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James H. Mills – South Asia’s Lost Cocaine? Coca Leaf and Colonialism in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), c. 1870-1894

April 8, 2022 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm  |  Humanities 2, Room 259


Doctors and officials in Britain’s South Asian colonies were quick to spot the potential of cocaine. Carl Koller’s influential experiments with the substance in Vienna were first reported in print in October 1884 and yet by December it was already being used in medical practice in Indore. Further experiments with it followed early in 1885, and by the end of the year druggists across the country were supplying the growing local market for the drug. As the 1880s proceeded it was put to an increasing range of uses, within colonial hospitals and clinics but also beyond their boundaries. Almost as quick to respond to the appearance of cocaine in south Asia were British officials and others involved in the colonial economy. This paper explores their efforts to establish the coca plant as a crop and to establish a processing capability to produce South Asian cocaine for the global market. Previous explanations have tended to focus on the competing strains of the coca plant and the environmental difficulties of establishing them in local ecologies. However, this paper examines the more complex forces driving the decisions that meant that the British colonisers lost their early advantage and failed to commit to cocaine production, leaving the path open for the better-known Dutch operation in Java.

James H. Mills is Professor of Modern History at the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH) Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde. He has research interests in the histories of Asia, of psychoactive medical commodities, and of modern imperialism and colonialism. He is currently completing a Wellcome Trust funded research project with the title, The Asian Cocaine Crisis: Pharmaceuticals, consumers & control in South and East Asia, c.1900-1945, and recently co-edited Cannabis: Global Histories (2021) with Lucas Richert. His publications include Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928–2008 (2012), Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade, and Prohibition (2003) and (edited with Patricia Barton), Drugs and Empires: Essays in Modern Imperialism and Intoxication, c.1500 to c.1930 (2007).

This event is co-sponsored by the Center for World History.


April 8, 2022
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm