This essay explores how the British imperial archive of cannabis addiction in the mid-nineteenth century was shaped by ideas of religious devotion, ordinary leisure, and anxieties arising from revolt and rebellion. It asks how cannabis was discursively constituted as ubiquitous in India and subsequently cast as a conduit to anti-imperial violence in narratives of imperial counterinsurgency. In colonial India, British imperial strategies of knowing the plant’s intoxicating power indexed together several devotional and laboring bodies, among whom the figure of the Indian rebel occupied a unique globally legible location. Revisiting the popular reportage and writing on the Indian Rebellion, this essay argues that cannabis was materialized through the rebel’s body as the rationale for victory, loss, and disorder to ultimately inform and reveal how the reproduction of race and gender shaped the insurgent and counterinsurgent logic of cannabis use under empire.
In February 1858, a few months before the British Crown formally took over the reins of its Indian territories, and at the height of the bloody British counterinsurgency against the rebellion, the Belfast News-Letter in Ireland published a tiny but widely circulated missive from India. This anonymous letter, first carried by Calcutta’s pro-Britain Friend of India, had made its way around the world through the webbed networks of printed periodical culture. The periodical as a genre of publication, in Isabel Hofmeyr’s words, “convened a miniature empire on every page.”1 Together with newspapers and pamphlets but also often unlike them, periodicals were populated through the exchange of news items, multiple republications of extracts and letters, abridged quotations, and syndicated opinion pieces. Despite the proliferation of telegraph and fee-bound wire transfers, periodicals remained central to imperial culture, bound up with the temporality of maritime networks as ships carried bundles of publications from one part of the world to another. This snippet, which went from colonial India to colonial Ireland, announced the following:
No Hindoostanee ever attacks Europeans without having primed himself with bhang. The manufacture of bhang can be controlled by the government. Why should it not for the future be absolutely suppressed and the manufacture made as penal as active rebellion? No other drug will supply its place, because no other possesses at once invigorating and stupefying qualities. It produces little or no revenue and is utterly abhorred by the respectable classes of the community.2
This declaration was curious for a number of reasons. One, it effectively put bhang production at par with treasonous rebellion by demanding equivalent penalties for both. Two, it declared bhang consumption ubiquitous and agentive in violence against European power. Three, it captured the dilemma of explaining bhang’s perceived dichotomous role as stimulant and calmative, while also enclosing it as a unique and exceptional substance. Finally, it highlighted the double-edged position of bhang as a potential, yet failing, object of colonial revenue extraction as well as a subject of moral disdain among the Indian elite. Taken together, this is indicative of most, if not all, the intersections of imperial power and Indian social life since the nineteenth century that cannabis lay at the heart of. Cannabis was indeed a revenue object in India that was more systematically enveloped into the British state apparatus after the 1850s. European doctors, pharmacologists, pharmacists, botanists, and chemical examiners had struggled to classify cannabis within a triadic template of intoxicating property, chemical composition, and potential medical use. For most of the nineteenth century they labored to produce a glossary of words for cannabis in South Asian languages. While historians of medicine have often examined the struggle to understand Indian cannabis through European science, the other set of associations announced by the missive—between rebellion, violence, and bhang—have so far escaped thorough scrutiny.
Bhang, in historical scholarship on South Asian drugs, has largely been used as a nominal term. Scholars use it as a taxonomic word to refer to one of the three main cannabis commodities that Britain subjected to its revenue apparatus. The other two, ganja and charas, were cannabis commodities produced from the flowering top and resin from both the stalk and flowers of the hemp plant, respectively. Bhang was commonly made from cannabis leaf. Scholarly references to bhang, while useful for cataloging the vernacular, nonetheless limit our understanding of the cultural and material locations of the actual substance denoted by the term. Bhang has traversed multiple Indian languages as a category, and as bang, bangi, or bangue, also became a referent in Swahili, Persian, English, and Portuguese. It is widely used in northern, western, and central regions of the South Asian subcontinent. In the Hindi-speaking north, the term indexed not one but several habitations of the cannabis leaf. Depending on context and usage, it could refer to either a loose dusty cannabis commodity, or solely the cannabis leaves, or the entire cannabis plant, or a set of confectionary drinks made primarily of milk and boiled cannabis leaf that were differentiated by culinary combinations of nuts, spices, and cream.
The European encounter with bhang before the nineteenth century was limited to the interests of naturalists and collectors of tropical drugs. It was one among the large field of natural medicines that elicited the curiosity of Portuguese, French, and English writers since the seventeenth century.3 By the late nineteenth century, however, the dominant framing of cannabis in the imperial archive was a homogeneous substance that catalyzed madness among Indians.4 Historians of drugs have, so far, challenged fallacious British presumptions and emphasized instead the strongly divergent views on cannabis among British administrators and doctors.5 However, in focusing on medicine, asylums, and temperance politics, present scholarship has ignored what the writer of the missive to Belfast implicitly acknowledges—that bhang, at a midcentury moment of crisis for the legitimacy of British supremacy in India, was effectively at par with rebellion in global imperial culture. Bhang was cast as the “primer”—the preface to rebellion that added capacity, ability, and masculinity to the Indian rebel.
In the mid-nineteenth century, narratives of Indian cannabis charted imperial geographies spanning the smallest towns in England, Ireland, and Canada and the mutinous battlefields of the Indian countryside. The valence it acquired in association with rebellion and violence through the circulation of printed periodicals and newspapers across the world fundamentally defined its location in imperial culture.6 Periodicals and newspapers from British India’s metropolises like the Delhi Gazette, Friend of India, and the Statesman, were regularly syndicated across Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada. They made their way to the columns of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times in the United States. These circuits of knowledge brought the empire to the ports and hinterlands in Britain just as they took Victorian ideas of race and gender into colonial contexts. Thinking through imperial culture takes Indian cannabis out from the preoccupations of the bureaucratic archive of British medicine, peopled by doctors and the observational practices of laboratory science, and resituates it in raced and gendered discourses of addiction, insurgency, and violence. This archive of empire captured cannabis not through scales of chemical composition, but through a constellation of associated meanings derived from military conquest, anticolonial rebellion, and ethnographic observation. Materialized as both spectacle and the everyday, both agentive and ubiquitous, Indian cannabis became a vivid presence available to Anglophone readers across the world.
