Origins of the Global Drug Trade

Portugal and Early Modern Globalization

The slaves, merchants and mariners of the Portuguese imperial world played a key role in bringing tea to Britain, coffee to Brazil, and chili peppers to India. Indeed, early modern Portuguese were globalizers par excellence. Portuguese mariners and their African slaves can be spied shimmying up ship ropes and perched on crow’s nests in sixteenth-century Japanese nanban screen paintings. Their bearded visages peer out from the famed Luso-African ivories of early modern West Africa. It was Portuguese mariners who first introduced tobacco and opium to China, paving the way for the breakdown of Chinese political autonomy during the Opium Wars. Perhaps even more significantly, potent tobacco and high-proof liquors from the plantations of colonial Brazil were used to purchase tens of thousands of human lives during the era of the Atlantic slave trade.

My dissertation research situates the medical and pharmaceutical legacy of Portugal’s imperial connections against this backdrop of ‘early modern globalization.’ I am specifically interested in how tropical remedies that had once existed in specific cultural and ecological contexts became objects of global commerce and scientific controversy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most existing works on the early modern trade in drugs, medicines and spices have focused on the reception of these commodities among domestic European consumers, particularly urban elites in England, Spain, France and the Dutch Republic.

Yet this approach tells only one part of a much larger story. My research suggests that non-European societies, such as those of Africa, south Asia and the South American interior, also embraced ‘exotic’ medicinal drugs over the course of the seventeenth century. Why were drugs important in these colonial-era interactions? I believe that the history of drugs (defined as non-food consumables that physiologically alter mind or body) offers new insights on some of the defining features of the modern world, such as the rise of global commerce and the attendant expansion of the slave trade, and the development of empirical approaches to science and medicine. By tracing the itineraries of drugs as they circulated around the globe, we can uncover areas of human behavior that previous works on European colonial expansion have largely avoided.

Read more in Perspectives on Europe.

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