Is alcohol a tropical medicine? Scientific understandings of climate, stimulants and bodies in Victorian and Edwardian tropical travel

Edward Armston-Sheret, Kim Walker

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This paper offers a new perspective on historical understandings of the relationship between alcohol, climate and the body, by studying the way that British explorers of tropical Africa drank alcohol and wrote about drink between c.1850 and c.1910. We demonstrate that alcohol was simultaneously classified as a medicinal, a preventative and a pleasurable drink, shaped by competing medical theories, but that distinctions between these different roles were highly blurred. We also show how many explorers thought certain drinks helped to protect white bodies from the effects of tropical diseases. While popular amongst travellers, these views came under growing scrutiny in the latter part of the nineteenth century, reflecting both changing scientific views about the relationship between alcohol, climate and the body and the development of a much larger European presence in tropical Africa. However, even those who opposed tropical drinking often supported the use of other stimulants and viewed the tropics as uniquely dangerous. As such, the paper challenges the idea that the late nineteenth century marked a paradigm shift in scientific attitudes towards tropical environments, as much previous scholarship has suggested. At the same time, our examinations of explorers’ descriptions of drinking by African people demonstrates how ideas about racial difference played an important role within medical understandings of alcohol. Overall, this paper examines the heterogeny of attitudes to alcohol to be found within tropical medicine and documents the continuities in approach shown between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Science
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Sept 2021

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