The Pursuit of Oblivion by Richard Davenport-Hines

Originally published in 2001 ‘The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics 1500-2000’ by Richard Davenport-Hines is a very well researched and densely packed history that documents changing attitudes to drugs in society. Davenport-Hines is a writer and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His previous works include ‘Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes to Sex and Sexuality since the Renaissance’ (1990) and ‘Auden’ (1995).

The Pursuit of Oblivion is a densely packed history that tends to focus on the medico-legal understanding of drugs between 1500-2000 C.E.. Opium, along with its derivatives like morphine and heroin, takes the central role in this story. This is for a number of reasons; the longevity and prevalence of its association with humanity; its central role in the development and definitions of various drug-related laws in the nineteenth century; and, the role it took in the propaganda wars and government drug strategies in the twentieth. However, cocaine, hashish, prescription medications and psychedelics are also discussed at varying lengths.

This is a global history so far as drugs played an important role in the foreign policies of the United Kingdom and United States. The roles of countries like China, India, and those in South America, are as conduits for either the quasi-legal international trade of opium of the nineteenth, or the so called black market of the following centuries. In fact, in this sense, the global history of drugs is partially a history of imperial intent as nations manipulate the trade of opium for their own benefits. These benefits function on two levels for the State; for economic strength internationally and, latterly, for governing their own populations.

“Opium houses in the USA, Europe and Australia were represented as haunts of prostitution where Chinese men seduced middle-class white girls, and where white prostitutes went to turn tricks. This appears improbable” (Davenport-Hines 2001, 134)

This sort of social description peppers the history of drug propaganda and is very often shown to be fictional. Davenport-Hines goes on to quote an Australian prostitute called Ellen who told the Royal Commission on Chinese Gambling and Immorality (1891) that in fact the drug kills men’s lust. This propaganda, however, served other useful roles for the State; regardless of the degree of its truth. Not only did it effectively victimise a minority, which allowed them to vent racist attitudes and create an enemy within, it furnished the drug itself with the most salacious of contexts. Why would the drug be victimised, however?

As the nineteenth century wore into the twentieth, government controls of opium became increasingly tightened and new specifications, definitions, and organisations to manage them come into the account. There are two discernibly strong forces that play important roles in Davenport-Hines’ history,  ones that sought to manipulate the strong government controls in order to gratify their particular understanding; the moral and medical. The former aimed at curbing popular usage because they believed it was a sign of moral degradation and criminality, the latter tended to see users as victims who were ill and required help. Both influence drugs policy, both nationally and internationally, but it is the moral that has tended to be prevalent in the later twentieth century; criminalising users.

“Under a policy launched in 1986, the US government annually reviews whether or not to certify foreign governments as partners in its War on Drugs. Decertified countries lose foreign aid and are threatened with trade sanctions. This policy, which is intended to buttress the failed tactic of controlling drug supplies at source, demonstrates that the War on Drugs is not a war waged by allies, but an unequal partnership in which the USA judges, certifies, impoverishes and degrades human rights in the subordinate combatant nations” (Davenport-Hines 2001, 359).

In the justifying claims of the moral and medical, which is that drugs supply should be controlled for the moral and physical health of the population, necessitates the need for international controls. As the global trade in narcotics is then deemed to be directly affecting the populous of a country then this can necessitate the implementation of an aggressive foreign policy; the USA being the case in point. Indeed, the connection between the changing national attitudes towards certain drugs and their outward behaviour on the international scene is one of the strongest elements of the book.

In conclusion, Davenport-Hines discusses the British drug scene (in the hope that similar studies in other European countries are undertaken), the advent of the War on Drugs and the so called ‘designer drugs’. While the author is certainly not in favour of the current legal approaches to drugs, actively and astutely eschewing the failings of the War on Drugs, he is not too quick to moralise in another direction. This perspective makes the history all the more engaging and, although it is densely written (perhaps as it should be), the wealth of information makes the book an invaluable pharmacography.

Via the House

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1 Response

  1. Its a book anybody with a real interest in the history of intoxication, especially in the UK and ex-colonial states, should both buy and read…………

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