The Question of Intoxication in 19th Century Colonial Bengal

Tahmidal Zami
Independent Writer & Researcher, Bangladesh

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


The paper explores how political, social, and cultural changes shaped the different trends of intoxication practices in 19th century colonial Bengal. At the onset of East India Company’s colonial rule in Bengal, the administration and its collaborators worked out modalities of profit-making from drugs-trade, especially through processing and export of opium. On the other hand, the colonial regime – that is, both administration officials and their social counterparts like missionaries – tightened control over intransigent social categories like Faqirs and Sanyasis. The intoxication practices of the Muslim and Hindu holy men became a key focus of the regime in classification, vilification, criminalization, and exclusion of these groups. Meanwhile, the privileged Babu class was transitioning in their use of intoxicants: subaltern addictions like ganja was vying with more aspirational and anagogic addictions like wine that facilitated assimilation into putative ‘civilization’. Following a surge in consumption under the civilizational aspiration, a discursive backlash with both secular and revivalist undertones rolled back the intoxication practices.


In pre-colonial Bengal, consumption of intoxicating substances was associated with religious rituals, spiritual culture, magical techniques, subaltern soporifics, or aristocratic addiction. A new chapter opened in the history of intoxication in Bengal with the assumption of Bengal administration by the East India Company. This paper takes a broad look to sift together scattered traces to summarize some of the ways that the colonial regime was changing the intoxication culture in Bengal.

In the colonial regime, certain intoxication practices were found to be more conformist and useful than others. The colonial administration engaged in export of the ‘pernicious’ drug opium to a reluctant China. In Bengal, after the Company demolished the Nawabi state, it was faced with the task of establishing control over society. In this task, the new regime came to blows with certain intransigent sections of society, such as the Muslim holy men or Faqirs and their Hindu counterparts including Sanyasis and Bairagis. While practices of intoxication was part of the spiritual culture of the holy men, the colonial administration criminalized and penalized such intoxication. Later, the regime’s approach was adopted and appropriated by modernist Muslim and Hindu gentlemen as well as neo-traditionalist or orthodox clerical groups against the mystical sects. Meanwhile, the fast-growing Babu class centered on Calcutta was acclimatizing itself to fashionable intoxication as part of the program of civilization. Eventually, development of nationalist politics would transform the approach towards intoxication.

Role of the East India Company in Export-oriented Opium Processing:

In the first half of 18th century, European companies – especially the Dutch – were already heavily engaged in trade in intoxicants in Bengal. Following the victory of the English East India Company (EIC) in the fateful Battle of Plassey in 1757, the Nawabi administration became a virtual hostage to the Company. Taking advantage of the weakness of the administration, the EIC openly violated legal prohibitions on sale of intoxicants in Bengal. In the mercantile capitalist ethos of the EIC, the alien society was a source of profit by hook or crook. In early 1760s, Nawab Mir Muhammad Qasim Khan (r. 1760-1763) lamented in a letter to Henry Vansittart, Governor of the Presidency of Fort William, Bengal (1760-64) how, despite treaty-bound prohibitions on the company’s dealing in certain articles like opium, the company’s agents were buying and selling these ‘in every pargana and village’ (Wilson, 1852, p. 137). In 1765, the EIC secured the Diwani (revenue administration) of Bengal and gradually choked the Nizamat (government) of Bengal until its abolition in the 1780s. With the coercive machinery of the state in its grip, the EIC began to use its political advantage to buoy up its commercial position. Without much scruple, the Honourable East India Company ramped up its role in the vice trade in opium.

In 1789, Earl Cornwallis noted the economic benefits of contract-based poppy cultivation in Bengal, Behar (Bihar), and Benares. The private growers of opium in Bihar and Benares were bound to sell their produce to Company agents at a fixed rate, while in Western parts of India, private growers were at liberty to choose buyers for their crop (Minturn, 1858, p. 153). EIC had a monopoly in Opium marketing, justifying it on the ground that without such a monopoly the pernicious drug would have more internal consumption. Thus the mercantile capitalist ethos was reshaped when it found itself at the helm of administration of a vast subject country. The Colonial Government encouraged export-oriented poppy cultivation as it was ‘one of the most productive sources of revenue to the government’ …Full Text PDF

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