Johan Mathew


Dear Colleagues,

My apologies for this “abstract,” I’ve found the genre rather difficult to work with and instead have produced something like the first several pages of a paper. I ended up focusing on a particular piece of my research and have tried to broaden out the ambit both temporally and geographically. I am still obviously working through the ideas that are very loosely sketched out here so I welcome your thoughts and criticisms including to scrap the whole thing and start over! Thanks for your patience. 


The Poor Child’s Nurse: Opium and the Making of the Proletarian Family 

“High and low give opium to their children up to the age of three years”


At birth, a baby’s full-throated cry is a sign of their health and vitality, but it will soon the bane of their parents’ existence. Few aspects of human development are as universal as a crying baby and there are similarly few sentiments shared across myriad cultures of child-rearing as the desire to get that baby to shut up. Experts and baby manuals of the 21st century no doubt counsel unceasing attention and relentless nurturing. Folk wisdom, however has not been averse to the assistance that comes in a pill or a bottle. A few drops of brandy rubbed on teething gums, a spoonful of laudanum, a small ball of opium mixed with sugar and spices: mother’s little helper of another sort.

The epigraph to this paper is taken from perhaps the most important historical text of 16th century India. The Ain-i-Akbari is a kind of imperial gazeteer written by Abu’l Fazl, the grand vizier of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. This passage describes the province of Malwa, which would become infamous in the 19th century as the major producer of illicit opium for the Chinese market. But even before the rise of the Mughal Empire, the opium poppy was a major crop both produced and consumed in this part of western India. Opium’s value as a pain-reliever and cough suppressant was recognized in the earliest human civilizations, and was an important part of both ancient Greek and Islamic medicine. Abu’l Fazl thus notes this administration of opium to infants as an interesting practice, but he passes no judgement. Even as he mentions elsewhere the indolence of confirmed opium addicts, Abu’l Fazl does not seem worried that the juice of the poppy would stunt the development of these children, much less turn them into lifelong addicts and degenerates.[2] His contemporaries in Malwa saw only benefits in this time-tested practice of feeding opium to infants.

How is it that this whole society saw no problem in collectively drugging their children for the first several years of their life? Or perhaps alternatively why does this practice seem so horrific to us in the 21st century? It would seem unlikely that all these children grew up to be helpless and hopeless addicts, and no one noticed. Indeed relatively accepting attitudes towards such practices continued for centuries afterwards. In different parts of the world the turn against narcotics and intoxication has proceeded unevenly and haltingly. The Quranic injunction against alcohol made Muslim empires amongst the first to turn against intoxicating substances, even if this prohibition was honored mostly in the breach.[3] Qing Dynasty China followed suit with a prohibition against opium in the 18th century, also honored mostly in the breach. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that temperance movements took hold in European states and restrictions were put in place against the consumption of various intoxicants.[4]

After centuries as an empire of drug traffickers, Britain was a late and often ambivalent participant in this global drug control movement. In large part this was a result of the British Raj in India: the colonial state derived large revenues from opium and cannabis production and the consumption of narcotics was widely condoned and even esteemed by the peoples of India. Limiting the production and consumption of intoxicants in India would be both very expensive and very difficult. The consumption of drugs and alcohol were gendered masculine by the British colonizers and by most colonized societies in the subcontinent, and so men were the primary target of temperance efforts. However, the consumption of intoxicants by women and children was treated as particularly shocking, and a practice that could powerfully galvanize multiple constituencies in favor of drug control.

Consequently, in this paper I’d like to focus in on this particular problem of mothers administering opium to their infants. I believe that the emergence of this practice as a “problem” around the turn of the 20th century reveals a great deal about how questions of gender and class differentiation are central to the larger shift towards drug control in this moment. In Mughal India this practice was unexceptional because the whole society – both “high and low”– engaged in it. However by the late 19th century in Britain, this form of child care had become limited to the working classes.

While laudanum was widely consumed in 19th century British society, its use for children was marked as problematic in the second half of the century. In an infamous cartoon in Punch, opium was given the satirical designation of “The Poor Child’s Nurse.”[5] The problem of infant consumption of opium emerges with new bourgeois conceptions of the gendered work of child-rearing. Middle class women could spend their days at home taking care of children and often could also rely on a lower-class nurse for this labor. Proletarian women had neither the luxury nor the oppression of the bourgeois housewife. She had to work just as hard for lower wages than her husband and additionally bore the brunt (if not all) the demands of child care. In this unforgiving context, opium pills or bottles of laudanum were an indispensable part of the household economy. Working class mothers were doubly exploited at home and at work, and then on top of this were condemned for not living up to the bourgeois ideal of the nurturing mother.[6] I don’t wish here to advocate the administration of opium to crying babies so much as acknowledge that this practice of proletarian mothers was the only available solution to a crisis of care giving.

