The Real History of France’s First Anti-Drug Law

Myth: Napoleon Bonaparte created the first anti-marijuana law in modern history during his military campaign to Egypt around 1800.

Bonaparte
Monsieur Bonaparte

For nearly a century, scholars and amateur historians have told their readers, quite incorrectly it turns out, that in October of 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte passed an official ban on hashish across Egypt after personally observing rampant use of the drug among Egyptians and his rank and file. For most historians of drugs and prohibition, the hashish ban of October 1800 marks the first anti-drug law in modern history and thus the starting point for histories of drugs and prohibition in the Western world. But in October of 1800, Napoleon was neither in Egypt nor was he the ranking General in Chief of the French Army of the Orient attempting to colonize the country.

Frustrated by his repeated setbacks in Egypt, Napoleon abandoned the Army of the Orient in August of 1799 and departed for France to begin his meteoric rise to power. Command in Egypt passed to Jean-Baptiste Kléber, one of the most celebrated generals in French history, who controlled the colony until a Kurdish student from Aleppo called Suliman El-Halebi assassinated him in June of 1800. After Kléber’s assassination, Jacques-François “Abdallah” Menou, the divisional commander of Rosetta, took over as General in Chief. When Abdallah Menou passed the hashish ban in Egypt in early October of 1800, First Consul Napoleon was nearly 3200 kilometers away in Paris fending off the famous “dagger plot” and preoccupied with a growing war in Europe against Austria and the Second Coalition. And a close reading of official correspondence between Paris and Alexandria throughout 1800 reveals that Napoleon had no involvement in or even knowledge of the hashish ban in Egypt passed by Menou in October. Why, then, has this myth of Napoleon banning hashish in Egypt appeared and reappeared as an historical fact for so long, and what has this myth hidden from us about the real historical circumstances that produced the first drug prohibition measure in modern Western history?

Historians writing on both sides of the Atlantic traditionally have portrayed the Egyptian Campaign as a whimsical misstep in Napoleon’s otherwise impressive military and political career. From this vantage the only redeeming aspects of Napoleon’s “folie égyptienne,” as French scholars often label the campaign, are found in the subsequent development of Egyptology in Europe and the introduction of modern technologies and political institutions to Egypt via French colonization. Scholars hotly debate the nature and influence of these post-Expedition developments for the histories of both France and Egypt. But regardless of their position in these disputes, historians generally present the campaign itself as a failed moment of hegemonic imperialism.

Menou
Monsieur Menou

But this traditional portrayal of Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign as an abortive episode of empire building fails to account for or explain the myriad moments of contact, exchange, and even cooperation that occurred between the French and Egyptians between 1798 and 1801. In fact, under the command of Napoleon and later of the lesser-known Menou, the French Army pursued a systematic policy of inclusion in Egypt that incorporated Egyptian elites in the colony’s governance and defense and integrated key aspects of Islamic civilization into the French colony’s political system and culture. And it is from these policies of inclusion, however fleeting or failed, that the figure of Jacques-François “Abdallah” Menou and his colony-wide prohibition of hashish truly emerged in October of 1800.

Hashish for centuries had occupied a ubiquitous but contentious place in Egyptian culture as a medicine, intoxicant, and religious ritual. So when French soldiers found themselves indefinitely marooned in Egypt after the Battle of Abukir in August of 1798—and for nearly a year without consistent wine and liquor rations or sufficient means to produce fermented drinks—many in the Army of the Orient took to the local culture of smoking hashish and eating and drinking hashish-laced confections. During their tenures as general in chief, Menou’s predecessors, Napoleon and Kléber, paid no attention to hashish use in Egypt or its growing popularity among the rank and file. But Menou, a converted Muslim who married the daughter of a prominent Egyptian Sunni bathhouse owner from Rosetta in 1799, viewed intoxication of any kind as an offense against Islamic law and a threat to the colony’s Franco-Arab unity.

Throughout the summer of 1800, Menou received correspondence from division generals in Rosetta and Alexandria expressing serious concerns over the behavior of intoxicated troops and particularly their mistreatment of Egyptians. These reports compelled Menou to issue a warning to the entire army in early September. “I am unhappy with many of you,” the general admonished. “I have received serious complaints about soldiers mistreating native inhabitants. What! You are republicans and you are not generous! You are French and you would be barbarians! Ah! I want to believe these insults and excesses delivered by many of you are the result of intoxication. The intoxicated man is nothing but a frantic, who succumbs to all impulses, and who can commit the most horrible crimes.”[1]

But Menou’s warning fell on deaf ears, and within a month he issued an official colony-wide ban on hashish, the intoxicant of choice among his rank and file. On 8 October 1800, Menou issued an ordre du jour banning the production, distribution, and consumption of hashish across Egypt. “Those who are accustomed to drinking this liquor and smoking this seed,” the general argued, “lose reason and fall into a violent delirium, which often leads them to commit excesses of all kinds.”[2] To drive the point home Menou ordered all cafés and houses that dispensed hashish closed and arrested and imprisoned their proprietors for 3 months. And he threatened anyone caught smuggling or distributing hashish in Egypt with a fine of fifteen gold talarys, the equivalent of .15lbs of gold and triple the average annual salary for a soldier in the Army of the Orient.

When placed within the context of Menou’s inclusive colonial policies, the hashish ban appears as yet another attempt by the general in chief to align the colony’s moral and legal codes with those of Egypt’s Muslim community and particularly its Sunni elite, who for centuries viewed hashish consumption as a sin against Islam and a threat to social order. Thus, far from a story of Napoleon Bonaparte working to civilize the barbarous Muslims of Egypt, the real history of France’s first drug prohibition measure reveals a much more interesting plot involving the integration of Egyptian and French civilizational models in the person and colonial policies of Abdallah Menou.

[1] Menou a l’Armée, 18 fructidor an VIII (5 Sept. 1800) in Jacques Menou et Jean-Baptiste Kléber, Kléber et Menou en Egypte depuis le départ de Bonaparte (Paris: Société d’histoire contemporaine, 1900), 343-344. Also printed in the Courrier de l’Égypte, N. 78 (8 September 1800), p. 1-2

[2] Jacques “Abdallah” Menou, “Ordre du Jour de 16 Vendémiaire An 9” (8 October 1800), Service Historique de la Défense, Chateau de Vincennes, Paris, France, Dossier B6 “Armée d’Orient,” Fichier 59.