Book Project

Empires of Vice: The Rise Opium Prohibition Across Southeast Asia

(Forthcoming. Princeton University Press, Histories of Economic Life series)

Opium had long been a major source of revenue for European powers colonizing Southeast Asia, claiming both material gain and moral authority from taxing opium consumption as a peculiar vice among non-European subjects. Between the 1890s and 1940s however, colonial states began to ban opium across the region, reversing the economic bases of overseas rule and official justifications governing over others. In retrospect, the prohibition of opium seems like an ordinary state activity, not least because the dangers of drug addiction and trafficking are so deeply etched in our current imaginary. This book demonstrates the opposite. It illuminates an extraordinary process through which European colonial states reconfigured their opium-entangled foundations of rule.

How were colonial states able to enact such a dramatic change? I argue that opium prohibition was made possible due to the pivotal work of colonial bureaucrats, stressing the surprising strength of seemingly weak official actors. Comparing British and French experiences across today’s Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, I trace how the everyday work and ideas of local administrators delegitimized state practices of taxing opium, which in turn enabled major anti-opium reforms. Challenging conventional wisdom that prohibition was either a necessary result of the medical “discovery” of opium’s harms or response to transnational moral crusaders, this book finds a more complicated story of state transformation, and locates its dynamism deep within the underbelly of a colonial bureaucracy.

Drawing on a wealth of government records, legal cases, and photographs from multiple archives across Southeast Asia and Europe, Empires of Vice provides a comparative and historical study of opium regulation since the late 19th century. It reveals the inner life of a colonial bureaucracy, theorizes its sources of symbolic power, and demonstrates legacies of European colonial rule that durably shaped Southeast Asia’s political economy of illicit drugs and punitive states today.


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