However, this crisis and the social condemnations that it elicited translated poorly from the mill districts of Manchester to those of Bombay. British officials and reformers viewed the problem in India through a variation on the lens that they had developed in Britain. That this practice continued in India into the 20th century was a scandal, but it was framed as the persistence of ignorance and the pernicious traditions of the countryside into the heart of industrial modernity.

The practice noted by Abu’l Fazl did indeed persist into the 20th century in India and it appears that the idea had spread far beyond the province of Malwa. At least in Western India and many additional regions, the use of these opium pills was widespread in both rural and urban areas. However, colonial attention to this problem was focused squarely on urban industrial regions specifically the mill districts of major cities. Female mill workers lived in the chawls or tenement-style housing near textile factories, separated from the extended families that were often a source of child-care in peasant villages. They had to work, whether or not they had husbands, and only the luckiest were able to leave their children with a neighbor or older child.[7] So they purchased balagolis small pills of opium mixed with sugar and spices, which stopped the children from crying and alleviated their hunger pangs until their mother could return from her shift at the mill.[8] Women would purchase these pills at local grocery shops, they were cheap, easy to access, and effective.

However concerns arose during the investigations of the Royal Opium Commission in the early 1890s that these pills were being used as a front for illicit opium sales to addicts, that they were produced with cannabis (which officials believed to be more harmful than opium, and even that they were prepared with harmful spices. The dangers of opium consumption itself were at best secondary. The sale of these pills was brought under license, and their production was regulated to maintain the purity of the product and the quantity of opium in the pills. But even this was a contentious policy in which officials feared that the increase in price and the unfamiliarity of the licensed pharmacies would lead these ostensibly “ignorant” women to seek out illicit supplies.[9] One official even admitted that the practice was little different from the popular Mrs. Winslow’s syrup which was used in Britain for crying children.[10] Despite widespread global opposition to opium consumption, this extremely contentious practice could not be easily abolished.

The hesitancy with which these officials approached the question of regulating these pills can be explained largely by the resistance these regulations provoked among elites in Indian society. Numerous community leaders, aristocrats, and wealthy merchants resisted the idea that it was primarily working class women who employed these balagolis. A group of Khojas (a wealthy Muslim merchant group) wrote a petition to the Government of Bombay insisting that “intelligent and well-to-do communities” used balagolis to prevent fevers, to aid in digestion and for its general “tonic properties.”[11] Even practitioners of western medicine supported the use of opium for children. The President of Grant Medical Socity, Dr. R.N. Khory insisted that “Balagolis keep children lively and playful during their parents’ absence, and checking infantile diseases, diarrhea, colic, tympanitis, vomiting, restlessness.”[12] Mr. Maneckji Cama, Joint Honorary Secretary of Grant College Medical Society joined in noting that “balagolis are a real boon to infants.”[13] Thus much to the surprise of middle class British officials they found even wealthy and westernized Indians to be defenders of balagolis as an aid to child-rearing.

These petitions and protests did not stop the introduction of regulations on opium sales, however the implementation of this legislation was relatively loosely enforced. The result was a largely unchanged pattern of consumption that would stretch out for at least a half century, and probably longer. In 1921 the Government of Bombay appointed a “Lady doctor” to survey the living conditions and health of the working class in the mill districts of Bombay. Her report included the shocking statistic that “98 per cent of children born in the industrial area are drugged with opium.”[14]

The story was noteworthy enough to get reported and reprinted not just in the British press but in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and the Times Picayune of New Orleans.[15] This government report was actually several years old when suddenly in 1925 the story sprouted like mushrooms after a rainstorm in newspapers across the globe. This global attention was due in large part to the international conference for the regulation and suppression of the opium trade and opium consumption occurring in Geneva. The United States, in the midst of Prohibition, saw itself at the vanguard of a global temperance movement and its strongest antagonist at the conference was the British Empire whose interests in condoning the production and consumption of both opium and cannabis in India. US journalists with gleeful schadenfreude reported the squalor of the Bombay mill districts, the opium “sold like candy” to children, and the emaciated, intoxicated children. The United States stood at the vanguard of the international effort to rid the world of these noxious substances, while Britain was the laggard, presiding over ostensibly drugged and degenerate colonial populations.

As late as 1938 we see documented the continued use of balagolis and reluctance on the part of colonial officials to restrict its use. Officials demur on a proposal to abolish the sale of balagolis in Bombay because it would only result in parents making them from crude opium.[16] This might lead to overdoses as the amount of opium could not be so precisely calibrated for children. The other solution that we see encouraged and advocated again and again across this half century is the provision of creches (day care centers) in the mills. Official and non-official, British and Indian commentators are nearly unanimous that this is an excellent idea. However the problem of who will incur the cost is never resolved.[17] And so while a few mill-owners take pity on their laborers, the demand for human child-care is left largely unfulfilled.

Colonial efforts to crack down on balagolis were intimately tied to their association with working class women. The necessity of these mothers to earn for their children directly conflicted with their responsibilities for child-care. Opium was a widespread if imperfect solution to this problem. However this vilification of opium use translated poorly to the Indian context where for much of the 20th century there was no class division in the use of balagolis. This society-wide consumption had remained constant from as early as the Mughal era, and this cross-class consumerism obstructed colonial efforts to stop the practice.

