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Governing the Bottle: Alcohol, Race and Class in Nineteenth-Century India

Wald, Erica. 2018. Governing the Bottle: Alcohol, Race and Class in Nineteenth-Century India. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 46(3), pp. 397-417. ISSN 0308-6534 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Following a series of aggressive military campaigns across India, by the early nineteenth century, the East India Company had secured a more definitive political space for itself in India. However, in taking over the administration of the diwani, or administration and revenue collection duties in Bengal, the Company gained responsibility for the taxes that governed the production and sale of alcohol and drugs—the abkari system. The abkari duties represented an opportunity and challenge for the colonial state. What followed changed the social landscape of India as the Company developed a series of regulations to govern alcohol in both military and civil space. These laws quickly moved beyond earlier Mughal dictates on alcohol, revealing the state’s intent to mould society through taxation.

This article frames these colonial taxes on alcohol as a tool of governmentality. It argues that the state utilised the abkari department not simply as a means of generating revenue, but as a means of managing social relations and economic life in nineteenth-century India. It explores the path that the colonial state sought to forge between arguing for the ‘moral uplift’ of drinking populations and securing reliable revenue for Company (and later Crown) coffers. The laws themselves were often race- (and class-) specific, suggesting, for example, the pre-disposition of certain peoples to particular drinks. Moreover, the drinks themselves, whether toddy or ‘European’-style distilled spirits, were assigned a racial identity. While European observers viewed toddy as ‘natural’ and even beneficial when drunk by poor Indian labourers, in the throats of European soldiers it was labelled ‘dangerous’ or even lethal. Conversely, later Indian campaigners warned that ‘alien’ distilled spirits, such as whisky or rum, were completely foreign to India and that their introduction suggested a darker, less benevolent, side to India’s colonial rule. As such, these colonial controls on alcohol, and the debates that swirled around them, illuminate the ways in which the colonial state both understood and attempted to shape its subjects and servants.

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Alcohol, India, consumption, excise, abkari, military law, race, class

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9 March 2018Accepted
25 March 2018Published

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Date Deposited:

10 Apr 2018 11:57

Last Modified:

01 Sep 2019 01:26

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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