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Alcohol and the Ambivalence of the Early English East India Company-State

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2021

Philip J. Stern*
History Department, Duke University, USA


This article explores the various roles that alcohol played in defining the governance of East India Company fortifications and settlements in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It argues that, much like elsewhere in Europe, Asia, and the colonial world, alcohol was absolutely crucial to political and social life, as well as a source of great revenue and profit for both the Company and individuals who worked for it. At the same time, it was a cause of immense anxiety and concern for Company government, which understood the use (and overuse) of alcohol as a principal sign of potential disorder and disobedience. Far from a contradiction, this ambivalence towards alcohol formed a foundation for a variety of regulatory instruments, from tavern licences to taxation, that were crucial to the establishment of early Company governance and a prime reflection of the Company's very own ambivalent nature as both merchant and sovereign.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 St Helena consultations, 7 Apr. 1711, British Library (BL), India Office Records (IOR), G/32/4/4, fo. 65.

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4 Anna Winterbottom, Hybrid knowledge in the early East India Company world (Basingstoke, 2016).

5 David Washbrook, ‘The Indian economy and the British empire’, in Douglas Peers and Nandini Gooptu, eds., India and the British empire (Oxford, 2012), pp. 375–98; Douglas Peers, ‘Imperial vice: sex, drink and the health of British troops in North Indian cantonments, 1800–1858’, in David Killingray and David Omissi, eds., Guardians of empire: the armed forces of the colonial powers, c. 1700–1964 (Manchester, 1999), pp. 25–52; Erica Wald, Vice in the barracks: medicine, the military and the making of colonial India, 1780–1868 (Basingstoke, 2014); Harald Fischer-Tiné, ‘Liquid boundaries: race, class and alcohol in colonial India’, in Fischer-Tiné and Tschurenev, eds., History of alcohol and drugs, pp. 89–116.

6 Tillman Nechtman, Nabobs: empire and identity in eighteenth-century Britain (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 72–4.

7 Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton, NJ, 2017); Wolfgang Schivelbush, Tastes of paradise: a social history of spices, stimulants, and intoxicants (New York, NY, 1993).

8 The book that launched a thousand dissertations on this, of course, was the translation of Jürgen Habermas's The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA, 1989, repr. 2015). See also Pincus, Steve, ‘“Coffee politicians does create”: coffeehouses and restoration political culture’, Journal of Modern History, 67 (1995), pp. 807–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Brian Cowan, The social life of coffee: the emergence of the British coffeehouse (New Haven, CT, 2005). For an important correction, however, see Phil Withington, ‘Where was the coffee in early modern England?’, Journal of Modern History, 92 (2019), pp. 40–75.

9 Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the patriots: the Boston tea party and the making of America (New Haven, CT, 2010), among many others.

10 An essay on tea, sugar, white bread and butter, country alehouses, st[r]ong beer, and geneva, and other modern luxuries (Salisbury, 1777), pp. 13–14. The literature on this subject is far too extensive to summarize here. For a start, see selected essays in Philip Lawson, A taste for empire and glory: studies in British overseas expansion, 1660–1800 (Brookfield, VT, 1997); James Walvin, Fruits of empire: exotic produce and British taste, 1660–1800 (Washington Square, NY, 1997). For a recent appraisal of these concerns in the early modern Netherlands, see Wouter Ryckbosch, ‘From spice to tea: on consumer choice and the justification of value in the early modern Low Countries’, Past & Present, 242 (2019), pp. 37–78.

11 Withington, Phil, ‘Introduction: cultures of intoxication’, Past & Present, 222, Suppl. 9 (2014), pp. 333CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at p. 29.

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13 William Hickey, Memoirs of William Hickey: vol II (1775–1782), ed. Alfred Spencer (New York, NY, 1923), p. 136. As Clinton famously said about his drug use, ‘when I was in England I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn't inhale it, and never tried it again.’ Gwen Ifill, ‘Clinton admits experiment with marijuana in 1960s’, New York Times, 30 Mar. 1992, p. A1.

14 Chatterjee, Prasun, ‘The lives of alcohol in pre-colonial India’, Medieval History Journal, 8 (2005), pp. 189225CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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16 Report by Vice-Consul Johnston on the British protectorate of the oil rivers (Niger delta), Royal Niger Company correspondence, 1888, The National Archives, Foreign Office records (TNA, FO) 403/76, fos. 254, 294; Report on the administration of the Niger coast protectorate, August 1891 to August 1894 (London, 1895), p. 8.

17 Or, at least, this is what I have argued: see, among other things, Philip J. Stern, The company-state: corporate sovereignty and the early modern foundations of the British empire in India (New York, NY, 2011).

18 See, e.g., Ethel Bruce Sainsbury, ed., A calendar of the court minutes etc., of the East India Company, 1635–1639 (Oxford, 1907), pp. 22, 28, 30, 108, 148, 151, 195, 255, 286.

19 Roger Braddyll to Thomas Woolley, 9 Dec. 1709, BL, IOR, E/1/1, pt 4, fo. 423.

20 Jonathan Winder to London, 9 Dec. 1709, BL, IOR, E/1/1, pt 4, fo. 421.

21 Tim Unwin, Wine and the vine: an historical geography of viticulture and the wine trade (London and New York, NY, 1991), p. 245.

22 ‘Minutes of the Court of Committees’, 18 Feb. 1635, in Sainsbury, ed., Calendar of the court minutes, p. 22.

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24 David Hancock, ‘“An undiscovered ocean of commerce laid open”: India: wine and the emerging Atlantic economy, 1703–1813’, in H. V. Bowen, Margarette Lincoln, and Nigel Rigby, eds., The worlds of the East India Company (Rochester, NY, 2002), pp. 153–68, at p. 154. See also David Hancock, Oceans of wine: Madeira and the emergence of American trade and taste (New Haven, CT, 2009); Alistair Mutch, ‘Connecting Britain and India: General Patrick Duff and Madeira’, in Margot Finn and Kate Smith, eds., The East India Company at home, 1757–1857 (London, 2018), pp. 333–54.

