Empire's Penal Turn: The Rise of Opium Prohibition in Mainland Southeast Asia, 1870-1935

This dissertation analyzes the rise of opium Prohibition in colonial Southeast Asia. Over the course of six decades spanning the turn of the 20th century, European powers in the region abandoned opium as a lucrative source of revenue, denouncing as dangerous what had once been defended as an integral part of overseas political economy. Amidst this shared shift however, colonial states traveled very different paths--introducing Prohibition based on competing justifications, through distinctive institutions, and at various moments in time. What explains these divergent trajectories and how did colonial states come to commonly criminalize opium? What does this pattern of equifinality reveal about the enterprise of building colonial states, Empire, and political order more generally? Conventional scholarship on drugs and empire approaches these questions from the perspective of great power politics, global economic changes, or moral and religious crusades. By contrast, my analysis highlights the role of overseas bureaucrats and their local statecraft. It develops a comparative and historical analysis of British and French opium regimes in Burma, Laos, and Siam from 1870 to 1935 that identifies the mechanisms by which on-the-ground administrators in peripheral colonies helped at once articulate and answer the "opium question;"--namely, what constituted the best interest of colonial subjects with regards to the use, sale, and inland trade of opium. Specifically, this project traces how the everyday work of these modest actors (i.e., district-level record keeping, compiling routine reports, the creation of racial labels and categories, as well as jurisdictional dispute resolutions) generated immodest claims to unique expertise and ethnographic competence over unfamiliar people and their practices; how such claims traveled and became persuasive beyond the colonies; and the recursive consequences of these discursive processes. It reveals the surprisingly strong powers of relatively weak administrators who, in effect, defined opium's putative problems in overseas colonies and justified corresponding legal and policy reforms to solve these problems. My analysis thus elucidates how the local production of colonial knowledge provided the conditions of possibility for Empire's penal turn against opium. Theoretically, this project intervenes in a key debate in political science regarding why states respond differently to similar political, economic, and social crises by addressing a prior yet often overlooked question: how do states define the very crises to which they respond? And by explaining how colonial states reconfigured opium from a once legal and lucrative source of revenue into a dangerous drug, this dissertation invites further consideration of how states define problems and what bearings this capacity has upon other mechanisms of state power and market control.

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ISBN 9781303634437
Pages 293 pages
Rating 4/5 (30 users)