One genre, the military dispatch, was particularly crucial to this process. Written by British soldiers or reporters posted across India during the rebellion of 1857–59, cannabis routinely preoccupied such supposedly authentic “eyewitness” accounts of violence and rebellion on the ground.7 These dispatches were also translated into languages like French and Welsh, evidenced by the reportage in broadsheets like Baner, out of Denbigh in Wales. The dispatches drew on extant practices of everyday observational ethnography to construct Indian cannabis dually as a ubiquitous presence and a conduit to rebellion. Depending on whether the Indian subject was Muslim or Hindu, or on the contingencies of the violent encounter itself, cannabis could also mobilize contradictory responses. These perceptions of Indian cannabis persisted in the colonial record well after the rebellion, forming the fertile ground on which claims of cannabis-led lunacy could be made legible in the 1870s. The equation of Indian bhang with active rebellion by the writer of the missive to Belfast clearly indicates the need to historicize how Indian cannabis came to animate imperial culture, precisely when the English East India Company faced its most decisive crisis in colonial South Asia.
The crisis posed by the rebellion in northern India has a well-known metanarrative: colonial exploitation, widespread insurgency by diverse groups, and the ultimate seizure of the Indian territories away from the company into the formal ambit of the Crown and the British Parliament. Historians have studied the causes of the rebellion at length: the offensive cartridges greased with cow or pig lard; the political role of rumor, low pay, and forced overseas deployment of sepoys; higher taxes on agricultural land; the insult of the annexation of Oudh; the undying embers of the Anglo-Sikh war of 1849; and the delegitimization of Indian sovereignty through the Doctrine of Lapse.8 The rebellion was thus a dispersed and disaggregated set of insurgent events that mutually reinforced one another and coconstituted, with radical democratic possibilities, a disruptive reckoning for empire. However, histories of cannabis, like histories of empire, are rarely written with disruption in the lead.9 Reading for the disruptive potential of cannabis, otherwise subsumed under scholarship that focuses on the political will of the rebel, invites attention to its pivotal role in animating the rebellion and its interruptive presence in the way of imperial ambition.
The rebellion ossified multiple meanings of cannabis use into the body of the rebel, particularly through narratives of bhang drinking. If before the rebellion, Indian cannabis was a minor preoccupation of select British doctors and purveyors of tropical drugs, the rebellion dragged it outside networks of imperial science into the global archive of imperial politics. Here, bhang was used to explain the lack of Indian sovereignty and particularly Muslim violence to readers around the world, illuminating one element of what Sanjay Krishnan has called the institutionalization of the imperial global perspective.10 To do so, the polyvalent habitations of cannabis in everyday socioreligious life in colonial India were flattened into a discourse of ubiquity. By not explicating the meanings behind cannabis use, empire centered it as an omnipresent substance that vitalized the specter of insurgency. Military dispatches written from battlefields and published across globally circulating periodicals and newsletters turned Indian cannabis into an archival object that was known through its vitiating power in the body of the rebel. However, the rebel was also an addict, in the broadest sense of the term. The addict, Susan Zieger has argued, is a figure whose trajectory tells us more about cultural configurations of race and sexuality than it does about the individual.11 The invention of the addict in the nineteenth century, as one diseased of the will, failing morally in society, as well as earlier meanings of addiction as devotion or conviction, prefaced how the ubiquity of Indian cannabis was narrated. In the racialized and gendered figure of the Indian rebel that was an effect of an act of intoxication, ordinary ubiquity quickly led to extraordinary violence, prompting the question of how the habit of cannabis as moral failing constituted it as a catalyst of disruption and insurgency.
Studies of addiction have drawn on authorial articulations of experience in novels, dramas, and memoirs to show how its meanings have shifted from connotations of overpowering love and bondage of the self in devotion to God in early modern England to moral failure, resignation to bodily compulsion, and a debilitated mode of life in the nineteenth century.12 In the colonial archive, populated more by European descriptive emplotments than authorial self-articulations, the experience of cannabis was cast as an outcome of the ubiquitous everyday presence of cannabis.13 As Janet Brodie and Mark Redfield point out, since one can only be addicted to what is present, understanding modern institutions of technology, bureaucracy, and surveillance that make addicts and substances appear empirically present everywhere is key to contextualizing notions of habit.14 Well before the intensification of colonial power through asylums, lock hospitals, and prisons in the 1870s, which followed the suppression of the Indian Rebellion, cannabis was depicted as a banal and routine presence since the early nineteenth century through ethnographic observations of colonial subjects. While these never quite reached the popular audiences that dispatches from the rebellion did, they nonetheless laid the groundwork for locating cannabis as a habit of leisure as well as devotion among Indians.
Missionary journals and smaller literary publications that depicted everyday Indian lifeworlds since the 1830s often captured cannabis through the presumptively keen ethnographic detail materialized by European writers. Domestic workers were the most immediate gateway into perceptions of Indian habits. A decade before the rebellion began, a three-column account titled “Indian Bhang” in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal narrated the author’s frequent notice of “an old favourite servant as he sat over the orgies of the bhang.”15 The journal had recently carried reports on Egyptian hashish, prompting this commentary from India.16 Peerun, the servant this writer was observing, carried his “bundle of bhang” everywhere and with fellow servants at midday, prepared a cupful for everyone. In a thornwood mortar and pestle, Peerun, would “pulverize the leaves” with water, strain it through muslin, and add sugar, ginger, and pepper to “make it palatable.”17 After consuming bhang with his friends, Peerun’s “eyes became bloodshot, his speech thick, his mind confused,” after which he slept for three hours. Yet, the writer noted, Peerun was not a debilitated addict but a “faithful and trustworthy servant.” The key here was poverty. While Peerun was not impoverished under European employment, and could afford good food, he was better off than the “poor debauchee” who could become an addict through his own devices. Bhang “costs the Bengalee as much as our Souchong costs us,” wrote this anonymous British observer, before noting that by proportion, the poor Indian nonetheless spent more on bhang than the Englishman did on black tea. Such British ethnographic accounts reproduced poverty as the fundamental marker of Indian life while relaying cannabis through comparison with other intoxicants like tea. While tea was widely cast as enervating for the Englishman, and cannabis stupefying to the Indian body, such contradictory but connective tissues nonetheless made bhang habits appear as everyday practice, as mundane and typical to India as poverty.
