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Updated: Aug 30

Editor’s Note: Points continues its series on the transatlantic history of drugs with Eron Ackerman’s “Altered States: Globalization, Governmentality, and Ganja in the British Caribbean, 1880-1913.” The first post in this series can be found here.

In the mid-nineteenth century, “Indian hemp” (Cannabis Indica) made its way through the Caribbean plantation complex. After abolishing slavery in the 1830s, the British turned to India as a source of cheap labor, recruiting some 430,000 indentured workers to toil on Caribbean plantations between 1838 and 1917. Hindus and Muslims on the Subcontinent had long used cannabis (ganja) for social, religious, and medicinal purposes. When these populations crossed the Atlantic, they brought ganja culture with them.

My research explores how colonial officials and reform advocates in the British Caribbean—mainly the colonies of Trinidad, British Guiana, and Jamaica—responded to the spread of ganja. I argue that, while views of ganja varied considerably, critics shared a tendency to link its deleterious effects to other disreputable “Oriental” practices, especially those that appeared to create problems with labor management, violent crime, and moral conduct among the region’s growing East Indian population. Concerns about ganja were thus entangled in colonial power structures, articulated through orientalist discourse, and acted upon through strategies of governmentality deployed by colonial states, missionaries and moral reformers from distant parts of the British Empire.

Missionaries were among the first to call attention to ganja in the Caribbean. In Trinidad, Canadian Presbyterian missionaries John and Sarah Morton promoted temperance among the colony’s East Indian population. John Morton believed that Christianizing Hindus and Muslims would be easier in the Caribbean since the region lacked the robust religious institutions of the Subcontinent, and he hoped to use “coolie” apostles as conduits for spreading the Gospel among their kinfolk back in India. Although their successes were limited, the Mortons established dozens of churches and missionary schools in Trinidad and neighboring islands, which in addition to teaching practical skills, aimed to instill the values of industry, thrift, and sobriety in Indian children.

One of the schools established by the Mortons

One of the schools established by the Mortons

In the 1880s, while the Mortons waged a moral campaign for temperance, officials in Trinidad began to identify ganja as a source of madness and disorder. Ganja was cited as a cause in cases of insanity in colonial “Lunatic Asylum” reports, as well as in the “coolie disturbances” at the 1884 Hosay festival in San Fernando. The following year, authorities tightened restrictions on religious processions and enacted an ordinance to curb ganja through prohibitive taxes and licensures. Officials in Trinidad also feared that ganja would foster “vagrancy” and social disorder in rural frontiers as workers who had completed their terms of indenture began settling in large numbers during the 1880s and 90s. Problems with the 1885 ordinance led to passage of the equally ineffectual ganja prohibition law in 1894 which itself was repealed in 1899.

Officials in British Guiana also struggled to retain “coolie” labor on sugar estates as plantation managers complained of indentured workers breaking their contracts to seek refuge in the slums of Georgetown. At the turn of the century, ganja flourished in Georgetown despite the regulations placed on its sale as far back as 1861. However, Guiana’s legislators did not view stronger drug laws as a proper solution to the vagrancy problem. Instead, they passed an ordinance forcing East Indians in the city to wear numbered badges certifying their employment status.

Other observers posited a strong link between ganja and vagrancy. In 1901, the Scottish plantation manager-turned-Salvationist, Alexander Alexander, dubbed “[ganja] and laziness … the greatest curse of the coolies” in Georgetown. Like the Mortons in Trinidad, Alexander promoted temperance in Guiana through education and moral reform. To attract adherents among the East Indian community, he adopted the dress and language of local Hindus and opened shelters for the destitute, which provided food and lodging to guests along with “instruction and moral training” for the children. Alexander viewed the supposed laziness of Guiana’s “coolies” not merely as a consequence of ganja smoking but as a “natural inclination… which is characteristic of the Oriental”—in other words, as a racial characteristic that dovetailed with the alleged effects of ganja.

