The important role of psychoactive stimulants from overseas expansion and the development of modern European society

by Owen Adams

Between 1500 and 1800 a sizeable proportion of Europe’s population shifted from a life of local subsistence to become urban consumers of merchandise shipped in from thousands of miles away. This emergence of a larger commercial class spurred new social scenes conducive to private trading, as the apparatus was created for modern global capitalism – capital cities, joint-stock companies and centralised stock exchanges. Although many exotic items enriched and stimulated European culture during the Age of Exploration, I will focus on the introduction of tobacco and coffee with other psychoactive stimulants and examine primary evidence, analysing how they were crucial to Europe’s progressive modernity.


Psychoactive or psychotropic substances, a late-20th-century definition of drugs which alter brain function and the central nervous system, behaviour or consciousness, are broadly classified as stimulants, hallucinogens, sedatives and aphrodisiacs.1 Psychoactive spices from Asia (and sugar produced from slave colonies) were promoted by early modern “physicks” as well as explorers and early colonists. My Appendix (see below) compares early modern and present-day claims for therapeutic properties of spices. As well as culinary use and incense, they were mixed with colonial sugar to make cordial syrups.


In 1588, Walter Baley claimed his pepper trials cured “diseases of the bladder, of the heade, and of the iointes”, restored memory and the voice, “putteth backe grey heares, remedieth the goute… and in generall whosoeuer aged doth vse much this medicine, he shall not need any other helpe to preserue his health”.2 It was believed pepper had maximum therapeutic use when beaten into a fine powder.3 The expression “to take pepper up the nose” was frequently used in early modern England, an allegory for taking offence or “seeing red”.4 It appears pepper was sometimes snorted as an aphrodisiac. William Painter in 1567 refers to a noblewoman taking “pepper in snuffe”, apparently causing her to fall in love with a “lusty” poor man.5


Getting direct access to spices in the name of Christendom was the primary motivation for Portuguese exploration, Vasco de Gama confirmed to Tunisian traders he met in India in 1498.6 Perhaps the most significant new discovery by Columbus in terms of long-term impact was tobacco. The French explorer Jacques Cartier was the first to record his own experience of smoking in the vicinity of Montreal, Canada in 1535: “When it is in one’s mouth, one would think one had taken powdered pepper, it is so hot.” Like pepper, enduring tobacco’s fiery heat was key to curing sickness and maintaining good health. Cartier noted: “They say it keeps them warm and in good health, and never go without these things.”7


In England, the tobacco-“drinking” craze took hold from 1590, promoted by Sir Walter Raleigh, with Edmund Spenser lauding “divine tobacco” in his pivotal Elizabethan celebratory poem, The Faerie Queene.8 Tobacco joined sugar in forging the British Empire and Protestant Dutch Republic. A movement to grow tobacco in England was quashed by the Crown in the 1620s, by which time pipes had been redesigned with bigger bowls, to accommodate more of the Virginian “brown gold”, which largely replaced money in the colony.9


The woodcut image on the front of Anthony Chute’s pamphlet Tabacco (1595)

Early promoters of tobacco such as Anthony Chute saw tobacco as a marvellous panacea, a purgative of phlegm, pick-me-up and appetite-surpressant which could also lead people on a righteous path of less gluttony and drunkenness,“taking away all wearinesse of body, and makes them as prompt and apt to businesse”.1

But one powerful enemy of tobacco was King James I, whose A Counterblaste to Tobacco pamphlet of 1604 was prompted by the tobacco monopoly then enjoyed by Spain, Britain’s enemy. But his polemic about the “filthy novelty” indicates how ubiquitous pipe-smoking had become. “Is it not a great vanitie, that a man cannot heartily welcome his friend now, but straight they must bee in hand with Tobacco?… He that will refuse to take a pipe of Tobacco among his fellowes… is accounted peeuish and no good company…” The king also warned of addiction: “In the ende, a drunkard will haue as great a thirst to bee drunke, as a sober man to quench his thirst with a draught when hee hath need of it: So is not this the very case of all the great takers of Tobacco? which therefore they themselues do attribute to a bewitching qualitie in it.”2

