Cocaine in British colonial Burma: convergences of commerce, consumption, and control

  • Ian Archbald Baker

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


'Cocaine in British Colonial Burma: Confluences of Commerce, Consumption, and Control' investigates the reception of cocaine in British-administered Burma so as to deepen understanding of the Asian history of an iconic South American plant extract, the transnational development of legal and illicit commerce in modern psychopharmaceutical medicines, and the entangled narratives of intoxicants, imperialism, and regulatory control. The dissertation chronicles through primary as well as literary sources the ways in which cocaine–the world's first industrially isolated psychostimulant–was perceived, supplied, and consumed in Burma–often in combination with the pre-existing narcotic alkaloid morphine–and the efforts by Burma's colonial administration to regulate its use, in accord with mounting international pressure during the early decades of the twentieth century to prevent unprescribed use of mind-affecting medicinal substances. The research draws extensively on documents and reports pertaining to cocaine, opium, and other intoxicants produced by Burma's Excise Administration from 1903 until 1948, when Burma achieved independence from British rule. These and other materials archived at the India Office and Burma Office Records at the British Library in London, the National Archives in Kew, the National Library of Scotland, and the National Archives Department in Yangon, Myanmar, present a pharmacodynamic history of Burma during its final half-century of imperial rule, while revealing the British colonial regime's complex engagement with psychotropic substances. Additional sources, ranging from archived newspaper articles to the memoirs of missionaries, civil servants, and law enforcement officers, as well as Burmese-language accounts of Rangoon's cosmopolitan underworld, illuminate the clandestine economics that arguably arise in response to official regulatory and prohibition-based policies. In a concluding review of covert cocaine commerce in contemporary Myanmar, this dissertation ultimately argues that the perpetuation of prohibitory drug policies in the twenty-first century ensures the concomitant profitability and harm of both licit and illicit trade in potent psychoactive medicinal substances. Based on an examination of cocaine in the context of Burma's indigenous culture of plant-based psychostimulants, this study also proposes wider consideration of the potentially therapeutic function of transgressive substances in society and culture. In parallel with the decline and fall of the British Empire and the rise of Burma as a modern republic, cocaine’s trajectory in colonial Burma–as revealed through key events, individuals, and institutions and ranging from the prosaic to the esoteric–illuminates diverse currents of imperial power and ambition, raises important questions in regard to socially constructed attitudes and authority, and provides compelling evidence of the perennial place of intoxicants in colonial economies and human life.
Date of Award26 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University Of Strathclyde
SponsorsUniversity of Strathclyde
SupervisorJim Mills (Supervisor) & Patricia Barton (Supervisor)

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