Editor’s Note: Points continues its series on the transatlantic history of drugs with Eron Ackerman’s “Altered States: Globalization, Governmentality, and Ganja in the British Caribbean, 1880-1913.” The first post in this series can be found here.
In the mid-nineteenth century, “Indian hemp” (Cannabis Indica) made its way through the Caribbean plantation complex. After abolishing slavery in the 1830s, the British turned to India as a source of cheap labor, recruiting some 430,000 indentured workers to toil on Caribbean plantations between 1838 and 1917. Hindus and Muslims on the Subcontinent had long used cannabis (ganja) for social, religious, and medicinal purposes. When these populations crossed the Atlantic, they brought ganja culture with them.
My research explores how colonial officials and reform advocates in the British Caribbean—mainly the colonies of Trinidad, British Guiana, and Jamaica—responded to the spread of ganja. I argue that, while views of ganja varied considerably, critics shared a tendency to link its deleterious effects to other disreputable “Oriental” practices, especially those that appeared to create problems with labor management, violent crime, and moral conduct among the region’s growing East Indian population. Concerns about ganja were thus entangled in colonial power structures, articulated through orientalist discourse, and acted upon through strategies of governmentality deployed by colonial states, missionaries and moral reformers from distant parts of the British Empire.