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Java Coca and the Dutch Narcotics Industry: An Almost Forgotten 20th C. History of Drugs Story

Updated: Aug 30

Editor’s Note: Today we welcome the return of guest blogger  Toine Pieters, Descartes Institute for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences, Utrecht University, who wrote memorably about the use of “sewage epidemiology” as a tool for tracking drug use a few weeks ago.  His post today is slightly more conventional, but no less cutting-edge.This is a corrected version of the original post. Thanks to Hans Bosman and Toine Pieters for working out the edits and amendations. –eds.

The Great Seal of the Dutch East India Company

For most of us coca and cocaine production and distribution is synonymous with Latin American drugs cartels and Colombian drug lords. It is also common knowledge that Britain and other European empires ruled the waves during the 19th century opium wars and up to the 1920s did everything to frustrate the American-led war against drugs. Only those who read Joseph Spillane’s Cocaine: from Medical Marvel to Modern Menace  (2000) may remember that by far the most successful alternative coca growing venture outside Latin America before 1945 was in the Dutch East Indies on the island of Java. Spillane briefly mentions that Dutch colonial coca production began to dominate the global markets in the1910s and crowded South American producers from these markets. It is not farfetched to argue that the Dutch were the drug lords of the interbellum and continued to play a prominent position in the global narcotics industry after World War II.

Up until recently we knew relatively little about the halcyon days of Dutch drug production and trade. But on November 8 the 82 year old former employee of the Dutch Cocaine Factory (NCF), Hans Bosman, defended his thesis on ‘The history of the Nederlandsche Cocaine Fabriek and its successors as manufacturers of narcotic drugs, analysed from an international perspective’ at Maastricht University.

NCF factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis p. 124

NCF Factory 1909, reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis

From the 1860s until the turn of the century Peru was the major source by far of the raw  materials for cocaine: coca leaves and later on also crude cocaine. The coca leaves were used in Europe and the US for the popular cocaine-containing elixirs and tonics. Cultivation of the coca plant was attempted in a number of countries outside South America, notably on Java and Ceylon. In 1875 the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg introduced two coca plants on the island of Java, which was at that time part of the Netherlands East Indies. Java coca had a high total alkaloid content but was initially rejected by cocaine manufacturers as a raw material. Java coca contained mainly secondary coca-alkaloids and the direct yield of cocaine from the leaves was low. Chewing Java coca leaves did not evoke the same energizing sensation as Peruvian coca.

The appreciation for Java coca changed from the 1890s, after German chemists discovered a process to covert the secondary alkaloids into cocaine with a good yield, quality and competitive pricing. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the prospects for Javanese coca begun to take a new turn. Within a thirty-year period Java succeeded in becoming the world’s leading exporter of coca leaves, surpassing the traditional coca producers in Peru and Bolivia (see figure 1).


Figure 1: Global Coca Production, courtesy Hans Bosman

At the same time the port of Amsterdam developed into a major global trading center for coca leaves, cocaine, and other narcotics.

The availability of relatively cheap coca leaf from Java led in 1900 to the establishment of the Nederlandsche Cocaïne Fabriek (NCF, Dutch Cocaine industry). The company initially survived by selling the cocaine on contract to Gehe & Co, a member of the German cocaine convention or cartel. World War I opened the international markets for NCF and catapulted NCF to a position as one of the major cocaine producers in Europe, next to Merck and Boehringer Mannheim.

NCF Extraction Battery for processing coca leaf,  reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis p. 397

NCF Extraction Battery for Processing Coca Leaf,  courtesy Hans Bosman

However, after the Geneva convention of 1925 and the implementation of rather strict international narcotics control the fortunes of the NCF took a turn for the worse. The export markets for NCF shrank dramatically and in order to survive NCF decided to expand and build on its experience as an alkaloid manufacturer and  entered the opiate business through the production of morphine and other opiates such as codeine and ethylmorphine. In particular the exploration and subsequent use of poppy straw as an alternative raw material for crude morphine and the subsequent production of codeine appeared a profitable choice. In the1970s the Dutch opiate industry grew into the first rank (see fig 2), with approximately 10% of the total world production.

Fig 2. Reproduced with courtesy from Hans Bosman’s thesis p. 271.

Fig 2. Global Morphine Production, courtesy Hans Bosman.

Up to the 1980s the Dutch opiate industry would maintain its prominent position. Growing competition from poppy straw producing countries like Turkey, Australia and Hungary would ultimately put an end to the Dutch involvement in the legal narcotics business.

As far as quantitative source data and legal production statistics of narcotics are concerned in the twentieth century Bosman’s thesis is a superb reference work for historians of drug history. The way Bosman applies statistical methods to the history of drugs is innovative   However, the mathematical approach in the thesis prevents Bosman from providing information on the illegal markets and elaborating on the quantitative data with more analytical rigor.

#Asia #Cocaine #Drugs #Europe


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