Anti Vice Returns

A group of about 50 scholars met in early April at the idyllic Centro Stefano Franscini Conference Center at Monte Verità, over-looking Lake Maggiore in Ascona, Switzerland, to explore the enticing  topic of Global Anti-Vice Activism in the late 19th and early 20th century—Fighting Drink, Drugs, and Venereal Diseases.   The conference suggested a revival of an old topic–conceived in an entirely new way.  Organized by Harald Fischer-Tiné and Jana Tschurenev from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the conference was an outgrowth of their major collaborative research project on anti-alcohol movements at the turn of the century.   The site was particularly appropriate.  Monte Verità was originally founded in the late nineteenth century as a vegetarian and nudist commune and later attracted a wide range of political, artistic, and intellectual radicals.

The participants remained safely clothed, but Monte Verità’s radical tradition was very much in evidence in a rich program of papers and in three days of intense conversation and discussion.    Well-known alcohol and drug historians, David Courtwright and Emmanuel Akyeampong, presented two of the keynotes, but responding to the conference theme, both explored larger themes of vice and anti-vice.  The organizers had sought explicitly to situate their own particular interest in anti-alcohol campaigns in a wider historical context in which global organizations and networks defined and redefined vice and struggled to regulate and suppress it. Continue reading →


African Perspectives on Pharmaceuticals and Drugs

Fann-Hock Pharmacy, Dakar

In a panel on “Drugs in Africa” at the African Studies Association annual meeting in Washington, DC in November, Donna Patterson, a historian in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, presented a paper on “Drug Trafficking in Africa:  Historical Cases from West Africa,” which in contrast to other papers on the panel looked at the commerce in legal pharmaceuticals.  The discussion that followed made clear the value of exploring the histories “legal” and “illegal” drugs in conjunction one with the other—something that has rarely been done for Africa, where the focus has been much more on understanding the linkages between “traditional” and Western medicine.  At the same time, the discussion led us to consider how those very linkages might inform our understanding of the trade and consumption of various kinds of drugs—however categorized—in African societies.

Patterson specializes on Francophone Africa, African-Atlantic exchange, health, and gender and is working on a larger project, “Expanding Professional Horizons:  Pharmacy, Gender, and Entrepreneurship in Twentieth Century Senegal,” that  examines the emergence and expansion of African medical professionalization between 1918 and 2000.  That work explores the growth of the African biomedical industry, African access to French systems, and the training of doctors, pharmacists, and midwives. Continue reading →

Alcoholism, Race, and Decolonization

In the June 1958 issue of the Nchanga Drum, Dominico Chansa, a social welfare worker on the Northern Rhodesian (Zambian) Copperbelt, asked readers the question, “Is Beer Drinking a Good or Bad Habit?”

Zambia and the Copperbelt

 The author claimed that there was “no subject on the Copperbelt today which draws more heated debate”—a surprising yet surprisingly accurate assertion.  Surprising because this was a period of rapid and sometimes violent political change that would culminate in Zambia’s independence from Britain in 1964, and the question of who would rule was by no means settled.  Surprisingly accurate, because the local press and official and corporate records are filled with discussion and debate over alcohol use and regulation (Zambia’s reputation would make it one of the case studies in the well-known WHO cross cultural study of alcohol use from the 1970s).  Writers on this blog have focused a great deal recently on addiction and disease models—to stimulating effect.  Yet I have been struck with just how Eurocentric these debates appear to be.  Today’s post updates Mr. Chansa’s question, asking “was beer drinking a habit in colonial Zambia?” Continue reading →

What Students Write about Drug History

What is it that interests students about the history of drugs?  As it turns out, a wide variety of topics.  And not necessarily the ones I would have expected.  In this post I’m going to reflect on the experience of teaching a research course on the history of drugs.  The idea here is to start a conversation about how to teach the history of drugs, how to help students shape research questions, and what subject areas may be particularly accessible.