Ethnographies of religious sentiment and mass devotion similarly captured cannabis as a constituent of servility and superstition. By the 1850s a few scholarly publications had carried accounts of cannabis and Shaivism in India largely through analyses of ritual texts, not everyday worship. Besides that, W. B. O’Shaughnessy’s short treatise on medicinal uses of cannabis, published in 1839, remained the only thorough point of reference for British officials in India.18 All that changed when on April 19, 1856, months before the rebellion broke out, James Holms wrote from Calcutta recounting his observations of the Charak Pooja to the editor of the Times. He described the swinging festival as one enjoyed by “only the lowest class of the natives” in the country. Holms’s letter, vividly recounting cannabis as an element of mass devotion for the first time, was syndicated across networks of the Anglophone press in every major newspaper in Britain, followed by publications in Canada and the United States.19 Holms had traveled to the outskirts of Calcutta to witness the festival and returned aghast, his letter demanding that Parliament abolish hook-swinging immediately. Charak Pooja was a hook-swinging festival celebrating the deity Shiva in the last month of spring. The central attraction of Charak gatherings was a feat of the will—a performer swirled centrifugally from a pole while suspended on a cord hooked to the body. The hook passed through the top layer of muscle over the shoulder blades.20 In the nineteenth century the practice of hook-swinging in multiple formats was widely common and debated among reformers, missionaries, and judges but had never been cast as a problem of cannabis.21
For Holms, on the other hand, who described this as a “tragic scene” and “degrading spectacle,” cannabis was the glue that held it all together. The “crowds of Indians of every age,” he reported, “were more or less excited” with bhang. The performer, a man with a “wild expression of countenance and glaring eyes,” was also “infatuated” with bhang, “which he had consumed great quantities of during the three previous days to deaden the pain.” In Holms’s representation, this was “frightful,” and in urgent need of abolition. “Men who undergo the swinging seldom survive it,” he added without evidence, anecdotal or otherwise. Holms was not the first Englishman to describe the festivity. The Baptist missionary John Statham’s less-known memoir Indian Recollections had described hook swingers as superstitious Hindus driven “by trouble or affliction” and the festival itself as one of two “most famous annual festivals of the Hindoos.”22 But the widespread international circulation of Holms’s narrative catapulted colonial interest in the Charak Pooja into metropolitan consciousness.
Carefully negotiating custom and religion in India was critical to the maintenance of colonial order.23 By 1853 British administrators in Bengal had mandated that magistrates report to superintendents of police all cases of Charak Pooja where instances of cruelty were recorded. More important, the colonial government had sought to make it a matter of consent. The 1853 order emphasized not the festivity or the consumption of bhang but those instances where hook-swinging “was enforced without the free consent of the parties submitting to it.”24 Such liberal notions of agency and consent, that otherwise structured debates on girlhood, marriage, and age in colonial India, became the mode through which the state cautiously approached the Charak Pooja. On the other hand, the celebrity of Holms’s narrative at the cusp of the Indian Rebellion sensationally popularized bhang as the predilection of both a single individual and the attendant crowd, where cannabis mediated the former’s superstitious extension toward death and the latter’s excitement into devotional attachment.
In this mid-nineteenth century moment early modern English ideas of devotion, and the experience of being possessed with love for God, were thus recast in colonial conditions. The translation of cannabis habits through knowledge of other intoxicants, the curiosity for the everyday life of colonized subjects, and the narration of frightfulness at the uncivility of the colonized were symptoms of the raced and gendered collision of bodies under empire. Once cannabis was established ethnographically as a ubiquitous presence in the colony, multiple meanings of addictive experiences, filtered through racialized and gendered discourses, could be mobilized to explain Indian uses of bhang. Nothing illustrated this more than the figure of the Indian rebel.
The Indian rebel burst onto the imperial record wild with rage. On July 15, 1857, the second page of the Manchester Guardian greeted its reader with a sensational account, syndicated from Agra, of the ongoing rebellion against the British East India Company in its Indian territories.25 It promised “a detailed account” of the “fearful massacre in Delhi” from the “pen of an eye-witness.” According to this writer, Indian soldiers of the 3 Light Cavalry had arrived in Delhi from Meerut on the morning of May 11 “prepared to perpetuate the most awful crimes as they were fully armed and apparently wild with rage and excitement.” Historians of the rebellion have dwelled on the mutiny in the Meerut barracks and the gradual outbreak of rebellious aspirations among other sepoys and diverse segments of colonial Indian society following this fateful march of the mutineers to Delhi.26 Delhi was a turning point not simply because it housed the last reigning Mughal emperor whose formal position of imperial authority could potentially mobilize Indians against the company’s military. It was critical also because the victory of the mutineers was followed by the public execution of British soldiers and officials who had managed to survive the battlefield outside Delhi. This specter of violence in the historic imperial capital quickly animated rumors of British downfall that spread across northern India’s garrison towns like Aligarh and Lucknow.
Wild and spectacular violence was the nub of the reportage in the English press in Delhi, Agra, and abroad. The eyewitness report, for instance, noted both that the mutineers entered Delhi without resistance from the city police and when the locally stationed British men of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment fought back, their Indian soldiers deserted them and were later thanked by the mutinying troopers “for their forbearance.” The troopers who had marched all night from Meerut were still in full uniform, wearing their medals. But underneath that demeanor, the wild rebel lurked. “The countenances of the troopers wore the expression of maniacs,” the writer remarked. The one among them who stood out, “a mere youth, rushing about flourishing his sword,” the writer further emphasized, was “displaying all the fury of a man under the influence of bhang.”27 Months before such reports proliferated among a global readership, bhang’s association with irrational violence had briefly figured in the trial of Mangal Pandey, who claimed to have mutinied under its influence. Internal reports by officers in charge of the Thirty-Fourth Bengal Native Infantry, like Major General Hearsey, concluded that other soldiers did not stop “Mungul Pandy from behaving in a murderous manner” because “he had taken bhang to excess.”28 But once the rebellion and its simultaneous coverage spread, bhang performed the labor of tethering globally circulating discursive constructions of wild, armed, and enraged rebellious men rejecting colonial domination—the very foundations of imperial anxieties—to the material histories of everyday intoxication noted in earlier colonial ethnographies, thus bringing into view a fearless, irrational subject catalyzed by cannabis consumption.
