An Age of Intoxication: Pick Your Poison

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan” (1797)

Humans have been getting pissed, pilled or puffed with intoxicants for ages. You could argue that Eve got the ball rolling, and that the forbidden fruit was Dad’s stash, and, hell, if you pushed it, you could see how all of history is her hallucination.  We’ve all had our ‘altar-ed’ moments of holy sees on hooch or hash, all alone or at a ‘college’ bash. No one sums up the venal virtues of imbibing better than Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend: C’mere, he says, and you’d better.

As far as University of California historian Benjamin Breen is concerned, the Western world spent the better parts of the 17th through 18th centuries colonizing, Christianizing and commodifying the New World and Asia in search of exotic products — and news ways of getting high. The British and Portuguese led the way in this endeavor, and the details unfold like a poppy flower in Breen’s The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade.

Breen’s exploration into our common druggie past comes in two parts: The Age of Invention and Altered States. The latter is rather self-explanatory in its purpose, but the invention Breen refers to is the colonial appropriation of drogas (drugs) and their re-branding over time as they go from being strange, exotic imbibables, at the edge of being legal, to fully ‘trusted’ mainstream intoxicants.  He cites tobacco, chocolate and coffee as examples of mind/body-altering drugs that have undergone such a transformation from strange to beloved.

Breen begins his narrative with an image that sets the tone for what he’s trying to achieve with his thesis: “There is a small plaza in Lisbon…  called the Miradouro do Adamastor. At night Dealers in MDMA, hashish and cocaine begin to ply their wares…Paradoxically, the north end of the plaza is…dominated by an elegant building that happens to house Lisbon’s Museum of Pharmacy.” Rough illicit trafficking versus a clean symbol of the history of capitalized control, often of the same droga. In his delineation of this age-long negotiation (which he insists continues to this day), he promises that “the reader will encounter merchants, slaves, shamans, prophets, feiticeiros, inquisitors, witches, alchemists, and natural philosophers.” His initial focus is on the Columbian exchange and Amazonia.

Breen follows the almost-bumbling Captain Francisco José de Lacerda in his search of Brazilian Amazonia for yopa, ayahuasca, bezoars, ipecacuanha, copaiba balsam — but, most of all, china china (aka, cinchona or quina).  This introduces us to a totally overlooked fact: China, the nation, is named after a drug.  The drug, what we call quinone today, is an anti-inflammatory and anti-malarial medication that, ironically, it seems, was found only in Amazonia and helped conquistadors overcome malarial fevers in order to do a little ass-kicking in the name of capitalism and Christianity.  It also helps explain why gin and tonic water (with quinine) are so popular in the tropics, sitting out on your ex-pat balcony, watching the local help at work.

Breen’s description of the Amazonia captures its beauty and mystery:

The oldest iterations of the river system actually flowed westward, emptying into the Pacific Ocean as they passed through foothills that would eventually become the Andes. They dripped from regions of eternal snow to arid mountain sides…The waters nourished eagles with twenty-foot wingspans, giant sloths, and saber-toothed cats. In the green twilight below the forest canopy, countless creatures waged evolutionary war, with chitin claws and prying fingers, hallucinogenic toxins….

It was into this region that Lacerdas got lost, scratching and peeling, looking for china china, and always barking up the wrong tree.

As Breen explains these early explorations into the unknown interior of Amazonia,”It is little wonder, then, that the Portuguese spent their first few decades in the Americas stumbling in the dark, trying and usually failing to make sense of the hallucinogens, poisons, stimulants, and remedies that surrounded them.” When they came across ayahuasca they had to rely on local shamans, “who were closely guarding hard-won knowledge,” to teach them, not only what it was, but how to prepare it, and, perhaps most importantly of all, what its purpose was and what a user had to know before imbibing it. For a Christian European, ‘becoming one’ with the ayahuasca during imbibing,must have seemed intuitively familiar (communion) and darkly esoteric at the same time.

