THE EXPANSION OF OCEANGOING commerce is the single most important fact about the early modern world. Plants, animals, and microorganisms long confined to one continent or hemisphere spread elsewhere, with spectacular demographic and ecological results. New World foods such as the potato and maize made possible rapid population growth in Europe and Asia. Old World diseases such as smallpox and measles wiped out millions of Amerindians, creating a demographic vacuum filled by Europeans and Africans.
The exchange of diseases, so much to the Old World’s advantage, was usually accidental. The exchange of plants was sometimes accidental, as anyone who has ever weeded a garden of hitchhiker species well knows. But the exchange of psychoactive plants, products, and processing techniques was seldom accidental. The globalization of wine, spirits, tobacco, caffeine-bearing plants, opiates, cannabis, coca, and other drugs—each to be considered in its turn—was a deliberate, profit-driven process. It would transform the everyday consciousness of billions of people and, eventually, the environment itself.
Viticulture, the selective cultivation of grape vines for making wine, exemplifies the global diffusion process. Viticulture probably originated in the mountainous region between the Black and Caspian seas, where Armenia is now located, sometime between 6000 and 4000 B.C
. Commercial wine
production was well established in the Levant and Aegean by 1500 B.C
. and was thriving throughout the Mediterranean world by the time of Christ. The Bible mentions wine no fewer than 165 times.1
The rise of Islam, which condemned wine as an abomination devised by Satan, discouraged viticulture in North Africa and the Middle East, but wine making and drinking flourished in medieval Europe. Greek wine made its way to Russia, along with Orthodoxy; the Kievan Chronicle
attributes Vladimir I’s rejection of Islam to the Russian fondness for drinking. Wine was a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, the preferred beverage of the European aristocracy (commoners mostly drank locally brewed ale or beer), and a safe, germfree alternative to polluted water, possibly the single greatest menace to human health since the advent of civilization. That the Good Samaritan poured wine rather than water into the traveler’s wounds was no coincidence.2
Viticulture also spread to northern India and China, though wine drinking never became as popular there as in Christian Europe. As a result of a minute genetic variation, roughly half of all Asians produce an inactive form of an enzyme necessary for complete alcohol metabolism. They experience an “alcohol flush reaction” of bright red facial flushing, heart palpitations, dizziness, and nausea. Those with milder versions of the syndrome, called “slow flushers,” sometimes take to drink, but “fast flushers” are vulnerable to acute alcohol poisoning and typically have a stronger aversion. Though alcohol researchers differ over the deterrent power of the flush reaction, some have suggested that it slowed the progress of viticulture and other forms of alcoholic beverage production in East Asia. The Chinese, moreover, had less need of wine or other alcoholic beverages as alternatives to contaminated water. They had tea, made with boiling water and thus potable.3
During the Renaissance Vitis vinifera, the European wine vine, was successfully transplanted to the eastern Atlantic islands. When Shakespeare’s characters spoke of Canary, they meant the wine, not the islands. Though Columbus tried and failed to establish vineyards, Cortés and his followers succeeded in importing wine vines to Mexico. The local varieties of grapes would not do; like almost all native American grapes, they were small, tough, sour, and unpalatable. Cortés solved the problem by transplanting strains taken from the Estremadura by his own father, strains that were the product of seven thousand years of artificial selection for superior size, tenderness, sugar content, and flavor.
Between 1524 and 1556 viticulture spread south to Peru and Chile and
across the Andes to Argentina, where a Jesuit priest introduced it. Missionaries were also responsible for bringing viticulture to Alta California in the 1770s. Within a century it became one of the great wine-producing regions of the world, exporting its produce to places as far distant as Australia, China, Hawaii, Peru, Denmark, and Britain.