In spectacular accounts of colonial conquest leading up to the rebellion, madness was often coded through the figure of an irrational Indian subject who didn’t know when to give up. In 1839, years before the mutiny, when London’s Morning Post carried a report on Man Singh’s surrender of Jodhpur to the company’s Twenty-Second Regiment, its metropolitan readers encountered both a defeated Indian king and a “mad old fool.”29 Man Singh, effectively the last dynast of Marwar before British conquest of the region, had reportedly seen the writing on the wall. Despite the armies being ready and gunpowder bags lined up for a confrontation on September 21, Singh surrendered the gate of Jodhpur fort. The company’s regiments marched in and took possession of the fortress. But just as the victorious Captains Ludlow and Smith were “enjoying the beautiful view of the country and of the troops ascending the winding pathway,” they were attacked by a lone old soldier. One captain dodged the bullet, and the other took some swipes from the attacker before overpowering and killing him. “Of course,” wrote the correspondent, “he was mad, either with drink or bhang.” The mad subaltern, never fully accepting his subjugation, thus kept the tame matter of the sovereign’s surrender from being a closed chapter in the narrative of British dominion.
In fact, British dominion both before and after the Indian Rebellion was legitimated to metropolitan audiences through the figure of a sovereign incapacitated by bhang. Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oudh, was historically represented as either too weak or too distracted to maintain military sovereignty. In the days leading up to the swift annexation of Oudh by the company in 1856, Shah’s reputation as a Muslim king unable to maintain peace between his Hindu and Muslim subjects capitalized on colonial strategies of using sectarianism to classify Indians and justify British rule as impartial and necessary. When, in 1855, reports of religious conflict emerged from Faizabad, the company’s garrison at Lucknow was quick to respond. It was the threat of complete British annexation, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported, that kept Hindus and Muslims from sectarian violence.30 Shah could not control Muslim “fanatics,” the report declared, and in the deliberations over peacekeeping, was “in a continual state of stupefaction from opium or bhang,” leaving his prime minister and “the English Resident and his assistants, as the real masters of the situation.”31 Three years later, when British troops were scrambling to retake territory lost to the rebels across northern India, one of the last holdouts was the revolutionary government in Bareilly, where the city’s elite had selected Khan Bahadur Khan as its head.32 Even the Friend of India acknowledged the provisional gains of his government in setting up a stable monetary and fiscal system in the city. British commentators from India begrudgingly hailed him, one writing to the Times praising his efforts to bridge religious divisions. “He has in the Mohamedan city of Bareilly,” noted the writer, “forbidden the killing of cows and buried four amulets in each corner of the city with rites strictly Hindu to assure his followers of success.” Further, it read, “the cowardly assassin [Khan] who never yet has headed troops in the field exhibits fertility of resources and power of combination beyond any of the leaders of the insurrection.” Yet Khan’s claim to sovereignty was already compromised, thus promising hope for the English counterinsurgency. Cannabis was his route to ignominy—“Khan is fast losing the little intellect and influence that bhang and opium had left him, and he’s falling into second childhood.” He might have been resourceful, but “it [was] beyond his power to resist the force which will be brought against his troops.”33 Whether before, during, or after the mutiny, cannabis was key to challenging the legitimacy of Indian sovereignty, providing succor to an imperial audience as proof of its fated decline.34 Bhang thus became the alibi deployed to evacuate the insurgency of its political content.
During the rebellion, between 1857 and 1859, narratives of bhang consumption, especially by Muslims, animated nearly every theater of battle. Once the mutiny spread, many local newspapers in Britain attributed even the events preceding the battle in Delhi to the actions of Muslim soldiers, an “infuriated crew, thirsting for the blood of the infidel, and frenzied with bhang.”35 As mutiny dispatches became their own genre of reporting in the Anglophone press, rising numbers of eyewitness accounts poured in. Major Alexander Cobbe wrote to the Hertford Mercury and Reformer describing his battle in Delhi, where he witnessed rebels drinking bhang, who “consequently were more courageous than usual” and could charge the British forces fearlessly.36 Each dramatic account added newer emphases on the role of intoxication. “By all accounts, they were perfectly mad from churrus or bhang and fought more boldly than they ever did before,” read one report on a skirmish at Delhi.37 A dispatch from the special correspondent of the Times in Bombay recounted how at Neemuch cantonment, a “fanatic Mahomedan of the 1st Bombay Lancers, maddened by bhang, appeared on the lines of his regiment and by his furious and inflammatory gestures and addresses, excited a considerable commotion” on August 10.38 There was, the reporter noted, “only one madman at fault,” who fired at Brigadier Macan’s head but missed and was subdued quickly. Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper’s syndication of this report in London editorialized this as ominous evidence of the mutiny “defiling” the Bombay Presidency and spreading farther west.39 To the east, in Barrackpore near Calcutta, newspapers continued reporting on instances of sepoys attacking adjutants under the influence of bhang.40
These dispatches from India were largely written by white soldiers in the British army. The Observer, in a special column titled “Race and Religion in India,” wrote that dispatches “do not profess to give ‘news’ but the details they contain of the native character and manners throw some light on the causes of the insurrection.”41 Such dispatches were usually editorialized with comments on the military officer’s record of service to legitimate to the reader their authority on both the mutiny and its causes. The dispatch by one Captain T, “eighteen years in the company’s service and fifteen on the staff and civil employment,” was quoted by the Observer at length. The captain declared in April 1858 that “no native mutineer or rebel has as yet given any reason for his conduct. The Mohammedans got up the plot to wrest the empire from us; the Wahabee Mussulman sectarians of Islam being the chief conspirators.”42 The Wahhabi movement in northern and central India had, since the 1840s, directly confronted the East India Company. Wahhabi leaders regularly attempted to gain the support of sepoys employed by European armies, causing British agencies to scramble for intelligence and proceed on charges of treason and sedition.43 After the rebellion, in 1870, the colonial state introduced Section 124A, the clause against sedition, to the Indian Penal Code explicitly to curb the activities of Wahhabi groups.44
Organized Wahhabi opposition, cast by Britons as sectarian and scheming, combined with ideas of Asian primitivism and fatalism helped explain the origins of the mutiny. “Fatalism is the great mover in the disposition of the native. He runs mad, being naturally excited, adds bhang and other drugs to work up the system, and then says it is all fate that did it,” wrote Captain T. Racialized as inherently weak and lacking masculine will, the Asian body was too susceptible to the lures of Wahhabi Islam’s anti-British propaganda. While the Wahhabi movement “cleverly set the ball rolling,” the captain went on, “the whole ran amuck as Asians only can do. It is an Asiatic disease like cholera, equally incurable and equally puzzling to sober Europeans.”45 To the lay reader, Captain T’s record of “actively hunting out the rebels” and asking them their reasons “before hanging them” added an air of authority to this heady account of Islam, cannabis, and weak-willed fatalism. The phrase running amuck in the archive of imperial warfare has its own instructive transnational itinerary. Englishmen across Indian Ocean outposts since the late eighteenth century had used amok, derived from a Malay word meaning a furious charge at an enemy, to name a fixed cultural trait and an event of homicidal violence.46 European medical officials and, later, psychiatrists, began counting and analyzing instances of amok in the early nineteenth century, some of the first of which were recorded among Malay Muslims, followed by Indigenous groups across Indian Ocean archipelagoes. Running amok, correspondingly, became a mutating phrase to capture culturally coded behaviors of irrational violence.47 By the mid-nineteenth century the phrase was a shorthand descriptor for acts of violent rebellion that Europeans either could not comprehend or simply found lacking in strategy and rationality.
