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  The Forbidden Game

    Brian Inglis

        4.  The Impact of Civilisation

THE FACT THAT SO SMALL A NUMBER OF PLANT DRUGS WERE KNOWN in the Old World, compared to the new, has naturally led to speculation: why? The reason, the American anthropologist Professor Weston La Barre has suggested, is simple; that shamanism had survived in the Americas, and it was 'so to speak, culturally programmed for an interest in hallucinogens and other psychotropic drugs'. And not only for an interest in them: the medicine man, by training as well as by instinct, knew how to exploit drugs. The Europeans, taught as they were to regard divination as the work of the devil, were culturally programmed to regard vision-inducing plant drugs as his instrument. In Europe, this was not a problem; though witches might use them, they were not ordinarily encountered in everyday life, and few people would have thought of experimenting with them. But the drugs found in use in the New World appeared to be a direct threat to Church and State—not then differentiated; and the tendency, wherever shamanist drug-practices were found, was to try to suppress them.



    Drugs came under attack even when they were widely used for secular purposes, as medicines, or to increase endurance—as in the case of coca, in Peru. The Inca religion had retained an element of shamanism, and coca was one of the drugs used by the diviner-priests to help themselves into a trance; or, where that art had been lost, the diviner burned the leaves so that he could 'see' coming events in the curling smoke. Infusions of coca were taken at festivals; corpses were buried with coca, to help them over the Inca equivalent of the Styx; there was a 'Coca Mama'—the equivalent of the Corn Mother of other cults; and coca was included in sacrifices, on the principle that whatever was most valued should be given up to the gods. Appalled at these manifestations of idolatry, missionaries and priests were soon denouncing coca. It was formally condemned at the first Ecclesiastical Council held in Lima in 1551, and again in 1567 as connected with the work of idolatry and sorcery, 'strengthening the wicked in their delusions, and asserted by every competent judge to possess no true virtues; but, on the contrary, to cause the deaths of innumerable Indians, while it ruins the health of the few who survive.'
    The civil authorities had their own reasons for mistrusting coca. Anything so closely linked with Inca tradition was likely to become identified with it, in the minds of those who cherished the hope of overthrowing Spanish rule. There was also a more practical reason for suppressing the use of the drug. It was taken by workers throughout the day, pouched in the cheek, and replenished when necessary. The need for replenishment did not suit employers, who felt it was an unnecessary expense. By a simple device, they had ensured that labour in Peru would be both readily available and cheap; a tax had been imposed on every Indian of working age, which meant that the male population had to find work, in order to be able to pay it. The tax was nicely judged to leave the worker with only nominal wages—a penny a day—and his keep. As part of his keep, however, he expected a ration of coca. Why, employers naturally asked themselves, should they have to provide him not only with food and water but with a luxury—worse, a drug condemned by the Church?
    Prohibition was demanded, and in ordinary circumstances, could have been expected to follow. But those Spaniards who had established themselves as the owners of the coca plantations on the slopes of the Andes had quickly made their fortunes. From 1548 to 1551, the Spanish chronicler Cieza de Leon recalled, 'there was not a root, nor anything gathered from a tree, except spice, which was in such estimation', and they grew rich on the proceeds. They were not inclined to let the source of their wealth be wrested from them; and their profits gave them the means to campaign in Lima and in Madrid to save their business from extinction. Prohibition, they claimed, would be impracticable. The coca plantations might be ploughed up, but this would not stop the plant from being grown illicitly. And what evidence was there that coca was bad for the Indians? On the contrary, not merely did it help them to work long hours; it provided them with the necessary stimulus to do the work—coca being the only currency available to them.
    These were arguments which could be expected to make some impression on the Government, in its capacity as an employer. More surprisingly, they also made an impression on the Church. A Spanish priest, Blas Valera, who worked in Peru in the early years of the seventeenth century—and who thought highly of coca, particularly as a medicine—described how the change of heart came about. Some people, he recalled, had been hostile, 'moved only by the fact that in former times the heathen offered coca to their idols, as some wizards and diviners still do'. Because of this, they had argued that coca should be suppressed. If the Incas had offered coca and nothing else in their sacrifices, this might have been reasonable. But they had also sacrificed cattle; was beef therefore to be banned? On reflection, it had been decided that it would be best not to ban coca, but instead, to instruct the natives how to avail themselves of God's gifts in a Christian fashion. This resolution, Valera noted, had not been without its benefits to the Church; 'the income of the bishop, canons and other priests of the Catholic Church of Cuzco is derived from the tithe on the coca leaf'.
    So the Indians, though they were punished if they were caught using coca in religious observances, were allowed to take it while working, in order that they might be able to put in still longer hours. The consequences were to be summarised four centuries later by John Hemming, in The Conquest of the Incas:
Coca plantations lay at the edge of humid forests, thousands of feet below the natural habitat of the Andean Indians. This did not deter Spanish planters and merchants who made huge profits from the coca trade. They forced highland natives to leave their encomiendas and work in the hot plantations. The change of climate was devastating to Indians with lungs enlarged by evolution to breathe thin air. Antonio de Zuniga wrote to the King: 'Every year among the natives who go to this plant a great number of Your Majesty's vassals perish.' There were also ugly diseases in the plantations. A tiny mosquito-like dipterous insect that lives between 2,500 and 9,500 feet in the Andean foothills carries the destructive 'verruga' or wart disease, in which victims die of eruptive nodules and severe anemia. Coca workers also caught the dreaded 'mal de los Andes' or uta, which destroys the nose, lips and throat and causes a painful death. Bartolome de Vega described the native hospital of Cuzco 'where there are normally two hundred Indians with their noses eaten away by the cancer'. Those who escaped the diseases returned to their mountain villages debilitated from the heat and undernourishment; they were easily recognisable, pale, weak and listless. Contemporary authorities estimated that between a third and half of the annual quota of coca-workers died as a result of their five-month service.