The Dutch brought viticulture to the Cape Colony, established in 1652 on the southern tip of Africa as a victualing station for the Dutch East India Company. The idea was to provide crews with fresh wine, an antiscorbutic and palatable alternative to the three-month-old water in the ships’ casks. It was, however, the British, anxious to develop alternatives to French imports, who rapidly expanded Cape wine production when they took over the colony in the nineteenth century. The British also introduced viticulture to Australia. The ships that arrived in 1788 to establish the penal colony also carried wine vines from Rio de Janeiro and the Cape Colony. The experiment was initially a disappointment, as transplanted convicts preferred the more familiar beer and spirits.4
What the British attempted to do in Australia and later in New Zealand, where they introduced wine vines in 1819, was part of a larger pattern, the deliberate mingling of the world’s plants by European colonizers and traders. The exotic plants of Kew Gardens, just upriver from London, are living reminders of Britain’s preeminent role in the imperial reshuffling of nature. His Majesty’s ships served as the means of botanical discovery and exchange. In 1789, when Fletcher Christian decided that he had had enough of Captain William Bligh, the Bounty
was transporting a thousand breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, where they might provide a cheap new food source for slaves. The mutineers rid themselves of Bligh and his cargo, but the doughty captain survived and later successfully completed a second breadfruit voyage.5
European ships carried new technologies as well as new plants. Among the most important of these was distilling. Known to the Greeks and Romans, preserved and advanced by the Arabs, distilling entered Europe via Salerno in the eleventh century. Printed books on distilling, which began appearing in the late fifteenth century, spread knowledge of the technique. Although stills extracted the “essences” of many plants, the manufacture of alcoholic spirits from wine and other fermented liquids assumed increasing economic importance. Larger, improved copper stills and cheaper base materials,
notably sugar and Baltic grain, made the mass production of liquor possible. By the mid-seventeenth century stills were dripping their fiery waters from Ireland to Russia. The center of the emerging industry was Holland. The Dutch, already leaders in the wine trade, had efficient stills and were well situated to export their product. To this day their language is imprinted on strong drink. “Brandy” is an abbreviation of brandewijn
, or burnt wine. “Gin” is short for genever
, grain spirits flavored with juniper berries. The English first ascribed the eponymous “Dutch courage” to their hard-drinking rivals during the seventeenth century.6
Mass-produced spirits were a cheap source of intoxication and calories.
The ales, beers, and wines drunk by early modern Europeans were often of poor quality and spoiled quickly. Brandy and whiskey kept well and improved with age. Vintners also commonly added brandy to preserve wines, whose alcoholic content was thus strengthened or “fortified.”
Distilling rendered perishable crops imperishable. The potato, for example, was the mainstay of the German distilling industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Once harvested, potatoes kept only until the warm weather of the next growing season set in. Converted to alcohol in one of the Reich’s 6,000 potato distilleries, they could last indefinitely—and be profitably exported to African colonies. Spirits of all sorts, which were cheaper and easier to ship than beer or wine, became important items in colonial trade. “She is the fountain of all good,” the Maoris toasted Queen Victoria. “May she send us plenty of gun powder, plenty of rum and may both be strong.”7
Europeans also brought or improvised stills. William McCoy, one of the Bounty’s
mutineers who ended up on remote Pitcairn Island, managed to adapt a copper kettle salvaged from the ship, with tragic personal consequences: he leapt to his death from a cliff while drunk. Thirsty beachcombers on Ponape learned they could not count on rum or whiskey from passing ships. So they fermented coconut toddy (“a skill they very soon passed on to the islanders”) and rigged stills to guarantee a supply of spirits.8
Native peoples caught on to distilling and were soon adjusting recipes to suit their tastes. Some Maoris fancied tobacco and human urine in their home brew. But a mixture of imported and locally produced liquor became the most common pattern, at least in agricultural societies. By the 1840s the Siamese were consuming imported spirits from China, Batavia, Singapore, and Europe as well as growing amounts of locally distilled rum and arrack. One government official complained that, despite flogging his slaves to the brink of death, he could not stop them from converting their rice ration into spirits, “so strong was their appetite for the poison.”9
Similar complaints could be heard wherever distilled beverages took hold. The mass production of spirits and the fortification of wines exacerbated drunkenness and alcoholism in both European and non-European societies. Contemporaries and historians are unanimous on this point. The question is why. After all, fermentation is a natural process. Except for some Arctic dwellers and North American Indians, most people had access to at least one type of alcoholic beverage—palm wine, mead, corn and barley beers, fermented milk—before they tasted of the fruit of the tree of distilling.
