BAVS-Funded Conference Report: Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century, September 2018, Edge Hill University. Report by Jamie Banks

As the recipient of a British Association of Victorian Studies bursary, I recently had the opportunity to attend the Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century conference, hosted by Edge Hill University. As a PhD student who unashamedly considers himself a ‘drugs historian in training’, I thoroughly appreciated the opportunities afforded by #Substance18 to engage in the academic study of intoxicants from a different perspective. Although there certainly were occasions when I felt decidedly out of my academic comfort zone, I undeniably left the conference with a much clearer apprehension of my PhD research and contribution to the field of drug studies.

Over the course of #Substance18, I heard a vast array of thought-provoking papers (I can only hope mine met the same high standard) and consequently, I will not endeavour to list them all here by name. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on three papers which particularly resonated with me and my doctoral research. Firstly, Susan Zieger’s keynote of the importance of the ‘logistical revolution’ in facilitating the emergence of David Courtwright’s ‘Psychoactive Revolution’ proved a fascinating paper. I currently have a copy of Forces of Habit on my bookshelf and Susan’s stimulating take on that work encouraged me to reflect on my own concerns about the relationship between the increasing rationalisation of the movements of goods, people, and information and the global dispersion of opium. I especially took heed of Susan’s argument that opium was perhaps the most perfect of ‘logistical commodities’; a sentiment which I concur with in my own research on the history of one of Britain’s many ‘opium trades’.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Irving’s paper on gendered perceptions of tobacco smoking in Palestine, though I must admit that I was perhaps rather too nervous at the time to appreciate the paper fully, as I was also speaking on her panel.  I particularly enjoyed Sarah’s efforts to peel back the normative orientalist readings of Mary Eliza Stewart’s accounts and her effort to engage with the nuances and contradictions which are so importance, but far too often overlooked, in efforts to understand popular perceptions of intoxicant use. I also very much appreciated Sarah’s kind words about my own research, which certainly helped to ease my post-paper anxieties.

Finally, I was particularly struck by Estelle Murail’s interpretative reading of the importance of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy to academic conceptualisations of opium. Having started Sea of Poppies some time ago during a flight to Trinidad (and only finishing it sometime later on a beach in West Wales) I concur with Estelle’s suggestion that the field of drug studies has much to learn from the contextualisation of opium in the Ibis trilogy. While my own celebratory moment was Ghosh’s acknowledgement of opium use amongst the indentured population (the subject of my own work), I personally feel that there is much to Estelle’s suggestion that, like Ghosh, historians and other scholars might do well to use their ‘historical imagination’. In attempting to write my own history of opium use in Mauritius and the British Caribbean, I was struck by the many times in which I myself have had to use my own ‘historical imagination’ to understand how the lives of the free and indentured population were woven around the consumption and sale of opium. Although the effort of the historian is, perhaps always, empirical to some degree, we all might do well to exercise a bit more of our imagination if we are to move beyond, what Estelle highlights as, the almost myopic fixation upon the myth of the ‘opium den’.

Aside from these engaging papers, I also wish to acknowledge the many wonderful conversations I had during coffee breaks, lunches, and the conference dinner. It was great to meet my fellow M4C student Hannah Halliwell (recipient of the conference’s creative award for here painitngs on ‘the morphine addict’ in the French imagination), with whom I shared many great conversations. I would also like to extend my gratitude to both Noelle Plack and Iain Smith (of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society), with whom I had affirming conversations about my research and future prospects in academia. While Noelle’s support for my on-going research was much appreciated and sincerely felt, my discussions with Iain about Camus and the correct consistency of black pudding were perhaps the highlight of my evening.

While there is much I am still to take stock of after the conference (not least on account of suffering from a nasty cold), I just wanted to end by extending a big thank you to both BAVS and to Andy McInnes and Laura Eastlake, the conference organizers, for respectively funding and organising #Substance18.


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