The Economists are peculiar people. They all recognise the importance of consumption, but most seem loath to discuss the details.
In Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism, James H. Mills examines the lunatic asylums of colonial India, between the war of 1857 and the end of the nineteenth century. Throughout this period, the total number of mental patients in the country did not exceed five thousand at any given time.
As the question of taste increasingly preoccupies social historians, this forms an admirable contribution to a burgeoning set of historical works that explore why and how we alter what we eat and drink.
Chocolate, writes Emma Robertson in the introduction to her monograph, ‘has been invested with specific cultural meanings which are in part connected to … conditions of production’ (p. 3). At the heart of this study is a challenge to existing histories:
In the conclusion to Alcohol in World History, Gina Hames observes that the influence of alcohol has been ‘omnipresent in human history’ (p. 134). It is undoubtedly the case that, while not the dominant psychoactive substance in all human cultures, alcohol has played a more pervasive and significant role in the history of human thought, ritual and economy than any other drug.
Psychoactive drug restrictions and prohibitions have typically followed a reactionary pattern. From tobacco to LSD, the introduction of novel drugs has prompted therapeutic experimentation. Officials showed little concern until these substances also became popular recreational intoxicants.
At first sight this looks like another of those increasingly common commodity books, some of which are intended to be global in scope, and which include studies of chocolate, sugar, cod, salt and many others (digestible or not!). As Riello points out, commodities are a good way to tell a global story since many of them have been traded throughout the world for centuries.