Java Coca and the Dutch Narcotics Industry: An Almost Forgotten 20th C. History of Drugs Story

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome the return of guest blogger  Toine Pieters, Descartes Institute for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences, Utrecht University, who wrote memorably about the use of “sewage epidemiology” as a tool for tracking drug use a few weeks ago.  His post today is slightly more conventional, but no less cutting-edge.

This is a corrected version of the original post. Thanks to Hans Bosman and Toine Pieters for working out the edits and amendations. –eds.
 
The Great Seal of the Dutch East India Company

For most of us coca and cocaine production and distribution is synonymous with Latin American drugs cartels and Colombian drug lords. It is also common knowledge that Britain and other European empires ruled the waves during the 19th century opium wars and up to the 1920s did everything to frustrate the American-led war against drugs. Only those who read Joseph Spillane’s Cocaine: from Medical Marvel to Modern Menace  (2000) may remember that by far the most successful alternative coca growing venture outside Latin America before 1945 was in the Dutch East Indies on the island of Java. Spillane briefly mentions that Dutch colonial coca production began to dominate the global markets in the1910s and crowded South American producers from these markets. It is not farfetched to argue that the Dutch were the drug lords of the interbellum and continued to play a prominent position in the global narcotics industry after World War II.

Up until recently we knew relatively little about the halcyon days of Dutch drug production and trade. But on November 8 the 82 year old former employee of the Dutch Cocaine Factory (NCF), Hans Bosman, defended his thesis on ‘The history of the Nederlandsche Cocaine Fabriek and its successors as manufacturers of narcotic drugs, analysed from an international perspective’ at Maastricht University.

NCF factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis p. 124
NCF Factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis

From the 1860s until the turn of the century Peru was the major source by far of the raw  materials for cocaine: coca leaves and later on also crude cocaine. The coca leaves were used in Europe and the US for the popular cocaine-containing elixirs and tonics. Cultivation of the coca plant was attempted in a number of countries outside South America, notably on Java and Ceylon. In 1875 the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg introduced two coca plants on the island of Java, which was at that time part of the Netherlands East Indies. Java coca had a high total alkaloid content but was initially rejected by cocaine manufacturers as a raw material. Java coca contained mainly secondary coca-alkaloids and the direct yield of cocaine from the leaves was low. Chewing Java coca leaves did not evoke the same energizing sensation as Peruvian coca.

Read more