britain, india, and cannabis -- 1/3/20

Today's selection -- from The Age of Intoxication by Benjamin Breen. In 1673, the days in which Britain is first starting to extend its influence to India, a young Brit named Thomas Bowrey encounters cannabis on the coast of India. His first thoughts are to commercialize the substance:

"Not long after he arrived in Machilipatnam, Thomas Bowrey began to won­der what it was the Machilitipatnamese were smoking.

"The bustling port city on India's Coromandel Coast felt fantastical to the young East India Company merchant. During the first days of his visit in 1673, Bowrey marveled at wonders like 'Venomous Serpents [which] danced' to the tune of 'a Musicianer, or rather Magician,' and 'all Sortes of fine Callicoes ... curiously flowred.' Above all, Bowrey was most fasci­nated by the effects of an unfamiliar drug. The Muslim merchant commu­nity in the city was, as Bowrey put it, 'averse [to] ... any Stronge drinke.' Yet, he noted, 'they find means to besott themselves Enough with Bangha.' They consumed this 'Soe admirable herbe' in many forms, 'but not one of them that faileth to intoxicate them to admiration.' It could be chewed, made into a tea, or mixed with tobacco and smoked (this last technique, as we'll see in Chapter 5, was a recent innovation with far-reaching impact). Whatever the route of administration, Bowrey noted, this bangha was 'a very speedy way to be besotted.'

"Bowrey initially compared the effects of the drug to alcohol. Yet it seemed that bangha's properties were more complex, 'Operat[ing] accordinge to the thoughts or fancy' of those who consumed it. On the one hand, those who were 'merry at that instant, shall Continue Soe with Exceedinge great laugh­ter,' he wrote, 'laughinge heartilie at Every thinge they discerne,' On the other hand, 'if it is taken in a fearefull or Melancholy posture,' the con­sumer could 'seem to be in great anguish of Spirit.' The drug seemed to be a kind of psychological mirror that reflected -- or amplified -- the inner states of consumers. Small wonder, then, that when Bowrey resolved to try it, he did so while hidden in a private home with 'all dores and Windows' closed. Bowrey explained that he and his colleagues feared that the people of Machilipatnam would 'come in to behold any of our humours thereby to laugh at us.'

Bhang eaters from India (c. 1790)

"Bowrey's account of the resulting effects is worth quoting at length:

" 'It Soon tooke its Operation Upon most of us, but merrily, Save upon two of our Number, who I suppose feared it might doe them harme not beinge accustomed thereto. One of them Sat himself downe Upon the floore, and wept bitterly all the Afternoone; the Other ter­rified with feare did runne his head into a great Mortavan Jarre, and continued in that posture 4 hours or more; 4 or 5 of the number lay upon the Carpets (that were Spread in the roome) highly Comple­menting each Other in high terms, each man fancyinge himselfe noe lesse then an Emperour. One was quarralsome and fought with one of the wooden Pillars of the Porch, untill he had left himself little Skin upon the knuckles of his fingers.'

"Reckless self-experimentation with drugs is sometimes assumed to be a modern practice. Accounts like Bowrey's quickly disabuse us of this notion. Bowrey and his merchant friends were plainly interested in bangha (canna­bis) as a recreational intoxicant, even if three of Bowrey's group seem to have found the experience to be less than optimal -- to put it mildly.

"Bowrey, who would later author the first English dictionary of the Malay language, was what his contemporaries called a 'philosophical traveler.' His interest in bangha lay not only in its recreational value but also in its 'curiosity' as a wondrous substance with hidden properties. He was also keenly interested in discovering substances with the potential to become commodified. However, converting a drug like bangha into a global com­modity was not easy. "



Benjamin Breen


The Age of Intoxication


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2019 University of Pennsylvania Press


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