Women gathering leaves of the coca plant in Bolivia in a wood engraving from c.1867.

Sing a Line with Coca Wine: The European Rediscovery of Coca

‘Cocaine flashed like a meteor before the eyes of the medical world.’1

The discovery of cocaine turned out to be an exceptional novelty in the medicinal and pharmaceutical world of the late nineteenth century but the history of the raw material of the drug, however, went far back in the originating countries. For millennia, coca had been the ‘sacred plant of the Inca’, who regarded it as a gift from the gods, and their priests used it first and foremost in ancient rituals.2 There was a brief caesura in the use of coca when the conquistadores considered coca consumption an indigenous vice, but they soon changed their minds, and the habit spread among all social classes and became a cultural marker for the native population.3 The drug enjoyed popularity in western South America due to it alleviating altitude sickness in the Andes and suppressing hunger, but it also had pain-relieving properties.4 Convinced by the plant’s marvellous effects on the human body, the conquistadores contemplated the introduction of coca into the European market, but they failed in their plan because of underdeveloped means of transport and a lack of knowledge about proper storage, which impacted coca’s potency.

As a consequence, coca had been forgotten for almost three centuries before European explorers such as Carl Friedrich von Martius (1794–1868), Johann Jakob von Tschudi (1818–89), and Franz Julius Ferdinand Meyen (1804–1840) reported back on the marvellous plant of the Andes in the early 1800s. The first 60 pounds of coca leaves then arrived in 1859 on the Austrian ship Novara and underwent chemical analysis that same year. German chemist Albert Niemann discovered that they contained a valuable alkaloid, which became known as cocaine.5 It was a powerful narcotic that became the first local anaesthetic, and it even increased in potency after the discovery of hypodermic application. But prior to the rise of cocaine came the golden years of coca medicine in the 1870s and 1880s.

When the first manufactured coca products were developed and sold in France by Corsican Angelo Mariani, he advertised them as a ‘[t]ensor of the vocal cords’.6 His close friend and physician Dr Charles Fauvel greatly supported his business and prescribed coca medicine not only to singers who sought to comfort their overstrained vocal cords, but also to other patients who were growing increasingly fond of a reviving tonic called Vin Mariani.7 Rather than being a well-known tonic for vocalists, this coca wine rapidly gained in popularity as a mood elevator through clever advertising, with prominent consumers such as Pope Leo XIII and US president Ulysses S. Grant. Mariani offered a wide range of coca products which were soon sold all around the globe.8

Advertising for Vin Mariani, lithograph by Jules Chéret (1894). Artwork in the public domain, provided by thr Rijksmuseum.

Today, the Wellcome Institute in London still holds a small but fascinating collection of coca advertisements that were published in various journals, newspapers, and magazines of the time. They varied in length and purpose, sometimes simply advertising the product, sometimes explaining modes of application for medical professionals, but they always highlighted coca’s exotic origins in South America. Evidence like this makes the history of coca tangible, thus facilitating an understanding of the historical circumstances of the introduction of coca and later cocaine to the British market. This is especially important because the rise of cocaine as an illegal narcotic in the twentieth century has blurred the lines between the raw and the purified product.

The GHIL scholarship has helped me greatly in accessing such primary sources at the Wellcome Institute and other important collections, like the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, the British Library, the National Archives, and the Royal Geographical Society. Through this research, I intend to make a meaningful contribution to the history of coca in Victorian Britain in the form of my PhD thesis, which has the working title ‘A Novel Narcotic—Coca in Victorian Britain’ and is supervised by Prof Torsten Riotte at Goethe University Frankfurt. My focus is on coca as an exotic novelty on the Victorian drug market, its breakthrough facilitated by the purification of its alkaloid cocaine in the 1880s and by a tight-knit network of botanists, wholesalers, pharmaceutical chemists, and physicians. Coca was an exceptional drug, since it was not simply discovered but rediscovered by Europeans, with developments in medicine acting as a juggernaut for the purified product in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Understanding the mechanisms of the introduction of coca into British society, the trajectory of its career, and ultimately the development of global restrictions on the drug, can support historians in drawing comparisons with other narcotics that might have experienced a similar fate.

The featured image shows women gathering leaves of the coca plant in Bolivia, depicted in a wood engraving by Henry Walter Bates from c.1867. Wellcome Collection, 20957i. Artwork in the public domain, provided by the Wellcome Collection.

Cite this blog post
Kim Embrey (2023, September 28). Sing a Line with Coca Wine: The European Rediscovery of Coca. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1rd

  1. ‘Cocaine’, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art, 3/114 (6 March 1886), 147. []
  2. Joseph Acosta, The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies, trans. E. G. (London, 1604), 273; Joseph Kennedy, Coca Exotica. The Illustrated Story of Cocaine (London, 1985), p. x. []
  3. ‘Some Popular Remedies’, Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art, 12/577 (19 January 1895), 44; Kennedy, Coca Exotica, 15, 26, 27. []
  4. J. J. von Tschudi, Travels in Peru, During the Years 1838–1842, on the Coast, in the Sierra, across the Cordilleras and the Andes, into the Primeval Forests, trans. Thomasina Ross (London, 1847), 452, 453, 454. []
  5. Reise der Oesterreichischen Fregatte Novara um die Erde, in den Jahren 1857, 1858, 1859 unter den Befehlen des Commodore B. von Wüllerstorf-Urbair. Beschreibender Theil. Dritter Band (Vienna, 1862), 348. []
  6. Angelo Mariani, Coca and its Therapeutic Applications (New York, 1896), 46, 55, 56. []
  7. Ibid. 54, 55, 66. []
  8. Ibid. 52. []

Published by

Kim Embrey

She is a doctoral student in British History at Goethe University Frankfurt, having previously completed teaching degrees and teaching experience in English, bilingual Geography, and Ethics.

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