In spring 2010 I taught a required (for history majors) undergraduate research course—choosing as my theme, Drugs in the Modern World.  Students completed a series of readings, including David Courtwright’s Forces of Habit (2001) and David Musto, The American Disease (3rd ed., 1999 [1973]) and a series of articles on topics such as the US drug wars in Latin America, Probibition, drugs and colonialism, addiction and treatment.  In a course limited to fifteen, probably most students enrolled because it’s required and the time fit their schedule. But others had a particular interest.  One student brandished passionate conservative politics (although he was a bit unsure what that meant in terms of the history of drugs), another his participation in the student group advocating drug liberalization, and others seemed to have more of a non-academic interest in the subject.  Early in the course they had to choose research topics and begin developing a bibliography.  By the end of the semester those that survived had each completed a 20+ research paper based on original (or at least contemporary) sources.  Most of them came to understand that the big building called a library housed more than computers and a café.  In a trade off, I had to acknowledge that an ever-expanding body of material is available digitally.  The advent of Google books in particular makes it possible for students at regional universities like UTEP to explore a wide range of nineteenth and early twentieth century topics that previously would have been impossible.  Still, the many volumes on “drunkenness” in our library’s collection of the British Parliamentary Papers remain largely undisturbed.

So, what did my students decide to write about?  Continue reading →

Are Drug Traffickers Re-Colonizing Africa?

In 2009 the West African country of Guinea Bissau made a rare and brief appearance in the international media when, in the early hours of March 2nd, President Vieira was assassinated—apparently at the hands of units of the military.  Only hours before, the head of the army, Gen. Tagme Na Waie, had been killed; the assassination of the President was widely believed to have been an act of retaliation for the murder of a long-time rival.  Although the details of those hours remain murky, accounts of these events rapidly moved beyond descriptions of a power struggle to implicate the international drug trade.  Guinea Bissau was characterized as a “narco state”  in the making.  Suddenly, a continent generally seen as peripheral to the global drug economy—in terms of production, distribution and consumption—was moving to center stage.  A few weeks later Thomas Harrigan, Chief of Operations from the DEA, would testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that West Africa had become a major transshipment site for Latin American cocaine bound for Europe, and that heroin produced in Southwest Asia was also being channeled through West and East Africa to Europe.

The rise of West Africa (and the tendency for that to be generalized to Africa as a whole is an interesting aspect of the rhetorical history of drug imperialism) as an important site for the drugs traffic is of course not so new as the sensationalist reporting of events in Guinea Bissau might suggest. Continue reading →

Rural Distilling in Burma and Nigeria

A Rural Distillery in Inle, Burma

On a visit to Myanmar/Burma in late December I toured the region surrounding Inle Lake, well known for its spectacular beauty and villages on stilts.  A boat trip to the southern reaches of the lake took us to a regional market and to several temple sites—and to a local distillery.  We were welcomed by the owner, a man in his 30s who was in the third generation in his family to operate the business.  He gave us a thorough description of the distilling process:  outside in large metal vats about the size of garbage cans rice was cooked.  The cooked rice was then transferred into the main distillery building, dirt floor and about 50 feet long with a thatch roof and woven bamboo walls.  There the rice was mixed with yeast and allowed to ferment into rice wine in large pots.  After several days these were heated and the steam moved through 10 foot pipes to pots filled with cool water.  The distilled rice liquor then dripped into pitchers.  This liquor in various strengths was then decanted into bottles labeled “Best Jungle Wine.”  Continue reading →

Doing Drug History from a Drug War Zone

A Student Murdered

One hot morning last May, the El Paso Times brought news that many of us had been dreading—a student from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) had been murdered in the drug-trade violence that has disrupted our neighbor city, Ciudad Juárez, for three years.  Like many UTEP students, Alejandro Ruiz, 18 years old, lived a binational life.  A dual citizen, he lived mostly in Juárez, but commuted to UTEP.  On that day last May he and a friend were traveling from a boy scout meeting when their vehicle was riddled with machine gun fire.  His murder, like almost all the killings (more than 3,000 in 2010 alone) remains unsolved and unexplained.  Although Mexican political leaders have tried to dismiss the dead as criminals and effectively erase their existence, one thing seems certain, Alejandro himself had no direct involvement in the drugs trade.  We are left only to speculate. Continue reading →