My book, Empires of Vice, puzzles over the anti-opium turn of European empires across Southeast Asia. For most of the 19th century, opium was a lucrative and officially defended source of tax revenue for colonial states across the region, accounting for over 50% of locally collected revenue in certain territories. “Opium was one of those things,” announced the British politician George Campbell before the House of Commons in 1875, “which enabled us to serve God and Mammon at the same time.”
Into the first half of the 20th century however, opium became a dangerous substance that no respectable empire would openly acknowledge taxing for profit. Empires of Vice explores this reversal—opium’s transformation from fiscal bedrock to banned drug—by comparing British and French experiences across today’s Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Through the lens of opium prohibition, this book asks more generally how European powers were able to reconfigure the economic foundations and discursive justifications for colonial governance across Southeast Asia.
My main argument, in a nutshell, is that administrators stationed locally in the colonies played a pivotal role. Anti-opium reforms were made possible through the pedestrian work of on-site bureaucrats, who constructed official problems relating to opium and delegitimized its economic life. Unlike many histories that focus on external pressures to ban opium from religiously-inspired moral crusaders and transnational activists, I look inside the colonial states, focusing on the anxieties of administrative actors most intimately involved in taxing and regulating opium.
Throughout my book, I use the language of the “surprising strength of weak actors”—paraphrasing from Mark Granovetter—to capture how seemingly mundane, repetitive and habitual everyday tasks of mid- and low-level bureaucrats generated officialized “facts” and numbers that served as evidentiary bases for anti-opium reforms. My understanding of colonial administrators was very much shaped by the archives of the British and French opium monopolies. In Southeast Asia, these colonial institutions operated from the 1890s until the 1940s, formally under Departments of Excise and Finance.
When I first encountered their annual reports, I thought I would glean a general picture of a colony’s opium revenue trends over time and opium-related legal administrative approach. I also braced myself to be fairly bored by technical language and tedious details, tacitly assuming that the administrators were mere rule implementers.
Very quickly however, it became clear that there was no such thing as a general fiscal and regulatory picture for any colony. Indeed, the very notion of a coherent approach to anti-opium reforms was a fiction fashioned on international stages or a retrospective summary. I also found it impossible to simply skim through the reports because of their colorful language—sometimes funny and creative, sometimes irritating and offensive—strange numbers, as well as ways of narrating unresolved issues that read almost like cliffhangers.
I came to think of these aspects of the archival record as not oddities, but rather the most visible part of multiple underlying layers of bureaucratic activity. And I spent much of my time in national archives across Southeast Asia and Europe chasing authors—for instance, the bureaucrat who came up with the label “morally wrecked” for Burmese opium smokers, others who described them as “gregariousness in vice”—and trying to reconstruct their small, often narrow, and busy world of ideas.
It started to make sense to treat their writings as containing petty philosophies about morality and vice, as well as theories about the nature of the state and colonial political economies. I was especially indebted to the works of legal historians Bhavani Rahman on paperwork, Kalyani Ramnath on the construction of porous differences between law and fact, and Julie Stephens’ recent work on bureaucratic petitioning. From my perspective, administrative narratives represented amalgamations of partial and profoundly human attempts to describe and judge the lives of others, which contained the biases, mistakes, and hubris of actors who wrote them.
I elaborate on this approach in this interview with The Docket (March 2020), the digital imprint of Law and History Review. In my next post, I’ll share how I approached this written interview.