The Age of Intoxication: Psychoactive Drugs in World History

Lecture | December 5 | 6-7:30 p.m. |  Hearst Museum of Anthropology

 Benjamin Breen, UC Santa Cruz

 Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology

How have perceptions of drugs changed over time? This lecture will explore the history of drugs in the colonial era and beyond.

Eating the flesh of an Egyptian mummy prevents the plague. Distilled poppies reduce melancholy. A Turkish drink called coffee increases alertness. Tobacco cures cancer. Such beliefs circulated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an era when the term “drug” encompassed everything from herbs and spices—like nutmeg, cinnamon, and chamomile—to such deadly poisons as lead, mercury, and arsenic. Focusing on the tropical colonies of the Portuguese and British empires, this talk examines the process by which novel drugs were located, commodified, and consumed. The history of drugs in the colonial era offers a glimpse into a time when drugs were not yet divided into distinct categories—illicit and licit, recreational and medicinal, modern and traditional—and there was no clear boundary between the drug dealer and the pharmacist. But it also highlights the ways that centuries-old biases and preconceptions have carried over into contemporary debates about drug policy.

Benjamin Breen is an Assistant Professor of History at UC Santa Cruz. Previously, he was a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in history at Columbia University. He received his PhD from UT Austin in 2015. His book The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in December, 2019.

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