ATTENTION: Our order fulfillment center is temporarily shutdown and unable to take orders.

Learn More

Chromolithograph by A. Preziosi, c. 1850, on Wellcome Collection

Cannabis and Hashish in the West: The Colonial Origins

Mike Jay

The first sustained interaction between the modern West and the hashish eaters of the Arab world occurred during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, which culminated in a ban on the use of hashish by French troops in October 1800. Hashish, according to the decree by General Jacques-François Menou (Napoleon himself had already left the country) caused its users to ‘lose reason and fall into a violent delirium, which often leads them to commit excesses of all kinds’.1 No direct testimony was cited from hashish-using soldiers themselves, and it seems that Menou intended the ban to align the occupying regime with the interests of the Egyptian Sunni elite who (. . .) associated hashish with the criminal underclass, Sufi mendicants and political undesirables. Hashishin, as it had been in the era of the Crusades, was used as a dismissive term along the lines of ‘riff-raff ’ or ‘dregs of society’, the sense in which it seems to have been applied to the Nizari Isma’ilis by their enemies.

The effects of hashish on the mind were eventually established in the time-honoured manner, by self-experiment. ‘I challenge the right of anyone to discuss the effects of hashish if he is not speaking for himself,’ wrote Jacques-Joseph Moreau, the physician who became synonymous with hashish in Europe’s medical world.2 Moreau’s interest in the drug was prompted by his travels in Egypt, Turkey and Syria from 1837 to 1840, as a junior doctor accompanying wealthy patients from the Charenton asylum in the suburbs of Paris. He had joined the asylum staff in 1826, while completing his doctoral thesis, to work under the direction of Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol, the doyen of French mental therapy. Esquirol followed his own mentor, Philippe Pinel, in conceiving madness, or ‘alienation’, not as a religious judgement or a moral weakness but a physical condition, a disease of the brain and nerves. Like Pinel, he encouraged physicians to spend time with their patients, show them empathy and guide them towards self-observation and insight into their condition. For those who could afford it, he would often arrange rest cures and changes of scene, with a junior physician such as Moreau assigned to accompany them.

Moreau was fascinated by life in the Arab world. He followed Esquirol’s advice to dress in the local style, see the sights, immerse himself in the crowds and adopt the local customs. As an alienist, he was particularly interested in differences between Arab and European mentalities, and he interrogated his guide and translator, a dragoman named Kelim, about his inner world. Kelim was a firm believer in djinn, with which he had had several terrifying encounters, and in the prophetic power of dreams. These forms of private experience would be described by many European doctors as hallucinations and diagnosed as symptoms of mental disease; yet Kelim appeared otherwise quite sane, and his beliefs were typical of a population in which mental illness was encountered far less frequently than in Europe.

Moreau’s doctoral thesis had been on monomania, a diagnosis developed by Esquirol that he saw as a disease of over-focused attention leading to obsessive behaviour. By 1840 it had become the most prominent form of insanity in France, accounting for a quarter of all diagnoses. Moreau wondered if the visions or fantasies that Kelim experienced, when sanctioned by a culture that permitted indulgence in a rich inner life, might be not a sign of madness but a possible remedy for it. He was particularly intrigued by the absence of alcohol in Arab culture and the corresponding prevalence of hashish, which seemed to accompany and enhance this communal fantasy world of folklore, storytelling and dreams.

Moreau discovered that he was not the only French doctor in Egypt interested in hashish. An epidemiologist named Louis Aubert-Roche, who had been based in Egypt since 1830, was investigating it as a treatment for typhoid and bubonic plague. Aubert-Roche believed these were diseases of the nervous system that spread in unhygienic conditions, and that hashish might help to prevent. ‘If this plant has intoxicating powers’, he reasoned, ‘it must have some medical power over the nervous system.’3 Aubert-Roche was working in a hospital in Cairo and supplied cannabis, in the palatable form of dawamesc, to patients, doctors and interested medical researchers, including Moreau.

* * *

The idea of developing cannabis into a Western medicine, in the form of a tincture with a standardised dose, had recently been pioneered by France’s great colonial rival. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a dynamic Irish physician and pharmacist working in British Bengal, was, like Aubert-Roche, initially attracted by the possibility of treating local infectious diseases, in his case cholera. Previously, British physicians had paid little attention to the plant’s mind-altering properties, but O’Shaughnessy recorded them with evident interest. If he experimented on himself, he left no record of it; instead, he enlisted local subjects, including ‘the proprietor of a celebrated place of resort for hemp devotees in Calcutta, who is considered the best artist in his profession’. He compiled a taxonomy of local preparations that paralleled those of Egypt, including the plant itself (gunjah), a drink prepared traditionally for religious ceremonies (bhang), a hashish-style concentrated extract (churrus) and the sweet confection majoun.4