This acquired knowledge, writes Breen, “Exchanges of knowledge about drugs moved along vernacular, colonial pathways long before they reached natural philosophers in Europe.” Still, it became not only useful but crucial for traders in and collectors of these drogas to have natural philosophers waiting at home to,in essence,midwife them into the mainstream over time. One thinks of the role of holistic medicine, herbology, and naturopathology today, which often offer ‘fringe’ medicines that may become part of the mainstream someday. At the same time, they are perceived along a continuum, from serious complementary medicine to cornball hokum that seems to rely on your buying into a latter day form of sympathetic magic.

The next stop on the conveyor belt of cultural processing from a drug making its way through a designation of foreign or “Oriental” to customary and trusted was its appearance in the early pharmacies, known as apothecaries.  Breen describes the scene:

The substances alone were of ambiguous utility; they required someone with the knowledge of how to prepare them. Apothecaries were the intellectual go-betweens [from drug merchants to users], the artisans who drew the active virtues out of “simples”…and transformed them into remedies.

This is where, according to Breen, a drug, having made it through the grapevine of the ‘vernacular’, becomes re-branded or ‘invented’ by respectable “shamans” in lab coats, who operate on the drug’s chemical properties, with scientific reasoning supplanting bush folk wisdom.

Breen adds, “The widening scope of what apothecaries could do with drugs created new opportunities for societal power and wealth.” But, in addition to accumulated wealth and the power of Empire, the drug trade was a process of self-discovery every bit as important as the Scientific Revolution then underway. “In the history of science,” writes Breen,”the globalization of non-Western drugs transformed understandings of both intoxication and addiction and helped spur the formation of new theories of consciousness. The effort to delineate mental processes impacted by intoxicants arguably led to a greater concern with subjectivity and the roots of thought itself.”  This ability to ingest foreign intoxicants led directly to an Enlightenment of the self, albeit it was an accident.

Africa gets a special focus.  In addition to the drugs that come under consideration, place — landscape — and ritual, especially feitiçaria (fetishism), when combined with colonial efforts to subdue the environment leads, at times, to a phantasmagorical sense of foreboding, as if the very air were a kind of intoxicant or hallucinatory presence. Breen writes of “the transformative powers of the landscape itself” and “a panoply of poisons lurking in African nature.” [It’s] a place of venoms, fevers, and psychoactive powers,” where hot rains produce lesions, and venomous worms emerge from wool shirts, ‘monstrous creatures’ seem to lay in wait, a place where the corpses of slaves are “repeatedly disinterred by lobos de noite and … strewn in the street [contribute] to the poisonous miasmas of the place.”

Africa is also a place of intersection and conflict between the rituals of the Catholic missionary sacraments and local feitiçaria practices.  The consecration of the body and blood of Christ through the sacramental rite is, when the wine-dipped wafer is ingested, say, by the priest, can be a form of intoxication. Breen writes,

When Portuguese padres threw fetish objects in the fire and replaced them with crosses, books, and communion wine, they were not only attempting to substitute one set of spiritual beliefs for another—they were competing in this larger, Atlantic sphere of creolized commerce and healing.

It’s a rite, in the context of colonial conquest,that is not necessarily seen as the invocation of Absolute Love, but brazen hostility.

Breen introduces the African warlord Jaga Caconda who explicitly rejects the Portuguese “mission.”  Breen describes how Jaga entered an Angolan church and deliberately “profaned” the sacrament by drinking from the chalice.  But, he goes on,

[T]he Jaga Caconda was not merely making a mockery of the communion,as the Portuguese believed. He was performing an act of        spiritual and pharmacological appropriation. By consuming the ritual intoxicant of his enemies, he was gaining access to—and asserting mastery over—the sacramental drug that was one of their   sources of power.

An in-your-face irony.  Just two ‘cannibals’ talking in a dogma-eat-dogma world.