By July 1857 imperial Britons had encountered their most treacherous public enemy in the figure of Nana Sahib. The name was an adopted moniker of Dhondu Pant, a Maratha prince dispossessed of his inheritance by the East India Company. At Kanpur, his siege of the British army forced them to surrender. After guaranteeing safe passage to surrendered British residents in the town, he reportedly reneged and ordered their execution. The subsequent swirl of public vilification of Nana Sahib drew liberally on “Anglo-Indian rumor and self-promoting military dispatches.”48 The figure of Nana Sahib was used in transnational imperial culture, from playhouses to literary clubs, to gradually symbolize multiple forms of “native” excess such as treachery, rape, and bloodlust.49 Nana Sahib escaped the British counterattack on Kanpur to flee north into the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, adding layers of mystery to his subsequent representations. Cannabis was pivotal to the trajectory of such depictions, each indicating the prejudicial role of race and Blackness in Victorian popular consciousness.50 For instance, the character of Jonathan Small in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of Four (1890), who exemplified the centrality of the Kanpur massacre to the genre of the mutiny novel, reminded the reader that the “black fiends” in British uniform were “drunk with opium and bang.”51 After Nana Sahib’s escape, the London Journal carried a two-column excoriation, by one “Indian,” of the British police for their lack of proper intelligence on his whereabouts. The author noted that Nana Sahib’s widow, a “rather black creature,” had failed to mourn according to custom, thus suggesting he was probably still alive.52 When, in 1874, news of his capture at the hands of the Scindiahs emerged, it lit up the Anglophone press across the empire and the United States. However, disappointment quickly followed. Dr. Tressider, the civil surgeon at Kanpur during the siege, who had performed a surgery on Nana Sahib’s foot, denounced the captive as an impostor.
But why would someone pretend to be arguably the most dreaded enemy in the British imperial imagination at the time? Cannabis. The correspondent of the Times in India, in a report later syndicated to the Chicago Daily Tribune, blamed the entire drama on “the effects of bhang.” Noting that the prisoner’s confession was made under the influence of bhang, “the native drug answering to rum or whisky in England, but with the effect of opium,” the writer informed avid readers that he had once “fired every chamber of a six-chambered Colt” over a “man drunk with bhang, and could not wake him.”53 Tressider’s testimony and the role of cannabis evidently saved British intelligence from embarrassment. For the Times, the impostor, whether or not he was the “real Nana,” had taken the “convenient plea of bhang as a set-off against a crime,” whereas for the Saturday Review, which blamed it on the Scindiahs trying to curry favor with the British Crown, the impostor effectively “relieved the British Government from a painful and embarrassing responsibility.”54 In other words, cannabis exemplified both the bloodlust of Nana Sahib and the fabrication of his impersonator, together rendering colonized bodies as wholly unreliable subjects.55 Unreliability became the shared discursive ground on which racialized representations of irrationality, bloodthirst, and wildness could converge.
If in the early days of the mutiny, bhang animated the wildness of the rebels, then during the bloody counterinsurgency that followed, it also explained their continuing resolve. In November 1857, during the siege to take Delhi back, another slate of military dispatches recounted how the rebels were “losing what little organization and discipline they had left.” But, one went on, “still their obstinate defence is wonderful and can only be attributed to bhang.”56 For other witnesses of the counterinsurgency, bhang vivified the gradual disarray of the rebel soldiers who were slowly losing the ground they gained a few months ago. One of the longest and most striking accounts to make its way across broadsheets, with a day-by-day breakdown of events, was written by a “young subaltern officer in the East India Company’s service” employed in the attack on Lucknow. In a critical turning point in his narrative, first printed in London’s Daily News, he was the sole officer alongside twenty Indian soldiers left in his quarters when a group of rebels attacked from a nearby mosque. The “wretched fighting from room to room, one corridor to another” spilled over from the quarters into the garden, after the officer and Indian soldiers “shot and bayonetted no less than eight in one small room,” regrouped overnight, and took back the building. “The men,” he wrote, gave him “very much the idea of being intoxicated with bhang, for they seemed to come on without any definite design, rushed madly about, apparently unconscious where they were going to.”57
Military dispatches that recounted such disarray among the rebels, as the company’s forces bore down on them, were unquestionably about colonial masculinity.58 The facts of battle aside, the singular feature of such narratives was a contrast between a low-ranking white soldier, generally, fighting against odds in a landscape peopled by derelict buildings and unfathomable foes. In a letter to his father, written in the trenches outside Kanpur on November 26, 1857, A.C. of the Sixtieth Rifles was emotionally charged up. In his words, he was in a small mud fort with thirty men and “surrounded by 3000 of the ‘beauties’ all about.”59 Anyone who read this letter, printed in full in the morning news on January 23, 1858, might have been taken by the soldier’s bravado. He wished the “beauties” would attack, from the other side of the bridge facing him, so he “could make a few of them [into] food for jackals.” If there was scrimmage, he planned to stand at one end of the bridge and “walk [straight] into the n——s until a force comes down from the fort.”60 Explicit racial hatred and misogyny that translated the rebel as both Black and womanly to a global readership built on earlier racist characterizations of Blackness in the reports on Nana Sahib’s wife, recalling what Alexander Weheliye has called the “nimble mutability of racial taxonomies.”61
When the attack did take place, A.C. came to find that their spies were wrong and the number of rebels was closer to twenty-five thousand. “I never expected to get back to camp alive,” he wrote, before adding, “I cannot think how we escaped.” The next day they fought again, but “the sepoys in the adjacent ruins had done themselves up with bhang yesterday” so when “the brutes rushed at us with their swords, it was a dreadful sight to see the poor officers being cut up.” But again, he wrote, “they were all around me but by the greatest mercy, I was not touched.”62 Miraculous escapes followed by gallant attacks, during which A.C. “blew the brains out” of a captured Indian spy, cast the white soldier’s masculinity as an effect of the unbeatable odds represented by an Indian rebel intoxicated by cannabis. The rebel, vituperatively animalized as a “brute,” was vitiated to irrational violence by cannabis while the hypermasculine violence of the white soldier shored up manhood in the service of empire as more rational.
