Points Bookshelf: “Imperial Twilight” by Stephen R. Platt

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Screenshot 2019-09-05 at 8.18.45 AMWithin the field of Chinese history, the Opium War, fought in the southern port city of Canton (Guangzhou) and its environs from 1839-1842, is among the most exhaustively researched of topics. Scholars have long argued for the significance of this nineteenth-century clash between the British and Chinese empires, representing it as the beginning of the latter’s infamous “century of humiliation” at the hands of the great powers. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of the China’s Last Golden Age (Knopf, 2018) does not dispute this view of the conflict as a watershed marking British ascendancy and Chinese decline. However, Stephen Platt’s highly readable and original book does overturn various longstanding assumptions about the events leading up to the war. In particular, he shows how small moments of frustration and miscommunication changed the course of history. 

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Points Interview: “The Philippines, the United States, and the Origins of Global Narcotics Prohibition” with Anne Foster

Editor’s Note: This is our last week of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to Dr. Anne Foster, an associate professor of history at Indiana State University and co-editor of the journal Diplomatic History. You …

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Taking Opium in 1861: A Reporter’s Weirdly Funny Story

Newspapers are extraordinary historical sources in their sheer number and their accessibility. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of them as research on opium in the late 1800s. During this age of cheap print, high literacy rates, and early investigative journalism, much ink was spilled on the puzzling and alluring vice of opium in all its forms.

A number of reporters ventured into the verboten interiors of opium dens in San Francisco and New York to write first-person accounts, or tried it at home or among friends. Their assessments of the experience of smoking opium varied wildly: some wrote about seeing God and paradise, while others dryly concluded the drug was good for little except falling asleep.

Some journalists’ accounts of the opium use of others are stern, Progressive-spirited exposes, while some are sensational and colorful (yellow, to be exact).

But in the newspapers, this era also belonged to humorists. One of Mark Twain’s earliest pieces of reporting described the “comfortless operation” of opium smoking, whereby an experienced smoker “puts a pellet of opium on the end of a wire, sets it on fire, and plasters it into the pipe much as a Christian would fill a hole with putty; then he applies the bowl to the lamp and proceeds to smoke—and the stewing and frying of the juices would well-nigh turn the stomach of a statue.”

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Teaching Points: Opium, Empire, and State in Asia

Today’s post is from Dr. Bruce Erickson. He is currently the chair of the department of history at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, NY.

In recent years I have included in my rotation two courses that begin with the narcotics trade, “Coca, Culture, and Politics in Latin America” and “Opium, Empire, and State in Asia.” These two classes began life as one that tried to combine “Wars on Drugs” with Wars of Drugs,” so really they were and are less about drugs themselves than about the politics of drugs. Or better, they use the study of narcotics to explore larger histories. In their conception my classes are simply a commodity chain approach to studying and teaching history. What differentiates coca, opium, and their derivatives from other commodities goes beyond their effects to their inconsistent and shifting legal status, the social consequences of their introduction, and their social, political, and economic importance at particular times and places.

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Of Ragamuffins and Dens: State Legislation, Municipal Enforcement, and Opium Smoking

On May 26, 1888, the Boston Daily Globe reported the death of a young Harvard student named Frank Mills. The front page headline read: “Fatal Opium.” According to the story, having decided that life at Harvard would not be complete without the experience, Mills and three fellow students had ventured into Boston with the hopes of securing some opium. Following suggestions from their classmates the foursome sought out a man known as Nicholas Gentleman who sold opium in the South End. The boys had “refused to go to an opium joint,” as they feared a police raid, but told Gentleman if he would come to Harvard they would “make things all right for him.” He readily agreed after several assurances that Mills was “an old hand at smoking.” That evening Mills continued to claim he was a frequent smoker leading Gentleman to oblige his numerous requests for another pipe. Mills and the others soon became ill and by early morning the group suffered in obvious agony. Medical doctors were summoned, yet the group took great care to keep the opium smoking quiet. In the end, all but Mills recovered, their secret was revealed, and Gentleman arrested. 

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The Book of Smoke

Editor’s Note: This cross-posting is part of a series featuring items from the Julio Mario Santo Domingo collection recently acquired by Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Thanks to rare book cataloger Ryan Wheeler for producing the original post at Houghton’s Modern Books and Manuscripts blog.

The opium dens prevalent in France and the United States during the 19th century, as well as the culture surrounding them, resulted in copious literature, such as this rarely-seen work: Le livre de la fumée, by French author, musicologist, and student of Chinese culture Louis Laloy. This treatise on opium’s use and history both domestically and in China features a preface by Claude Farrère, author of the novel Fumée d’opium. It was published in 1915 by Dorbon-Ainé in a lavish limited edition of 220 numbered copies with illustrations throughout.

Fumee-1-largeThe Santo Domingo Collection includes several of the 220 copies; the one shown here is bound in full tan morocco with gilt stamping and embroidered cloth endsheets by the French bindery Marius Michel. The binding preserves the publisher’s original wrappers, themselves sumptuously illustrated in color.

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Conference Report: Law and Society Association Annual Meeting

The 2013 Law and Society Association Annual Meeting (May 30-June 2) in Boston concluded yesterday. As an interdisciplinary conference of considerable size (over 600 panels) that attracts a diverse range of policy, academic, practitioner panelists and attendees, this annual meeting seems to offer rich opportunities to venture outside of one’s narrow subfield and to have unexpected yet fruitful conversations.

ImageGiven the overlapping interests of those who work on law and psychoactive substances, this conference may be a future forum of interest for ADHS readers.  The conference has been extant for several decades, deriving its institutional origins from the founding of the Law and Society Association (LSA) in 1964. This year’s theme was “Power, Privilege, and the Pursuit of Justice: Legal Challenges in Precarious Times.”

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Translating Addiction? Some Speculations*

Many scholars of drugs and alcohol that are engaged in comparative work within plural linguistic environments are already aware of the problems of translation. The encounter with compilations of mistranslated signs and slogans that many of us may have had in our first language courses have constituted some of our earliest brushes with the pitfalls of translation. (E.g.: Bangkok Dry Cleaner’s sign: “Drop your trousers here for best results” or an earlier version of KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan—“Eat your fingers off” 吃掉你的手指头.[1]) Translation, it seems, can be dangerous.

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Identified as in Shanghai, but likely a sign for Beijing’s Ethnic Culture Park.

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