In a paper delivered to the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta in 1839, O’Shaughnessy presented his experimental findings on ‘this extraordinary agent’.5 He had begun his trials with a dog that he dosed with ‘ten grains of Nepalese churrus dissolved in spirit’; it became ‘stupid and sleepy’, ‘ate some food greedily’ and ‘staggered to and fro’ with ‘a look of utter and helpless drunkenness’. After six hours it recovered, becoming ‘perfectly well and lively’.6 He proceeded to dose fish, birds and other mammals, noting only minor effects on ‘the horse, deer, monkey, goat, sheep and cow’, before proceeding to human subjects: patients at Calcutta’s Native Medical Hospital. On these, a dose of churrus produced some striking physical responses, including in one instance ‘that strange and most extraordinary of all nervous conditions’, catalepsy, in which the patient became a waxen statue, oblivious for an hour to all external stimuli. More common were bizarre states of mind, such as that witnessed in ‘an old muscular cooly [labourer], a rheumatic malingerer’, who:

became talkative and musical, told several stories, and sang songs to a circle of highly delighted auditors, ate the dinners of two persons subscribed for him in the ward, sought also for other luxuries I can scarcely venture to allude to, and finally fell soundly asleep, and so continued until the following morning. On the noon-day visit, he expressed himself free from headache or any other unpleasant sequel, and begged hard for a repetition of the medicine, in which he was indulged for a few days, and then discharged.7

O’Shaughnessy’s research excited ‘the utmost interest’ among his medical staff and students, and ‘several pupils commenced experiments on themselves’ with the tinctures that he was producing. Unlike Humphry Davy, O’Shaughnessy did not solicit first-person testimony from his native subjects: he followed more closely the example of Robert Hooke, relaying and vouching for their experiences rather than presenting them as direct evidence. He noted their ‘vivid ideas’ and ‘unusual loquacity’, and in one remarkable case introduced his subject by name:

In one pupil, Dinonath Dhur, a retiring lad of excellent habits, ten drops of the tincture, equal to a quarter of a grain of the resin, induced in twenty minutes the most amusing effects I ever witnessed. A shout of laughter ushered in the symptoms, and a transitory state of cataleptic rigidity occurred for two or three minutes. Summoned to witness the effects, I found him enacting the part of a Raja giving orders to his courtiers . . . He entered on discussions on religious, scientific, and political topics, with aston- ishing eloquence, and disclosed an extent of knowledge, reading, and a ready apposite wit, which those who knew him best were altogether unprepared for . . . A scene more interesting it would be difficult to imagine.8

Like the hashish eaters of The Arabian Nights, Dhur’s behaviour was expansive and grandiose, but in this case there was no rude awakening: his mental brilliance while under the influence was palpable, and O’Shaughnessy was lost for an explanation. He drew suggestive comparisons with ‘the effects produced by the reputed inspiration of the Delphic oracles’, and speculated that ‘the same kind of excitement’, some intoxicating plant or vapour, might have been implicated in the oracular trance state.

The recommendations that concluded O’Shaughnessy’s paper focused on his trials of cannabis in cases of tetanus. It was, he claimed, highly effective, ‘in a large proportion of cases effecting a perfect cure’, an outcome he attributed to its anti-spasmodic and muscle relaxant properties.9 He concluded that the violent psychic effects of the drug mentioned in the Bengali medical and legal literature were genuine but rare, and should not discourage physicians and pharmacists from including cannabis preparations in the Western pharmacopoeia. He set out the basics of a formula for pharmacists: boiling the flowering tops of gunjah, dissolving it in spirit (it was not water-soluble), and evaporating it to a consistency where it could be made into pills.

* * *

O’Shaughnessy’s work prompted a surge of medical interest in Europe. Chemists in Edinburgh and Paris began to develop pills, tinctures and standardised doses for the pharmaceutical market.

1. Guba, David A., Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France, McGill-Queens University Press, 2020, 80.

2. Moreau, Jacques-Joseph, Hashish and Mental Illness, Raven Press, 1973 [1845], 1.

3. Guba, David A., Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France, McGill-Queens University Press, 2020, 125.

4. O’Shaughnessy, W.B., ‘On the Preparations of Indian Hemp, or Gunjah’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1839, 850.

5. Ibid. 839.

6. Ibid. 840. ‘Ten grains’ is around 0.7 grams.

7. Ibid. 842.

8. Ibid. 844–5.

9. Ibid. 849.

From Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind by Mike Jay. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Mike Jay has written extensively on scientific and medical history and contributes regularly to the London Review of Books and the Wall Street Journal. His previous books on the history of drugs include MescalineHigh Society, and The Atmosphere of Heaven.

Recent Posts

All Blogs