The gendered body of the white soldier was also an orientation device for ordinary Britons to apprehend the scope of the empire they claimed and sought to retain. Military dispatches from India could take more than a month to reach England, and newspapers maintained regular contact with the families of soldiers posted in India. A Morning Post editorial in March 1858 argued that publishing such weekly or fortnightly letters to family members provided intelligence and news to lay Britons about their “great dependency of India.”63 Precisely due to such letters, Britain had become “acquainted with [its] power and the means of using it, [and] the dispositions, temper, and feelings of the Hindu and Mahomedan populations.” Thus there was no reason to be so unprepared against mutiny in the future, argued the Post, before hailing Britain’s use of artillery regiments as the way to cut the losses of infantrymen. By 1858 the counterinsurgency appeared to be succeeding, and British troops, under the leadership of Colin Campbell, appeared to be taking India back. Using “his overpowering artillery,” the same editorial read, “Sir Colin Campbell will play on these refuse and sweepings of degraded Asiatic human nature, the mere quisquilia of human devilry excited by bhang and opium.”64 In the year since the mutiny had begun, cannabis had catalyzed a wide range of claims around civilizational superiority and become a vehicle for the nineteenth-century English public sphere’s craving for military supremacy in the colonies. In animating several meanings of vitiation, like unreliability, fanaticism, the remedy of the weak-willed, and finally as the ultimate repository of Indian delinquency, cannabis came to serve as an extraordinary enemy in the imperial narrative of military conquest.
The narrative of Colin Campbell’s military triumph at Lucknow, in March 1858, threw such associations into sharp relief. Campbell’s biography, as the son of a poor Scottish carpenter who assumed his mother’s surname; fought for the Crown in the War of 1812; and rose through service in British Guiana, Ireland, Punjab, Spain, Hong Kong, and Crimea, was well known. After decades spent repressing rebellions by enslaved and Indigenous peoples and building a reputation for cautious military strategy that prioritized reducing troop casualties in battle, he was a strategic choice for Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to complete the counterinsurgency operations in India. While imperial careering, long established as a means of negotiating class, masculinity, and status in the British Empire, decisively shaped Campbell’s location, his caution was narrated as the necessary vehicle for establishing the peace under Victoria’s rule.65 The Leeds Times praised Campbell for trying to limit the mass executions of Indian rebels by white soldiers and civil officers after each battle, besides favorably noting his effort to work with Hindus against fanatical Muslims. At Jalalabad, the newspaper reported, “the Hindoos politely offered to assist him in killing all the Mahomedans” the day before he was attacked by “a party of Ghazees, intoxicated with bhang” who were seeking “only to fulfill a vow of self-immolation.”66
Campbell’s own account, written after he retired in England following the ultimate appointment of his imperial career, reinforced the same tropes through nearly two hundred illustrations and prose that closely resembled the blow-by-blow accounts of military dispatches. “Mahometans,” he declared, “throughout were most cruel, ferocious, and bloodthirsty; those of the artillery and cavalry were the worst of the lot. . . . Excited with bhang, they galloped about like fiends, intent only on bloodshed and murder.”67 Contrasted against the “Hindu Sepoy,” who was “true to his salt” and enabled the escape of British officers several times, Campbell’s Muslim foes, always delirious with bhang, exemplified the politics of colonial difference and sectarian division that was used to legitimate the rebellion’s final suppression. Defining cultural difference as sectarian division among Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh subjects was crucial to undo the perceived united front put up by rebels across Indian territories in the early days of the insurgency. Campbell’s public persona as a judicious man from a humble background, who appealed to Britons across lines of social class and national origin, played the counterfoil to the disunity of the colonized.