    Decrees from Lima, and even from King Philip in Madrid, tried to regulate working hours and conditions. The frequency with which they had to be repeated—one Viceroy, Francisco de Toledo, issued over twenty ordinances designed to protect the Indians—suggests that they were not obeyed; not, at least, until wastage reduced the supply of labour to the point when the employers in their own self-interest had to begin to treat their workers with more consideration, or risk having too few of them to harvest the coca crop.
    This pattern was to be repeated in colonised territories. Missionaries disliked shamanism and the drugs associated with it because they were pagan; the colonial authorities, because they might be a focus for unrest, and for law-breaking. But where a plant drug could be exploited commercially, farmers, entrepreneurs and traders would find reasons for permitting, and encouraging, its consumption. They would use their influence to persuade the colonial authorities that it was essential to the colony's economy; and—particularly if they could extract revenue out of the drug—the colonial authorities would usually allow themselves to be persuaded.



    Where commercial considerations were unimportant, either because the drug was taken exclusively in shamanist rites, or because it could not be cultivated, the Church was more likely to have its way: as it did with the peyotl cactus. As late as the middle of the seventeenth century, when Francisco Hernandez published his pioneering work on the flora and fauna of Mexico, he was still careful to intimate his disapproval of the way certain of the plants he described were used. By eating peyote he noted, the Indians 'can foresee and predict anything; for instance, whether enemies are going to attack them the following day? Whether they will continue in favourable circumstances? Who has stolen household goods? And other things of this sort.' Far from being impressed, when Hernandez described what peyotl looked like he observed that it 'scarcely issues forth, as if it did not wish to harm those who discover it and eat it'. Similarly with ololiuqui—the 'morning glory'; when the priests wished to commune with their gods, and to receive messages from them, they ate it to induce a delirium, in which 'a thousand visions and satanic hallucinations appeared to them'. A catechism used in Mexico in that period reveals the priests' attitude. 'Art thou a soothsayer?' each convert would be asked.
Dost thou foretell events by reading signs, or interpreting dreams, or by water, making circles and figures on the surface? Dost thou suck the blood of others, or dost thou wander about at night, calling upon the demon to help thee? Hast thou drunk peyote or hast thou given it to others to drink, in order to find out secrets or to discover where stolen or lost articles were?

    In 1620, peyotl was formally denounced:
We, the Inquisitors against heretical perversity and apostasy, by virtue of apostolic authority declare, inasmuch as the herb or root called peyotl has been introduced into these provinces for the purposes of detecting thefts, of divining other happenings, and of foretelling future events, it is an act of superstition, to be condemned as opposed to the purity and integrity of our holy Catholic faith. The fantasies suggest intervention of the devil, the real authority of this vice.