A brief epilogue:

In the 1980s when I was a child in Bombay, upper middle class families like mine, no longer approved of the use of balagolis. It had finally become a practice that was divided along class lines. My mother heard whispered rumors that working class women would feed their children opium in this way and even feared that some ayahs (servants/nannies) surreptitiously fed balagolis to middle-class children to keep them quiet. It makes me wonder about my mother’s amazement that I was a preternaturally calm and quiet child despite various infantile ailments. Perhaps Gitabai, my ayah, knew something my mother did not?

[1] Abū al-Faz̤l ibn Mubārak, The Ain i Akbari, trans. H. Blochmann (Calcutta: Printed by G. M. Rouse, 1873), vol. 2, p. 196. See also footnote on vol. 1, p. 384.

[2] Abū al-Faz̤l ibn Mubārak, vol. 2, pp. 147, 252.

[3] See discussion of consuming alcohol in Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2015); Franz Rosenthal, The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society (Leiden: Brill, 1971).

[4] For the Asian origins of the drug control movement see Steffen Rimner, “Chinese abolitionism: the Chinese Educational Mission in Connecticut, Cuba and Peru”. Journal of Global History, 11, 3 (Nov. 2016)

[5] See figure below… this was reprinted in the US in Harpers Weekly

[6] See Susan Marjorie Zieger, Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008).

[7] See Priyanka Srivastava book?

[8] IOR: L/E/7/1348 No. 2564, Bombay Labour Gazette, February 1925

[9] MSA: R1893-208/696 Memo, Mackenzie, Ag. Comm Customs, Bombay, 14/03/1893; Memo, JM Campbell, Cltr Land Rev, Customs and Opium Bombay Customs House, 14/03/1893; Surgeon General to Chief Secy GoB, 27/04/1893; Memo from Camp mahableshwar, 6/5/1893

[10] MSA: R1893-208/696 Opthalmic Surgeon to Secy to Surgeon Genl, 25/05/1893

[11] MSA: R1893-208/696 Translation of Gujarati Petition from Khoja community (undated)

[12] MSA: R/1894 – 195/320 Evidence of Dr. RN Khory, President Grant medical Society before Royal Opium Commission 8/9/1893

[13] MSA: R/1894 – 195/320 Mr. Maneckji Cama, Joint Honorary Secy. Grant College Medical society responses to questions from house of commons, 30/6/1893

[14] IOR: L/E/7/1348 No. 2564, Bombay Labour Gazette, February 1925

[15] John Palmer Gavit, Letter to the Editor on February 26, 1925, published in The New York Times, 22 March 1925, and Extract from the Time Picayune in IOR: L/E/7/1348 No. 2564; Christian Science Monitor January 23, 1925

[16] R1933 – Box 7, 375/33-III Dangerous Drugs Act of 1930: HF Knight, Commissioner of Excise, Bombay to SEcy GoB Rev, 10/06/1938

[17] IOR: L/E/7/1348 No 2564 Bombay Labour Gazette, Feb 1925; Wilson, Govr of Bombay to Eddie? 15/4/1925; R1933 – Box 7, 375/33-III Dangerous Drugs Act of 1930: HF Knight, Commissioner of Excise, Bombay to SEcy GoB Rev, 10/06/1938

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

How does power operate in the world? Particularly in arenas we tend to conceive as economic.

Provisional sketch of essay:

I’m interested in doing something in the form of a dialogue/conversation or a bricolage of vignettes on a theme. Perhaps on specific markets and the concept of “the market”? Alternatively, I’m working on a new project on drugs and would love to see how notions of pain and pain-relief are understood and experienced across space and time. There many more variations this could take (Capitalism, money, intoxication etc.). But what I think I would find most interesting is a combination of archival/ethnographic/literary vignettes from different places/times which might be stitched together to illuminate a particular concept. The hope would be that through collective conversations we might toggle between the conceptual/theoretical and the concrete/empirical to come up with some kind of interesting conclusion or perhaps just pose an unexpected question.

For example, I’m working on a history of opium and hashish consumption and I’m most interested in these substances as everyday utilitarian commodities.  In fact, if utilitarianism and classical economics seek methods of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, these narcotics are particularly interesting in that they are a direct source of reducing pain and providing pleasure. They are the perfect commodity… or maybe too perfect. My initial sense is that the market for commoditized pleasure pulls in two directions. One is a pulling out of a market society/economy in terms of garden cultivation of cannabis and the withdrawal of consumers from “productive” labor. The other is an intensification of labor by means of most efficiently (quickly, cheaply, conveniently) mitigating pain and providing pleasure as an individually consumed good rather than a socially produced experience. I’m not quite sure yet what to make of this but I can feel that it is leading me somewhere that is revealing about the market as a peculiar way of organizing society.