In perhaps the most revealing account of Campbell’s capture of Bareilly, reported in the Times weeks before he returned to England, his men were again attacked by “Ghazees, or fanatical Mussulmans, furious with bhang,” who “like the Roman Decii devote their lives with solemn oaths to their country and faith.”68 Like the famed plebeian family devoted to its soldiers and the republic, the description of Campbell’s Muslim foes refracted early modern English ideas of addiction as devotion. Before addiction was cast as debility and abuse, Rebecca Lemon has argued for its multiple devotional valences as the ability to announce or utter one’s commitment, vulnerability, hard work, and courage.69 “Uttering loud cries,” the report declared, “one hundred and thirty of these fanatics rushed out . . . with bodies bent and heads low, waving their tulwars with a circular motion in the air, they came on with astonishing rapidity.” Incidentally, Campbell’s forces had recently been joined by Sikh soldiers. Sikhs had been recruited by the company’s military since the early nineteenth century for their presumed status as a martial race.70 But when the “fanatical Muslims” attacked, “they were mistaken for the Sikhs” by English soldiers. Disarray and chaos ensued as white soldiers failed to distinguish friend from foe in the melee. “Fortunately, Sir Colin Campbell was close up. . . . His keen quick eye detected the case at once,” following which he “closed the ranks” and led the bayonet charge that killed all 133 men.71
Campbell’s tenure as commander in chief in India prefaced the tension between the required military recruitment of Indians and the expansion of the numbers of white British troops there. Unreliable Indian soldiers who could turn into rebels had produced several imperial anxieties, especially since the army was also the largest single employer in India. In Parliament George De Lacy Evans, the former British general, “denounced the ferocity and inhumanity of the sepoys who had been treated with the greatest kindness.” The mutiny was, Evans argued, some kind of misadventure, “to be traced to the habit Indians had of taking bhang, when they were under excitement.”72 The mutineers, Evans pleaded after arguing for military expansion in India, should be “punished with the utmost severity” to reduce the odds of rebellion in the future.73 After the initial wave of reprisals that included tying rebels to the mouths of cannons before they were fired, mutineers were incarcerated in penal colonies where they worked as convict labor alongside indentured workers.74 Celebrations of such violence to recapture India, in the imperial public sphere, were also celebrations of an anticipated victory over bhang. The Bombay Telegraph’s editorial in July 1858 celebrating the English victory at Plassey a hundred years before went on to describe how England had “girded up her loins and prepared herself for the struggle” to retake India after the rebellion. The rebellious, it announced, “have been blown from guns, hanged, transported, and imprisoned,” and the English were now “a thousand times more dominant race.” Readers in Essex or Nottingham, who read a syndicated version of this editorial, may not have been familiar with the history of Plassey, but their investments in empire had been forged and reinforced through the stream of military dispatches that had continued to circulate. So, when the editorial went on to claim that “the prestige of our arms has everywhere been maintained and even bhang and fanaticism have recoiled before the British bayonet,” it appealed to commonplace sentiments of racial supremacy.75 The dominant white race, instead of losing, had “muzzled the rebels in the jungles like tigers in their den.” Hence, it concluded, “the disappearance of something white will, we imagine, be their own winding-sheets.”
Most mid-nineteenth-century Victorian Britons who devoured such narratives of spectacular cannabis-induced violence did not necessarily know much about the Indian colonies despite consuming Indian commodities like tea, cotton, jute, and indigo. For many in Britain and across the English-speaking colonies, such sensational and racist reports of the mutiny might have been the first vivid and literal description of the empire in India. A letter to the editor of the Standard by one Orion described common knowledge of India before mutiny dispatches thus: “So absolute was the ignorance or indifference on Indian subjects . . . that the majority of educated classes would have been at a loss to tell whether Aurungzebe was a Mussulman or a Hindoo.” However, he went on, “the horrors of the rebellion had given a melancholy familiarity” with cities, kings, and the topography of India to all Britons. To Orion, it had also alerted the empire to the “arrogance and obstinacy” of British administrators in India whose “lust of annexation had caused the great rival sects [Hindus and Muslims] to merge their mutual animosities.” Orion’s long letter indexed the alarmed perceptions of the East India Company not just in England but across the British Empire. “Are we to punish only the miserable tools of this conspiracy, to slaughter the wretches whose crimes, hideous as they are, have been perhaps committed in the madness of fanaticism or the frenzy of bhang,” Orion asked, “and to pass without censure or remark the misdeeds and negligence of those in authority, whether in Calcutta or Canning-Row?”76 The question was indicative of a wider political shift against the East India Company. A year of fierce parliamentary debates on the colonization of India led to the Government of India Act in August 1858, which passed the colony formally from the East India Company over to the Crown and Parliament.77
For proponents of Britain’s civilizing mission, the inclusion of India within a more formal state structure only increased the ambit of claims that could be made on behalf of the colony. Missionaries, for instance, had long considered the company’s profits from the Opium Wars immoral, and the expansion of the colonial state in India drew intoxicants deeper into the ambit of missionary discourse. Even as the war in India was ending, a few miles south of Liverpool, Reverend A. O’Neale of Birmingham reminded his audience that the East India Company had, in fact, held a monopoly on the narcotics produced by Indian hemp. Drawing on Coleridge’s experiments with laudanum, O’Neale liberally tried to relate cannabis and opium as equivalent narcotics. He associated their effects with Turkish “mischief” and Indian “desperation” before noting that the “good Bishop Wilson had said that the judgement of God would come down upon the English for their growth of opium in Bengal, and how fearfully that had been verified in the mutiny.”78 Similarly, at a meeting of missionaries in Bury, one Thomas Reynolds told the Reverends C. Elven and A. Tyler that “thousands of our fellow-subjects in India are oppressed” by the opium and bhang trade.79 Bhang, he argued, had caused the “poor sepoys,” many of whom were Muslims, to “throw themselves upon the British bayonets.” Citing Coleridge as well, Reynolds attacked the violations of treaties effected by the opium trade and reminded his audience to sign a petition to Parliament asking for the prohibition of opium production. Missionary networks indexed the growing moral consciousness of temperance that reproduced Orientalist typologies to then bind up opium and cannabis as equivalent drugs. Instead of the state profiting from them, the argument went, it should work with missionaries to reduce the pervasive sway that drugs, in general, held in ordinary life in the colonies. The flat equivalence of cannabis with opium in British temperance politics after 1859 prefigured the panics of the late nineteenth century around cannabis and lunacy in India. Asylum officials routinely wrote in cannabis consumption as the likely cause of madness among Indians without proper investigation into the causes of mental health crises, vagrancy, or delinquency.80 Anti-opium campaigners took up cudgels against Indian cannabis, further inflating the perceived addiction of the latter and leading to the lengthy inquiries of the Royal Commission on Opium and the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in 1894. Testimonies to the commission revealed the excesses of temperance panics and asylum recording practices, but judicial commissions and laboratory knowledge were vastly limited in comparison to the ambit of popularity enjoyed by periodicals and newspapers that had established the place of cannabis as a conduit to rebellion among Indians.
Cannabis sativa produces an intoxicating resin that courses through its stalk, leaves, and flowers. In South Asian history, different social groups have harnessed the plant’s intoxicating potency and used it in substances and commodities—ganja of multiple varieties from the flowering tops, bhang of multiple types from the leaves, and charas from the resin in the flower and stalk. Across the heterogeneous landscapes of South Asia, the terms ganja and bhang themselves are sometimes interchangeable, producing unstable but contextual forms of meaning. For instance, in male wrestling communities and Hindu ascetic culture in northern India, bhang is drunk as an anxiolytic to soothe the nerves and calm one’s sense of desire.81 In the Deccan, ganja-smoking and bhang-drinking was common in what Nile Green has called “barracks Islam,” the everyday religious life of Muslim sepoys in military contingents of the Hyderabad princely state that were under British control especially after the rebellion.82 In rural eastern Bengal, ganja consumption animated cosmological rituals of poor and low-caste communities that eschewed orthodoxies in both Hinduism and Islam for unitarian or millenarian cosmologies.83 From unique godheads to ascetic monks and warrior-saints, South Asian practices of intoxication have thus animated diverse bodies that fluidly spanned multiple religious traditions and social movements.