    The civil authorities shared the Inquisition's views. They, too—according to the chronicler Fr Joseph de Acosta—were impressed by the evidence that under the influence of peyotl shamans were able 'to report mutinies, battles, revolts and death occurring 200 or 300 leagues distant, on the very day they took place, or the day after'. That divination could provide such a rapid communication service was an excellent reason for banning consumption of the drug. With characteristic cunning, however, the devil had provided alternatives; as well as ololiuqui, there were tobacco, datura and certain types of mushroom. All that Church and State could do was ban the drug cult ceremonies; and when the risk of holding them openly became too great, the cults continued underground.


Alcohol: Siberia

    Suppression was not the only weapon with which colonists could attack indigenous drug cults. They brought their own substitute drug with them: alcohol. Along with beer and wine, they introduced spirits: brandy, whiskey, gin and rum. Traders found it convenient to use them to lubricate negotiations, buying and selling; and then, as merchandise in their own right.
    The results were often depressing. When the Russians began the conquest of Siberia at the end of the sixteenth century, they determined to put down shamanism; and to that end they banned the consumption of the fly agaric—a futile gesture; the naturalist Nikolai Sljunin observed in 1900 that the law was 'completely ignored'. The introduction of vodka by traders proved a more effective weapon. Vodka was cheap—and readily available, unlike mushrooms, all the year round. But not merely did it fail to provide the shaman with visions; it actually blocked them—coming to be regarded, according to Sljunin, as an antidote to the mushroom's effects. The evidence, in fact, suggests that it was not drugs which made Siberian shamanism decadent, as Mircea Eliade claimed; it was one particular drug, alcohol, which destroyed the shaman's ability to induce a trance, and tempted him to fake it, and delude the company with conjuring tricks.


Alcohol: Tahiti

    Traditionally, the saddest story of the effects of alcohol concerns Tahiti. When the island was discovered in the 1760s, the crews who had been there returned with glowing accounts of a paradise, where the people lived free from worldly cares, doing little work because most of their wants were provided for by nature; enjoying sexual relations uninhibitedly because they were untroubled by the taboos or the guilt which Christianity had attached to them; and in general appearing to lead a wonderfully contented existence. Their only mild intoxicant came from a root which, when ground up, could be made into the drink kava; and was taken only on ceremonial occasions. Though Captain Cook's crew were told that it could make men drunk, they never saw this happen. When first offered alcoholic drinks, their Tahitian guests took them in all innocence, became drunk, and—after experiencing hangovers—took care not to get drunk again, 'shunning a repetition of it', Joseph Banks observed in his account of the visit, 'instead of greedily desiring it as most Indians are said to do'. It was as if the islanders, close to nature as they were, had no need of artificial intoxication; they lived in the happy state which Europeans tried in vain to reach with the help of alcohol.
    Before long, however, as more ships began to call, some Tahitians began to develop a taste for alcohol; particularly members of the ruling families, who were recipients of much of the hospitality. The missionaries, who by this time were establishing themselves, abetted the process. On arrival, they had determined to compel the Tahitians to cover their nakedness, and to cease their uninhibited sexual play. They were also anxious to put an end to Tahitian religious rites—among them, the ceremonial drinking of kava—because they were pagan. To implement these reforms, however, they had to win the Paramount Chief's support. The heir, Pomare II, intimated that he was willing to back the missionaries, so long as they did not interfere with his personal pleasures. Arriving in 1802 on his voyage round the world John Turnbull found the royal family demoralised by excess, and Pomare an alcoholic and a public menace. Under the influence of drink, Turnbull feared, he would not scruple to kill anybody who annoyed him.
    What possible benefit—Diderot had asked—could Christians with their hypocrisy, guilt and ambition, bring to the South Sea islanders? They would arrive, he warned, 'with crucifix in one hand and dagger in the other, to cut your throats or force you to accept their customs and opinions'. Gin bottle in the other, would have been nearer the mark; but Diderot's warning—'one day under their rule you will be almost as unhappy as they are'—was soon shown to be justified. Tahitians lost their childlike innocence, which made even their pilfering endearing; they had to wear 'Mother Hubbards'; they had to work; they were no longer happy; and they drank. When William Ellis arrived on Tahiti as a missionary in 1817, he found Turnbull's fears had been justified. Under Pomare, intemperance prevailed 'to an awful and unprecedented degree'. On impulse, men would get together to erect a still, and then over a period of days consume its product, 'sinking into a state of indescribable wretchedness, and often practising the most ferocious barbarities'. While the liquor lasted they were more like demons than human beings; and after it was finished,
sometimes in a deserted still-house might be seen fragments of the rude boiler, and the other appendages of the still, scattered in confusion on the ground; and among them, the dead and mangled bodies of those who had been murdered with axes or billets of wood in the quarrels that had terminated their debauch.

