traces the premodern history of drugs, a period when, author Benjamin Breen argues, categories such as licit/illicit, modern/traditional, and recreational/medicinal did not exist. It then examines the transformation of drugs into modern medicines through the categories of licit and illicit. Breen defines these in broad terms; the “illicit,” according to him, constituted the “recreational, irrational, illegal,” and the “licit,” the “medicinal, scientific, legal” (p. 6). This broad frame allows him to access the wide contexts of Orientalism, ecology, slavery, and plantations around the history of the making of modern drugs.

The settings are early Portuguese and British connections with South America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The protagonists in this global history of drugs and intoxication are all Europeans: Francisco de Sá, Pinheiro de Lacerda, Maria Coelho, Joseph Coelho, Garcia da Orta, Francisco de Buytrago, Robert Southwell, Fernando Mendes, and Thomas Bowrey. This suggests that this transformation of early modern drugs took place within a predominantly European colonial milieu. Chapter 1 traces the European search for Cinchona (quina) in the Amazonian forests and the concomitant engagements with indigenous occult traditions and ecosystems. Chapter 2 narrates the history of the marketing and selling of “exotic” medicinal specimens in European apothecary shops and the role of European drug merchants in global capitalism. Chapter 3 takes us to the early Portuguese presence in coastal sub-Saharan Africa, the transatlantic slave trade, and deliberations on tropical climate, fevers, and death. Chapter 4 outlines the journey of the Amazonian quina from occult practices to modern pharmaceuticals. Chapters 5 and 6 present the “deep histories of intoxication” (p. 128): how cannabis and opium were extracted from being Oriental intoxicants to modern therapeutics.

The most significant contribution of the book is in tracing the distinctions that emerged between recreational and medicinal drugs. The story of opium is significant here—a quintessential “Oriental” narcotic, which became the modern morphine. This shift took place within European intellectual traditions. In an insightful analysis in chapter 5, Breen discusses the emergence of a new way of thinking about psychoactivity in Europe from the eighteenth century, which viewed psychedelic experiences not as supernatural but as physiological phenomena. This drew the lines between Oriental and New World narcotics and modern medicines. However, this relatively brief (pp. 132–35) discussion gets lost in subsequent references to the earlier seventeenth-century Spanish debates about intoxicating drugs. Breen returns to the theme in chapter 6, which refers to the French physician François de Sauvages de Lacroix who traced the physiological influence of opium, paving the way for its chemical manipulation. This led to Friedrich Serturner’s isolation of morphine in 1801 (pp. 167–68) and its subsequent mass production. While this discussion is interspersed with the history of global trade in and manufacture of opium and the Orientalist invocations of its exotic characteristics, it is not clear how these new but predominantly European [End Page 120] intellectual framing of narcotics and drugs shaped those beyond its geographical and intellectual confines.

Read on its own, the book is a fascinating study of the early modern transition of drugs. It is rich with historical anecdotes set in diverse backdrops. Since it undertakes almost no engagement with the relevant scholarship, it is difficult to assess the novelty of some of its propositions. The lack of historiographical engagement is surprising as histories of the early modern Atlantic and Indian oceans, particularly the Portuguese drug trade, the Orientalism of opium and cannabis, the role of apothecaries in global trade, and the role of active ingredients in the transformation of exotic drugs into modern pharmaceuticals, are particularly well served in scholarly research. For example, the argument that Breen makes about the licit/illicit divide that emerged through the disciplining and marketing of colonial drugs and medical practices (pp. 43–44) is an important one. However, the broad contours of the narrative presented in...


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