One frequent explanation is that fermented beverages spoil quickly and are much weaker in alcoholic content, which is not more than 14 percent in wine and 7 percent in beer, and often less. (Early modern wines—less potent than today’s beverages—were also commonly diluted with water before being drunk, lowering the percentage of alcohol further.) Spirits packed a far heftier ethanol punch. “This changed profoundly the economic and social role of alcoholic drinks,” writes the historian David Christian, “for distilled drinks were to fermented drinks what guns were to bows and arrows: instruments of a potency unimaginable in most traditional societies.”10
Some traditional societies fared worse than others. Hunter-gatherers were hit harder than sedentary agricultural peoples, who were more constrained by community controls. Festive northern and eastern European drinkers and their American descendants had more trouble with grain spirits than the Romanized wine drinkers of southern Europe, who preferred their alcohol in moderation and on a full stomach. Les misérables
swilled more gin than les bourgeois
. Everywhere the cultural norms and social circumstances of those who were exposed to liquor, as well as those who did the exposing, influenced the prevalence of problem drinking.11
Yet it is hard to escape the logic of David Christian’s observation. When familiar drugs are processed in unfamiliar ways, increasing their potency to unprecedented levels, heightened abuse inevitably, if not always evenly, follows. This is an important and recurring theme in drug history. Wine is to brandy as opium is to morphine, coca is to cocaine, or shag tobacco is to the modern cigarette. The history of psychoactive substances resembles that of the arms race. Technological change continuously raises the human stakes.
Europeans learned of tobacco in 1492, when two members of Columbus’s party observed Tainos Indians smoking leaves rolled into large cigars. Subsequent contacts revealed that Indians also chewed and sniffed the drug, methods of administration that one day would be emulated by millions of Europeans. But for most of the sixteenth century tobacco was a sideshow—a botanical curiosity, an exotic medicine, or a raffish toy introduced to English courtiers by Sir Walter Raleigh. Sailors spread the smoking habit in humbler circles, in the taverns and brothels of numberless ports of call. With more deliberation, the Spanish used one of their Manila galleons to transplant tobacco to the Philippines, where after 1575 it quickly became a cash crop.
Around 1600 Fukienese sailors and merchants brought the plant from the Philippines to China, soon to become a nation of enthusiastic smokers.
Tobacco cultivation began in West Africa sometime in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, recent scholarship inclining toward the latter period. It was brought by the Portuguese, who revolutionized African agriculture by introducing maize, beans, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and many other New World crops. Between about 1590 and 1610 the energetic Portuguese also introduced tobacco to India, Java, Japan, and Iran. Like ripples from a handful of gravel tossed into a pond, tobacco use and cultivation spread by secondary and tertiary diffusion: from India to Ceylon, from Iran to Central Asia, from Japan to Korea, from China to Tibet and Siberia, from Java to Malaysia to New Guinea. By 1620 tobacco was, by any definition, a global crop.12
But it was not yet an item of widespread consumption. It was still expensive in 1620 and would remain so until colonial tobacco production—an object of all European imperial powers, even minor ones like Sweden—expanded. Virginia and Maryland were the most productive colonies. They were too productive, in fact, for their own good. Farm prices, measured in shillings per pound in the early 1620s, fell to less than one pence per pound by the late 1670s. The average weight of tobacco exports to England rose from 65,000 pounds a year to more than 20 million pounds during the same period.
Much of this tobacco was reexported, particularly to Amsterdam. The Dutch and the English were the first European peoples to achieve genuine mass consumption. The Dutch averaged 1.5 pounds per capita in 1670, the English a little more than a pound. Amsterdam and London served as rival headquarters of the psychoactive revolution in the seventeenth century, with Amsterdam the more advanced and aggressive of the two. Amsterdam had its own lively reexport trade. Its enterprising merchants mixed Virginia and other colonial tobaccos with cheaper Dutch varieties, which flourished on the sandy, manured soils of the inner provinces. They shipped the mixture to Scandinavia, Russia, and other markets dominated, to the chagrin of the English, by Dutch tobacco imports.13
Spanish, English, and Dutch soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) introduced tobacco into the German-speaking lands of central Europe. From there it spread to northern, eastern, and southern Europe. Soldiers, along with sailors, merchants, diplomats, students, immigrants, guest workers, refugees, and tourists, have long constituted the advance guard of the psychoactive revolution. Armies, whose ranks are filled with single,
lower-class men plagued by alternating cycles of boredom, fatigue, and terror, were natural incubators of drug use. Highly mobile, they introduced novel drugs and drug-taking methods into the countries in which they fought, and returned home with drug knowledge acquired abroad. The troops who fought under Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War brought smoking to ...