International drug cartels and the pharmaceutical industry are two of the most commercially successful and culturally influential enterprises in the world today. How did they begin?

Quite a lot has been written on the history of drugs in the twentieth century, but the era when the global drug trade originated remains almost completely unstudied. This dissertation analyzes scientific correspondence, state documents, pharmacopeias, Inquisition trials, and travel accounts to map the global circulation of tropical drugs in the 1640-1750 period. It argues that this earliest phase of the global drug trade entangled indigenous, enslaved and creole inhabitants of the ‘Luso-Tropics’ (specifically Amazonia and Angola) with natural philosophers, merchants and medical consumers in an expanding British Empire. The rise of the global pharmaceutical industry and the illicit drug trade, I argue, are the twin Janus faces of this process.

This all matters because the history of drugs can offer unique insights into the age of global encounters that brought the modern world into being. [1] By tracing the global circulation and commodification of substances that had once existed in localized cultural and ecological zones, we can gain new insights into what has been called “early modern globalization.” Moreover, the history of drugs offers perspectives on realms of human behavior that the top-down gaze of much existing work on the Columbian Exchange has missed. Drugs, like food, are ingested and processed by the human body, rendering them temporary, ephemeral and quotidian. Yet they can also influence individual sensory experience, cognition and health – effects which have made them enduring features of religious ritual, sociability, and above all, practices of medicine and healing in virtually all human cultures.

Queen Nzinga smoking a pipe, 1670s Angola. From the Araldi MS of the Italian missionary Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi da Montecuccolo.

Thus the history of drugs offers a uniquely intimate perspective on the larger patterns of early modern globalization because it bears upon the subjective mental and physical experiences of individuals. When these individuals are slaves or other subaltern groups, the study of the meaning and function of drugs offers a rare glimpse into the inner worlds of the most marginalized peoples in early modern colonial societies.

Simultaneously, however, “exotic” drugs (like guiacum, tobacco, cinchona, bezoar stones, ipecacuanha, opium, cannabis, and various African poisons) formed an important and understudied component of the Scientific Revolution. The same unusual sensory experiences that made these drugs popular consumer goods in the early modern era also made them important tools in experimental medicine and objects of natural philosophical investigation. A number of distinguished scholars, including Harold Cook, Londa Schiebinger, Timothy Walker, Claudia Swan and Paula de Vos, among others, have recently turned scholarly attention toward the circulation of plant-based medicines in the early modern Atlantic world. Yet by honing in on “the invention of drugs” — offering a genealogy of the concept as well as a new analysis of the global drug trade’s origins — I believe I make an original contribution.



The introductory chapter offers a general survey of the globalization of the drug trade in the 1600-1750 period and argues that this process was (in part) a response to the devastating pandemics of the seventeenth century, an era of “global crisis” that weakened the authority of traditional approaches to healing in both European and non-European societies.

The resulting surge in global consumer demand for novel remedies had significant unintended consequences. In the Portuguese world, as elsewhere, “bioprospectors” in regions such as the sertão (backlands) of Amazonia sought out novel botanicals and medicines, combining indigenous knowledge and European natural philosophy with the demands of an emerging global marketplace (chapter two).

In Portuguese Africa, particularly potent species of tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) and high-proof rum from the sugar engenhos of Brazil emerged as key trade goods used to purchase slaves. Chapter three investigates the complex cultural, socio-economic and epistemic changes produced by the circulation of these and other drogas in the Portuguese Atlantic world, with a special focus on their dual role as trade goods and ritual items used in West and West Central African divination and feiticaria. By the close of the seventeenth century, a counter-flow of botanicals from Africa (particularly poisons and antidotes associated with healers and feiticeiros) and the indigenous societies of the Amazon (the drogas do sertão or “drugs of the wilderness”) began to challenge understandings of health and illness in European medical discourse.

The second half of my manuscript further explores how these non-European sources of medical knowledge and materials contributed to the transformations of natural history and experimental medicine in the early Enlightenment. The focus here is on transimperial movements of knowledge, natural products and peoples. Examining the particulars of the drug trade in the 1640-1750 period reveals the porosity of imperial structures and the degree to which natural knowledge and materials ignored political boundaries. Yet it also highlights the importance of one such political construct: the ancient alliance between the Portuguese and British crowns. Figures such as William Dampier, Robert Southwell, and João Curvo Semedo were men who operated within an Anglo-Portuguese imperial world which was linked by African slavery, the trade in alcoholic spirits, and a shared enmity with Holland, France and Spain.

Chapter four uses various drug and spice transplantation schemes in the late seventeenth century as a lens to bring into focus the ways that botanical knowledge and medicinal drugs moved between the imperial worlds of Portugal, the Dutch Republic and Britain while simultaneously moving along a tropical axis which was defined by environmental rather than imperial factors. This imperial alliance also created some intriguing and little-explored interactions between scientific-medical elites in Britain and informants, merchants and travellers in the Portuguese tropical world.

Chapter five explores this theme by tracing the reception of African and indigenous medical materials among learned elites in Restoration London, a key time and place in the history of science. I argue that scholars have failed to fully recognize the role of tropical nature in these debates, and try to account for some of the complexities of how tropical medicines were received and repackaged by European physicians. Owing to the outsize importance of Restoration Britain in the historiography of early modern science, I focus particular attention on the overlooked role of Brazilian and Luso-African natural knowledge and materia medica in the culture of experimental inquiry that flourished in the London of Hobbes, Locke, Boyle, Newton and Hooke.

A final concluding chapter reflects on how the themes of this dissertation connect to the history of drugs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing on entanglements between the drug trade and imperial expansion like the Opium Wars (1848-50). It ends by making a case for the early modern origins of contemporary divisions between illegal drugs and legal pharmaceuticals: two huge and closely entangled industries divided by four hundred years of culture, politics and law.

[1] Early modern Europeans often employed the word “drugs” (drogas in Portuguese and Spanish) to describe the commodities of the New World, Africa and Asia. Although it originally encompassed a wide range of dyestuffs, spices, botanicals and minerals, the term became increasingly linked to the medicinal wares of apothecaries (boticarios) and druggists (droguistas) in the seventeenth century. See for instance Garcia da Orta, Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India (Goa, 1563), John Jacob Berlu, The Treasury of Drugs Unlock’d (London, 1690) and Pierre Pommet’s Histoire générale des drogues (Paris, 1694).



This incredibly detailed painting of a vast drug warehouse and apothecary workshop appears to be an anonymous work from 1740s or 1750s Paris. It is currently housed at the University R. Descartes in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical and Biological Sciences in Paris, France. I welcome any leads that would allow me to trace the provenance beyond that. Some favorite details include the moose skull chandelier, the multitude of dangling pineapples and shells, the distillation apparatus at lower right, and the rare appearance of an early modern woman smoking tobacco in a public space.

18th century apothecary



3 thoughts on “Book

  1. Dear Ben,

    I must say that I am absolutely fascinated with what you have to offer – for me, drugs (medicinal as well as recreational) in has been a seductive yet unexplored element of the world – and would look forward to seeing the completed dissertation. I am very glad to have come across your blog and The Appendix magazine. My own blog has only started to sprout its leaves but I hope I can contribute to the magazine at some point.

    Best wishes and good fortune,

    from William

  2. Dear Ben,

    I love this post and I curious to know a lot more about many points within it. Are you finished with your dissertation? If so, is there a way to read it? I’d love to do so. Any more leads about this fantastic painting?


    Stephanie Renee dos Santos

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