“Empires of Vice: Opium and the Rise of Opium Prohibition Across Colonial Southeast Asia”
My project analyzes the rise of opium Prohibition across Southeast Asia from 1870 to 1940. Prohibition entailed a transformation to the fiscal foundations of colonial government and imperial justifications for rule, not least as European powers reversed 19th century defenses of commercial opium and dismantled lucrative tax regimes. However, anti-opium reforms occurred at different times, based on different rationales, and through different institutions. What explains these variations across the region? I argue that local administrators are central to understanding the divergent pathways that empires took toward a shared turn against opium. Based on a comparative study of the British and French—the two largest powers to divide Southeast Asia—in Burma, Malaya, and Indochina, I make a case for the surprisingly strong powers of weak officials on the ground, showing how their commonplace philosophies on vice and situated explanations of opium problems served as the evidentiary basis for key reforms. My original evidence draws from 30 months of archival research in Britain, Cambodia, France, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand. Theoretically, this project challenges influential theories of state formation as driven by a search for maximizing revenue by demonstrating how early 20th century colonial states chose to abandon opium riches.