    As soon as they had established their authority, the missionaries tried to stop the islanders from drinking spirits; but with so many ships coming in, the task was hopeless. Among the arrivals was the Beagle, in 1835. When Darwin offered the Tahitian guides a drink they 'put their fingers before their mouths and uttered the word "missionary" '—but they did not refuse. 'The natives having nothing at all to do', Gauguin reported half a century later, 'think of one thing only: drinking.'
    Was alcohol the cause of the destruction of Tahiti's island paradise, or were there more insidious reasons? Other Pacific islands were given much the same introduction to colonialism and Christianity; not all of them were so marked by it. Pondering this on his tour of the Pacific, early in the 1890s, Robert Louis Stevenson came to the conclusion that it was unwise to put the blame for what had happened there either on gin or on 'Tartuffe insisting on unhygienic clothes'. No single cause, he felt, was responsible for decay, where it was to be found. What was decisive was the amount of dislocation involved in the islanders' way of life: 'where there have been fewest changes, important or unimportant, salutary or hurtful, there the race survives. Where there have been most, important or unimportant, salutary or hurtful, there it perishes.'
    J. W. Anderson, who had travelled around among the Pacific islands in the 1870s, was of the same opinion. He cited the stability of Fiji as an example. There, he found, yangona (as kava was known) was still taken in an elaborate ritual. First, young men and women with good teeth were employed to chew the root, until it was of the right consistency to be put in a bowl of water and its juices squeezed out. The resulting liquid appeared 'greenish-grey and muddy-looking'; it tasted to him like 'a mixture of rhubarb, magnesia and soapsuds'; and it left those who drank it rather unsteady on their feet. So the missionaries wanted to ban the ceremony—as did some employers, who disapproved of the time it wasted; islanders would drop whatever they were doing to attend. But it had not been banned; rightly, Anderson felt. The chewing process might appear to be disgusting (and to spread unmentionable diseases); the kava itself might be debilitating, to anybody who took it to excess. But in moderation it did no harm. The islanders, in fact, regarded it as a purifier of the blood. And even those who took so much of it that they became intoxicated displayed 'neither unseemly behaviour nor incoherency of speech', but rather showed 'an inclination to remain mute in a mood of happy dreaminess'. In the circumstances, Anderson hoped, kava drinking would continue, 'for the chances are that by and by, its substitute will be "yangona papalangi" that is, white man's grog; and we are too well aware what havoc the fire water plays among savages who once take a liking to it'.


