Online Seminar Series: Season 1

What’s Your Poison?

Four free streamed talks, open to all, exploring the history of specific intoxicants. Seminars will take place on Wednesdays at 1–2pm UK time (BST/GMT) over the secure and user-friendly platform Crowdcast.

Wednesday 14 October, 1–2pm BST

Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France
David Guba

Despite having the highest rates of cannabis use in the continent, France enforces the most repressive laws against the drug in all of Europe. Perhaps surprisingly, France was once the epicentre of a global movement to medicalise cannabis, specifically hashish, in the treatment of disease. In this talk, based on his new book Taming Cannabis, David examines how nineteenth-century French authorities routinely blamed hashish consumption, especially among Muslim North Africans, for behaviour deemed violent and threatening to the social order. This association of hashish with violence became the primary impetus for French pharmacists and physicians to tame the drug and deploy it in the homeopathic treatment of mental illness and epidemic disease during the 1830s and 1840s. Initially heralded as a wonder drug capable of curing insanity, cholera, and the plague, hashish was deemed ineffective against these diseases and fell out of repute by the middle 1850s. The association between hashish and Muslim violence, however, remained and became codified in French colonial medicine and law by the 1860s: authorities framed hashish as a significant cause of mental illness, violence, and anti-state resistance among indigenous Algerians.

Wednesday 28 October, 1–2pm GMT

Rum and the Politicisation of Space in the Leeward Islands, 1624–1736
Lila O’Leary Chambers

The early modern Caribbean was a fractious place shaped by competing systems of value, politics, labor, and authority. Using the case study of the Leeward Islands from the arrival of English settlers in 1624 through the prosecution of an island-wide conspiracy of the Antiguan enslaved population in 1736, this paper argues that shared alcohol consumption created key spaces of political practice for Indigenous Kalinago, enslaved and free Africans, and settlers from the British Isles alike. Each group forged and maintained their own logics of distributing and maintaining political power through rituals of consuming rum and other alcohols. Nonetheless, tracing this quintessential Caribbean commodity illuminates points of convergence and violent rupture vital to understanding Indigenous dispossession and survivance, the growth and entrenchment of plantation slavery, and enslaved people’s rejection of their subjugation within it. 

Wednesday 25 November, 1–2pm GMT

Sugar Refining in England, 1650–1700
Mimi Goodall

This paper will discuss the changing nature of the sugar industry in England during the second half of the seventeenth century. As plantation agriculture and enslavement grew in the Caribbean, the English changed the type of sugar they imported. A reassessment of official customs records shows that, where once they had preferred to import expensive refined white sugar, the English began to import cheaper unrefined brown sugar from the West Indies and refine it once it had arrived. Over this period, therefore, the good was transformed from an imported luxury to a domestic manufacture which encouraged its own subsidiary industries. Looking at the rise of sugar refineries across the country, I’ll show that sugar refining was an example of precocious industrialisation and an important foundation for the trade patterns of later commodities. Consequently, the arguments put forward here provide further evidence for the role of Atlantic slavery in England’s economic development and its industrial revolution.

Wednesday 9 December, 1–2pm GMT

Poppies, Opiates, and Pain in Early Modern Scotland, c.1664–1785
Jim Mills

This paper will focus on the uses of opiates in early modern Scotland in an effort to trace the neglected story of just how poppy-based substances were used in this period across the British Isles. It explores their history in medical practices there, examining sources as varied as household recipes, apothecaries’ invoices, and the family correspondence of surgeons alongside the medical treatises and publications of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In considering the deployment of medicinal concoctions made from both the local red poppy and imported opium from the white poppy, the article argues that use of the former may have paved the way for the development of a market for the latter; the mild analgesia to be had from the rhoeadine of the red flowers had prepared medical practitioners and others for the more potent painkilling to be had from papaver somniferum products. In this light the imported opium looks less like an ‘exotic’ addition to the medicine of the period in Britain, and more like an enhancement drawn into existing ideas and practices. The paper also concludes that, as there is no evidence to be found in these sources of anyone using the new products for intoxication, it was pain and not pleasure which drove the market for imported opium.

All images via Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0) or the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).