As a note, Breen writes of a brighter view of Africans when he gets around to discussing the innovative ganja-smoking Ethiopians, home of the future Haile Selassie, and possessors of the water pipe, which will go on to spur the growth and expansion of the nascent poppy industry.  The water pipe proves to be the perfect delivery system for smoking opium. Breen observes, “As a vehicle for the delivery of psychoactive and addictive alkaloids, pipes were a radical new technology of drug consumption in regions like Europe and East Asia, which had no prior access to them….”  Because water pipes don’t directly inflame the opium but, rather, warm it, more poppy goodness is psychoactively delivered to the seeker of wise, smoky ways.

Speaking of opium, Breen begins his final section, “Three Ways of Looking at opium,”  with a image of a “cathedral-like” warehouse full of jars being maintained by Indian workers (real Indians, not the ones opium addict Christopher Columbus went looking for, and probably fucking high):

The shelves seem to go up forever…Seven men standing at their full height, arms held upward to pass the spheres of the substance, one to the next,would reach only halfway to the top…They spend their lives in this series of vast chambers.There is a geometric rigor arms held upward to pass the spheres of the substance, one to the next, would reach only halfway to the top….

One thinks of the slaves of Giza.

Breen describes the three ways he wants the reader to “look at” opium, each stage representing a facet of his developed thesis. First, he writes, we should consider the obvious — “the simple flower, millions of years old, that humans began to domesticate around 10000 years ago. Like the sacred psychedelics of mesoamerica, it has a history of altering, and being altered by, Homo Sapiens.” In short, by a freak accident of nature, we have, Breen reports, a unique symbiotic relationship with opium: “By… chance…a certain type of flower began to produce molecules that corresponded to the chemical signatures of orgasm or laughter.” Next thing you know, you’re swimming with the endorphins and embracing new porpoise.

The second way Breen wants us to see opium is “a thing that is meant to be turned into smoke.”  He cites psycho-biological reasons for this.  He seems to imply that opium was born to bring us into its dreamworld of smoke, not unlike ayahuasca.  Opium, like ayahuasca, is talking to you: C’mere.  Again, Breen makes clear that the Ethiopian water pipe not only made smoking opium a more efficacious means to a glorious high, but mainstreamed its use in general.  For instance, while still on the margins of acceptability in London  in its smoke form, it was eased into use by the stiff upper-lippers in the form of laudanum and in the ingestion of Sydenham’s drops, which were opiated.

The third way to see it is an empire-building commodity, “a raw material for industrialized  pharmacy.”  Wars have been fought over it — in China, and Manhattan.  We lost Jimi and Janis to it.  It’s become normalized, maybe in dangerous ways, through the wonderful warm rush of morphine and the current state-assisted “desperate American yearning after OxyContin or heroin.” Breen calls out the German chemistSertürner for what Breen regards as his near-revolutionary ‘discovery’ of morphine in 1805. (Sertürner settled in Hamelin, home of the Pied Piper, who, when double-crossed, made off with the town’s children.) Anyway, as far as Breen’s concerned, “The isolation of morphine was the culmination of an Enlightenment project of isolating and defining the individual functional parts of complex systems.”

Breen closes the book by looking to the future.  He points to new forms of intoxication that don’t necessarily require ingesting a drug, per se, any more. For instance, he calls social media a kind of drug that bypasses our gastrointestinal system and goes right to the brain. “Looking forward, emerging technologies like virtual reality, direct brain stimulation, or mind-machine interfaces hold out the promise of drug-like effects on mental and physical states….”

And, no doubt, the closer we get to the Singularity (if we make it that far), and the quantum bliss ahead, being and nothing at the same time, the more affected we will be by intoxicating experiences. And there’s always room for the kind of religious experience we saw with William Hurt in Altered States (with special effects that equal 2001 IMHO) after he hooks up in Mexico with some Toltec types.  In fact, Breen closes by suggesting that “the Age of Intoxication is just beginning.”


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.