In British Honduras (now Belize), reform advocates linked ganja not to laziness but rather to an “Oriental” predilection for violence and vengeance, which recalled the famous assassins (hashishins) myth. In 1889 the Colonial Guardian ran an editorial attempting to explain the strong “homicidal tendency” among the colony’s East Indian population. The article posited two mutually reinforcing factors: (1) “the abominable practice which prevails amongst this people of selling young female children to men to be their future wives and of afterwards—for the sake of gain—taking them away and selling them again to some other male.”

Judging the daughter selling scheme “not of itself cause sufficient to account for the disproportionate number of homicides,” the editor proposed a second factor: (2) “We think that the inordinate use of Bang or Gunjah, as it is called by the Coolies, is the main cause of these homicidal impulses which so often cause the Coolies to be put on trial for their lives.” Citing the existing ganja ordinances in Trinidad and Guiana as sound legal precedents, the editor urged the government to suppress its cultivation in British Honduras, adding that a law should also be passed “against the brutal parents who sell their young female children to a species of servitude so degrading that other forms of slavery are, by comparison, freedom itself.”

Among the most commonly reported incidents of violence in the British Caribbean was “coolie” wife murder. Statistical records suggest that violence against women among East Indians was not simply an imagined problem, even if it did feed popular stereotypes about Caribbean “coolies.” Its causes were complex but owed largely to the skewed sex ratio of the Indian population. Under the British indenture scheme, male laborers were recruited from India at upwards of two to three times the rate of females. To curb spousal violence, officials in each colony passed laws requiring Hindu and Muslim partners to obtain marriage licenses, which stipulated punishments for infidelity. As the editorial from the Colonial Guardiansuggests, violence among East Indians led many to suspect ganja as a culprit, or at least an accomplice.

In Jamaica, where the biggest concern about ganja centered on its spread to the majority Afro-Jamaican population, public outcry against ganja first came to light through its association with violence against women among the colony’s relatively small East Indian population. In 1896, A. C. Donnelly—an Irish woman who had served twenty years with the colonial education department in India and now came to Jamaica as an emissary of moral reform—argued in an interview with the Daily Gleaner that the smoking of ganja made users “quarrelsome, infuriated and mad, and under its influence most crimes of violence are committed.”

Indeed, Jamaica’s “shocking wife murders,” she claimed, “have been almost invariably committed while the man was infuriated by this terrible drug.” Donnelly concluded the interview with a call for legal restrictions on ganja, a cause that the Gleaner would take up in subsequent editorials. Over the next decade, the Evangelical Council of Churches also became active in the push for prohibition, using the press, the pulpit, and the petition to advance its agenda.

A "coolie hut" in Jamaica

A “coolie hut” in Jamaica

Among the most active ganja reformers in Jamaica was Frederick Amir, a “coolie missionary” who was converted and educated by Baptist missionaries in Trinidad. Indian missionaries like Amir reveal significant religious and cultural rifts within the Indo-Caribbean population, while hinting at the multidirectional and self-imposed dimensions of colonial governmentality. Elites were divided on the ganja issue too. Plantation managers, for example, tolerated ganja smoking among indentured workers so long it did not interfere with their work. Although the Jamaican Legislative Council did not find sufficient cause to prohibit ganja until 1913, the activities of the anti-ganja coalition illustrate the close connections between moral reform movements, print culture, and colonial politics.

In each of the cases explored here, critics of ganja highlighted ways in which its psychoactive effects exacerbated the problematic racial or cultural traits attributed to an “Oriental” population otherwise represented as docile and well mannered. Colonial ordinances on ganja as well as laws on vagrancy, marriage licensing, and religious processions illustrate how governments worked to manage the conduct of subject populations across a range of social, economic, and cultural domains.

Furthermore, as I have attempted to show, government officials were not working to control ganja in isolation. Missionaries from distant parts of the British Empire organized petitions to prohibit ganja and established schools and shelters for Indo-Caribbeans, which doubled as sites of proselytization and moral reform. Newspapers, in turn, actively supported missionary efforts and ran editorials calling for government action. And Legislative Council members read colonial newspapers, debated missionary petitions, and consulted administrators from neighboring colonies in addition to corresponding with the Colonial Office in London. But despite the legislative and educational victories of ganja control advocates, popular resistance to ganja laws exposed the practical limits of colonial governmentality. The “ganja curse,” as one newspaper called it, was here to stay.

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