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.

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  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. []

The Postcolonial Nation in the Museum: World Appropriation and National Identity at the Humboldt Forum and British Museum

… the great increase in the medieval and ethnographical collections, and the great interest taken by the public in the British antiquity most especially, render it highly desirable, or rather quite necessary that a separate department should be created for them. The necessity for adopting this course seems self-evident to Mr Panizzi, and he thinks therefore that he need not dwell upon it.1

On 9 March 1866, the director of the British Museum, Anthony Panizzi, used these words to appeal to the trustees of the museum for the creation of a ‘Department of British and Medieval Antiquities and Ethnography’. Two months later, the founding of the department was approved. Along with Romano-British antiquities, medieval objects, and the ethnological holdings, it also housed the collection of European prehistory. While the quotation and the department name might initially suggest that the merging of these seemingly disparate holdings was an administrative decision guided by pragmatism, a closer look reveals that the contemporary social penetration of an evolutionist model of human cultural development formed its actual basis: the ethnological collections had been brought together with the British European archaeology collections ‘as materials for reconstructing the lost portions of European history’,2 as the newly appointed Keeper of the Department Augustus Wollaston Franks had said a little earlier about the central Christy holdings within the collection.

Continue reading The Postcolonial Nation in the Museum: World Appropriation and National Identity at the Humboldt Forum and British Museum
  1. British Museum Central Archives, CE5/77, 9 March 1866 (Officers’ Reports to General Meetings and Standing Committee, 1805–69), cited in David M. Wilson, The British Museum. A History (London 2002), 142. []
  2. British Museum Central Archives, CE4/84, 7 November 1865, Document C (Officers’ Reports to General Meetings and Standing Committee, 1805–69. []
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