Early nineteenth-century colonial records distilled this rich history fundamentally through a flattened framework of ubiquity. Few English scholars studied the religious cultures of meaning underlying Indian cannabis, despite devotion, intoxication, and divine possession being common themes in European religious thought. Instead, ethnographic accounts of labor and mass festivity cast cannabis as a drug of rife prevalence, perennially at hand to furnish wildness and irrational violence. While it is highly plausible that rebels regularly drank bhang, the continuous emplotment of cannabis as an extraordinary animating substance during the mutiny shows us the material effects of framing addiction as rebellion in the colony. It is not the phenomenology of the addictive experience but its use toward evacuating the political rationality of insurgency that constitutes Indian cannabis in the imperial archive. This does not mean that the sensory relation between the self and the intoxicant is absent. It is, in fact, the margin against which colonial power concentrated fluid meanings of addiction into the body of the Indian rebel. Ultimately, the missive republished in Belfast, in discursively casting bhang as the primer for extraordinary violence, illuminated material interventions that ideologically reinforced fantasies of racial supremacy in colonial India.
I would like to thank Rebecca Lemon for reading several drafts and giving me thoughtful and critical feedback, and the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and questions. Thanks also to Kate McDonald, Bishnupriya Ghosh, Antoinette Burton, Christine Peralta, and Sherene Seikaly for their extensive comments on previous drafts.
Belfast News-Letter, “A Hint.” Emphasis added. This was merely ten years after Britain had suppressed the 1848 rebellion in Ireland and incarcerated Thomas Meagher in Australia.
On figures like Garcia De Orta and Thomas Bowrey, see Breen, Age of Intoxication, 98–104; da Costa, Medicine; and Mills, Cannabis Britannica, 18–32. On bhang use among warrior Sufis in Deccan courts, see Eaton, Sufis of Bijapur, 255–70.
On periodicals and imperial culture, see Burton, Burdens of History, 97–126.
For responses to the mutiny by Indians in England, see Fisher, “Multiple Meanings of 1857.”
Stokes, Peasant Armed; Bayly, Indian Society; Metcalf, Aftermath of Revolt; Anderson, Indian Uprising; Bates and Major, Mutiny at the Margins; Roy, Politics of a Popular Uprising; Wagner, Great Fear; Fuerst, Indian Muslim Minorities; Wagner, Skull of Alam Bheg.
On the demedicalization of Egyptian hashish in France in the same period, see Guba, Taming Cannabis, 150–86.
“Swinging Festivals of India” appeared in Lancashire’s Preston Chronicle, the Belfast News-Letter, Reading’s Berkshire Chronicle, Yorkshire’s Leeds Times, Bangor’s North Wales Chronicle, and the Scottish Paisley Herald and Renfrewshire Advertiser on June 14, 1856. Devon’s Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post carried it the next week.
Statham, Indian Recollections, 118. Notably, Statham had recorded bhang consumption as a constitutive part of widow femicide in India. For an earlier account, via Richard Blechynden, see Robb, “Children, Emotion, Identity, and Empire,” 185–86.
Manchester Guardian, “Delhi.” The same report was carried by publications like the North Wales Chronicle, the Leicestershire Mercury, the York Herald, and the Birmingham Gazette and by the John O’Groat Journal, published in Wick, Scotland.
Pandey attacked his superiors in Barrackpore on March 29, 1857, and was executed on April 8. See Hearsey to Secretary, Government of India, April 9, 1857, in Chick, Annals, 66.
This report circulated widely outside London, from Yorkshire to Dorset, where the Sherborne Mercury carried it on October 30, 1855.
Syndications of this letter appeared in multiple newspapers. See Examiner, “Rebels at Bareilly.”
By the 1890s fictionalized accounts of Tipu Sultan’s losses in 1799 also featured bhang-intoxicated failures. See Henty, Tiger of Mysore, 148.
Small newspapers like the Cheltenham Looker-On and the Bucks Herald of Aylesbury carried this report on July 18, 1857.
Hereford Times, “Action on the 14th before Delhi.” This report ran the next day in Reynolds’ Newspaper in London.
Daily News, “The Indian Mutinies.” This report ran in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette on October 1, 1857.
Observer, “Race and Religion in India.”
On the mutiny novel as the transition of India from a site of adventure to a site of domesticity, see Lakshmi, “Mutiny Novel.”
Chicago Daily Tribune, “Effects of Bhang.”
Unreliability was a common theme. Before his execution at Barrackpore, Mangal Pandey had claimed to have been under the influence of bhang and thus unaware of his actions that later instigated the rebellion. See Wagner, Great Fear, 87.
Leeds Times, “Fall of Delhi.”
Daily News, “Leaguer of Lucknow.”
The letter was published across two columns in many newspapers after London’s Morning Post and the Norfolk Chronicle carried it on January 23, 1858. See Norfolk Chronicle, “Entrenched Camp Guard, Cawnpore.”
The N-word, a common racial epithet outside the United States, was variably used by white soldiers to describe Indians. For the definitive argument on the term’s usage, see Pryor, “Etymology of the N-Word.”
On imperial careering, see Lambert and Lester, Colonial Lives.
After the defeat in the Anglo-Sikh wars, many Sikhs joined the imperial military for employment. See Anderson, “Transportation of Narain Sing.”
Leeds Times, “India.” Here the reporter also glossed Evans’s comments by adding that bhang was “a spirit more maddening than any known in Europe.”
Carter and Bates, “Empire and Locality”; Wagner, Skull of Alam Bheg; Anderson, “Convicts and Coolies.” Vasily Vereshchagin, the famous Russian realist painter, reproduced this moment in his 1884 work The Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English.
Essex Standard, “Present State of India.” The Nottinghamshire Guardian had published the editorial the day before.
Alter, Wrestler’s Body, 154–57. Alter uses hashish to refer to bhang.