Alcohol and Drugs History Society Conference 2017

June 22-25 saw the ADHS conference being held in Utrecht, the Netherlands, an absolutely gorgeous town. It is small, criss-crossed with canals and dappled all green in summer. The people are friendly, the beer is cheap and there are dozens of delightful bakeries dotted about to light up the mornings with coffee and appleflaps. I really enjoyed the week I stayed there.

The conference was well-organised by the Utrecht team and very impressive on the whole. Before discussing some of the papers and the events of the conference, here are a bunch of photos of lovely Utrecht and a few of the presentations and talks.

There were a number of keynotes and an emotional roundtable discussion in addition to the standard program. In a fresh approach for a conference, there was also an organised tour of the oldest coffeeshop (read: marijuana shop) in Utrecht, dating back to 1981. This was truly a unique experience. You can imagine how it went. It’s one thing to get drunk with your colleagues, as so often happens at conferences, but this was next-level stuff…

It was a pleasure being able to see Charles Ambler present, having cited a lot of his literature on the regulation of alcohol in the British colonies of Africa. His paper was a bit more ambitious than I was expecting, trying to draw a connection between “decolonisation” and the evolution of international drug regulation. He was also one of the few presenters to mention Burma, surprisingly, in the context of indirect rule in the Shan States and the weakness of the central government.

One of the best panels was on intoxicants in the early modern period of European history. Jenni Lares gave a tight, contained historical analysis of female alcohol sellers in 17th-century Finland, trying to exercise a comparative approach with Bennett’s work on brewsters in England. This was followed by Richard Yntema‘s detailed investigation into the political economy of alcohol in the Netherlands in the same time period, using a lot of quantitative data. Then Alex Taylor focused on tobacco smuggling into England, which was very good fun.

Victoria Afanasyeva went deep into women’s history in the French temperance movement, something which has been little investigated – surprising given the attention it has been given in the US and UK. It was pleasing to be able to sit in on some opium papers, a subject of endless fascination for its contemporary “problem” associations. I particularly enjoyed Thembisa Waetjen and Jamie Banks discussing South Africa and indentured labour in this context.

There were many more great papers which I won’t go into for brevity’s sake. My own paper went down fine. A couple of the panels were a little squished for time – some were 90 minutes for two presentations, others had to fit in four papers in the same time period, leaving little for discussion.

One thing I noticed was a distinct lack of engagement with local-language sources by the colonial historians. This is quite standard in the discipline, but seems very limiting when you come from an anthropological background and consider that it is, indeed, 2017.

There was also a strong European focus, with the US and colonial history bringing up the rear. Little attention was given to Asia and Africa and almost nothing before the early modern period, when drugs history apparently “starts”.

The society is mulling over the location for the next conference and I hope to be able to get there. Shanghai is being considered, which would be simply sensational.