Alcohol: America

    As Anderson's reference showed, alcohol had become notorious for its effects on primitive communities; particularly in North America, where distilled liquors had been unknown before the arrival of the colonists from Europe. As in the Pacific, it was the traders who introduced the American Indians to 'fire water'; and the Indians, unaccustomed to intoxication (tobacco was ordinarily used for that purpose by the shaman, but not by members of the tribe, except under his guidance) developed a craving for it. Towards the end of the seventeenth century missionaries were beginning to report the dire consequences, 'Lewdness, adulteries, incest, and several other crimes which decency keeps me from naming'—Father Chrestien Le Clerq wrote of a tribe on the Gulf of St. Lawrence—'are the usual disorders which are committed through the trade in brandy, of which some traders make use in order to abuse the Indian women, who yield themselves readily during their drunkenness to all kinds of indecency.' The places where the Indians drank brandy, another missionary wrote in 1705, were 'an image of hell. Fire flies in all directions, blows with hatchets and knives make the blood flow on all sides. They commit a thousand abominations—the mother with her sons, the father with his daughters, and brothers with their sisters. They roll about on the cinders and coals, and in blood.'
    It was stories such as these to which Anderson (and Banks, a century earlier) were referring; the assumption then being that alcohol had been the really destructive influence. But this view has recently been challenged by Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton in their Drunken Comportment: a social explanation, published in 1969. They were able to show that the American Indians, like the Tahitians, when they first tried spirits were attracted by the novelty of the experience—'a merry-go of the brain', as one of them described it—but for a while were not adversely affected. So long as their experience was 'untutored by expectations to the contrary'—MacAndrew and Edgerton claimed—'the result was neither the development of an all-consuming craving nor an epic of drunken mayhem and debauchery'. That epic only came when their way of life had been destroyed by the settlers, and their culture debased—another instance of the destructive power of change which Stevenson had observed.
    But there was more to it, MacAndrew and Edgerton decided, than simple change. The consumption of spirits brought out a trait which had already existed in their tribal societies: cruelty. The Red Indians had been notoriously cruel to captured foes, practising tortures on them of the most savage but sophisticated kind. They now learned from the white traders that a man should not be held responsible for what he did under the influence of drink. Alcohol therefore provided them both with the stimulus and the excuse to repeat the kind of behaviour they had formerly indulged in, with tradition's sanction, when they captured a member of an enemy tribe.
    It was not the drug, therefore, that was responsible for the way people behaved under its influence. The drug was simply the release mechanism, the behaviour being largely conditioned by expectations. Where the expectations from an established drug were of gentle intoxication, as with kava, it was in the colonists' self-interest to encourage it, and discourage the sale of spirits; and where this became settled policy, as on Fiji, the results appeared satisfactory—as Basil Thomson, who spent many years in Fiji around the turn of the century, recalled in his memoirs. Although the missionaries had continued to wage their campaign against yangona with 'a fiery zeal', the civil authorities had contented themselves with regulations chiefly designed to try to restrict its use to precisely the ceremonial occasions that the missionaries most deplored. As a magistrate, Thomson had to enforce this policy; and he came to the conclusion it was justified, because the vice of kava drinking 'if it isa vice at all, cannot reasonably be condemned for bringing in its train any of these social evils that are due to alcohol'.
    But colonial authorities were sometimes less far-sighted; and they could not, as a rule, stop the introduction of alcohol. Nor was it easy for them to prevent the erosion of traditional cultures and beliefs. Shamanism had been based on certain assumptions which Christianity and, later, the even more powerful force of rationalism challenged. Inexorably, the shaman's authority was eroded. He might still get his visions from tobacco, or other drugs. But they were of little comfort to the tribe if they predicted, correctly, that it was futile to oppose the superior power wielded by the white man—and disastrous when they incorrectly roused expectations, as occasionally they did, that the white man was going to be destroyed by a whirlwind, or some other form of divine retribution. When Sitting Bull smoked, and gave a hundred pieces of his flesh, before dancing the Sun Dance, his aim was to receive a vision; and he had one, which revealed that white soldiers were coming, and that the Sioux would slaughter them. The Sioux duly did, when Custer and his force appeared. But the vision had not revealed what was to follow: the massacre of the Indians at Wounded Knee, which banished their last hope of successful resistance.
    In such circumstances, vision-inducing drugs were a hazard; and shamanist observances came to rely more upon ritual—or on alcohol. Where alcohol was involved, they often came to resemble saturnalia, of the kind Ruth Underhill described in her study of the religion of the Papago Indians. At the annual rainmaking ceremony the shaman was still employed, but only as a subordinate. The most important role was that of the brewer, who made the fermented liquor from cactus fruit; the shaman being required simply to protect the brew from harmful influences. If he failed, he rather than the brewer would suffer for it. The principle which had attached itself to the ceremony was that 'the saturation of the body with liquor typifies and produces the saturation of the earth with rain'; the aim was to get everybody concerned 'full', without any expectation of visions, let alone of clairvoyance. Neophytes, admittedly, were encouraged to 'dream' songs which could be added to the tribal repertoire: but to judge by the samples Underhill obtained suitability was not equated with any great originality of insight.
Come and sing!
Come and sing!
Sing for the evening!
The sun stands there.
Sing for it!
For the liquor delightfully sing!

    And in the traditional songs and speeches, the emphasis was on the pleasures of inebriation for its own sake. To each recipient of the brew, the cup-bearer would say
Drink, friend ! Get beautifully drunk
Hither bring the wind and the clouds.

    Nor did the use of the term 'beautifully' mean that the Papagos were under any illusions as to the effects of the liquor—as one of the songs sung during the progress of the ceremony indicated:
    On the morning of the second day
They come hastening from all directions
They grow drunk, they stagger, they grow very drunk
They crawl around in their vomit
    Much dizziness,
Much dizziness
Within me is swelling
And more and more
Every which way I am falling

Chapter 5

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