25 Jonathan Eacott, Selling empire: India in the making of Britain and America, 1600–1830 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2016), pp. 121, 138.

26 Isfahan to London, 30 Sept. 1695, BL, IOR, E/3/51, fo. 197.

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28 Thomas Pitt to Captain William Stock, 12 Jan. 1699/1700, BL, Add. MS 22842, fo. 19.

29 Thomas Pitt to Mr Raworth, 20 Nov. 1699, BL, Add. MS 22842, fo. 8.

30 Owen Stanwood, ‘Between Eden and empire: Huguenot refugees and the promise of new worlds’, American Historical Review, 118 (2013), pp. 1319–44, at p. 1335; Stern, Company-state, p. 34.

31 London to St Helena, 11 Jan. 1709, BL, IOR, G/32/1, fo. 156; Owen Stanwood, ‘The Huguenot refuge and European imperialism’, in Raymond A. Mentzer and Bertrande Van Ruymbeke, eds., A companion to the Huguenots (Leiden, 2016), pp. 394–421, at p. 406.

32 London to Bombay, 3 Feb. 1686/7, BL, IOR, E/3/91, fo. 131.

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34 Amitav Ghosh, Sea of poppies (London, 2008), p. 106.

35 Chatterjee, ‘Lives of alcohol’, p. 199.

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37 Bombay consultations, 2 Mar. 1683/4, BL, IOR, E/3/43, fo. 418; Oliver Strachey and Ray Strachey, Keigwin's rebellion (1683–4): an episode in the history of Bombay (Oxford, 1916), p. 91.

38 Deposition of John Hackney, 15 Oct. 1684, BL, IOR, E/3/44, fo. 202.

39 Chatterjee, ‘Lives of alcohol’, p. 194.

40 Surat to Bombay, 30 June 1690, BL, IOR, E/3/48, fo. 186.

41 Bombay diary, 16, 24, and 31 Mar. 1688/9, BL, IOR, G/3/3/3, fos. 4, 7, 10. See also Margaret R. Hunt and Philip J. Stern, eds., The English East India Company at the height of Mughal expansion: a soldier's diary of the 1689 siege of Bombay with related documents (Boston, MA, 2016).

42 Bombay to London, 16 Mar. 1725, BL, IOR, E/4/459, fo. 407.

43 Chatterjee, ‘Lives of alcohol’, p. 189.

44 ‘A license given to John Wright to sell punch & liquorr’, 30 May 1694, BL, IOR, G/3/10a, unpaginated.

45 Materials towards a statistical account of the town and island of Bombay, vol III: administration (Bombay, 1894), p. 274.

46 London to St Helena, 1 Aug 1683, BL, IOR, G/32/1, fo. 40; London to St Helena, 14 Mar. 1701, BL, IOR, G/32/1, fo. 33.

47 ‘Recital of laws and ordinances’, n.d. [1707?], BL, IOR, G/32/1, fo. 95; Materials towards a statistical account, p. 274.

48 ‘To all taverns and victualling house keepers on the island Bombay’, 13 Aug. 1694, BL, IOR, G/3/10a, unpaginated.

49 Stern, Company-state, p. 108; Gillian T. Cell, English enterprise in Newfoundland, 1577–1660 (Toronto, 1969), p. 112; Resolution of the Tangier commissioners, 30 June 1669, TNA, Colonial Office records (CO) 279/12, fo. 163v; Roney, Jessica Choppin, Governed by a spirit of opposition: the origins of American political practice in colonial Philadelphia (Baltimore, MD, 2014), p. 54Google Scholar.

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51 Chatterjee, ‘Lives of alcohol’, p. 189; James McHugh, ‘Alcohol in pre-modern South Asia’, in Fischer-Tiné and Tschurenev, eds., History of alcohol and drugs, pp. 29–44, at p. 40.

52 London to Madras, 30 Sept. 1684, BL, IOR, E/3/90, fo. 227; Winterbottom, Hybrid knowledge, p. 79.

53 Chatterjee, ‘Lives of alcohol’, p. 193.

54 Materials towards a statistical account, pp. 308, 336–7, 345–6.

55 Winterbottom, Hybrid knowledge, p. 73; Chatterjee, ‘Lives of alcohol’, p. 204.

56 Bombay consultations, 3 Apr. 1685, BL, IOR, G/3/3/1, fo. 52; Bombay consultations, 1 Mar. 1696/7, BL, IOR, G/3/5, fo. 15.

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62 London to St Helena, 5 Dec. 1698, BL, IOR, G/32/1, fo. 53.

63 Sainsbury, ed., Calendar of the court minutes, p. 96.

64 For a discussion of European representations of drink among both South Asians and Europeans in India, see Chatterjee, ‘Lives of alcohol’, pp. 203–5, 207–16.

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66 Materials towards a statistical account, p. 274.

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69 Bombay consultations, 9 Feb. 1684/5, BL, IOR, G/3/3/1, fo. 29.

70 ‘Rules to be observed by all Englishmen that live in the factory of Suratt’, 2 July 1696, BL, IOR, G/36/95, fo. 47.

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77 London to Bombay, 27 Aug. 1688, BL, IOR, E/3/91, fo. 272.

78 Chatterjee, ‘Lives of alcohol’, pp. 203–5.

79 London to Madras, 15 Feb. 1688/9, BL, IOR, E/3/92, fo. 5.

80 Hunt and Stern, eds., Soldier's diary, p. 131.

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