Not everyone was bewitched. Thomas Dekker’s 1604 play The Honest Whore has his punk heroine refusing tobacco: “Fah, not I, makes your breathe stinke, like the pisse of a Fox.”3

Shakespeare’s contemporaries experimented with other psychoactive substances: recent forensic analysis of 17th-century pipes from Stratford-upon-Avon and Abingdon showed they were used to smoke not only tobacco, but also cannabis, nutmeg and three Andes exports: cocaine, vanilla and quinine.4

But while some found smoking anti-social, the widespread communal use of tobacco was socially levelling and conducive to making private business deals, coming into vogue with the formation of joint-stock companies, the Muscovy Company (encouraged by Ivan the Terrible) and soon after, the Dutch and British East Indies Companies.5 Capitalism had developed into a new form with many more players.6 The greater number of investors involved less risk.7 The cumulative trade increase spurred large urban population congregations in new-founded capital cities (by 1700 one in six of England’s population had flocked to London, where a quarter of the population may have been employed in port and shipping).8 Distinctions between aristocrats and wealthy merchants diminished and entrance to the nobility could be bought for the first time.9 Goods were increasingly not brought and sold at town markets, but private deals were instead made in taverns and inns between producers and merchants. Capital cities and other ports mushroomed, market stalls were supplanted by mercers, drapers, haberdashers and grocers stocking imported textiles, medicines, sugar and tobacco.10

When coffee-houses started proliferating from the 1650s across Europe, they provided a more social and stimulant-fired public sphere than the intoxicating atmosphere of inns and taverns. The drinking of coffee, derived from an Arabic word for wine, spread from Mocha in Yemen, to the rest of the Islamic world. Coffee-houses in Constantinople, and Turkish coffee pots, spread west during the mid-17th century with Venetians and Dutch traders. Pasqua Roseé opened London’s first coffee-house in 1652, asserting the beverage as a cure for indigestion, coughs, headaches, consumption, dropsy, scurvy and stones, and “it will prevent drowsiness and make one fit for business”.11 The proliferation of coffee-houses, endorsed by many sober Puritans, became known as “penny universities” as they enjoined “common labourers” with the enlightened wits and fops, with anyone with a penny to spend on a coffee to stimulate their mental faculties with diverse journeymen and peruse current affairs.12 Coffee-houses in the City of London included auction platforms and the first stock exchanges, as the Royal Exchange, established under Henry VIII, had banned stock-jobbers, regarding them as disreputable.13 Coffee-houses sold coffee with sugar and spices as optional extras, and after the Restoration added tea from China and chocolate from South America to their menus.


The Age of Exploration can be summarised by the motto beneath the portrait of Spanish captain Bernardo Vargas Machuca from 1599 (above): “by the compass and the sword, more and more and more and more.” The constant escalation of trading and public involvement beyond old-style noble-family-based capitalism to a globalised shareholders’ capitalism, accompanied by the use and abuse of drugs could not have happened without the plunder and exploitation of land, resources and people. The Renaissance rediscovery of Aristotle and his theories of natural inferiority Classically justified slavery of “barbarians”.1 And yet the French Renaissance philosopher Michel Montaigne lamented “infinite millions of harmlesse people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world, topsiturvied, ruined and defaced for the traffick of Pearles and Pepper.”2 In c. 1612, Garcculaso de la Vega wrote that “this flood of riches has done more harm than good, since wealth commonly produces vice rather than virtue, inclining its possessors to pride, ambition, gluttony and voluptuousness”.3 Modern parallels can surely be drawn with the Black Friday sales stampedes or hedonistic clubbers of today. Zero-hour contracts and tens of thousands of slaves in Britain, plus reports of exploitative labour driving workers to suicide or abject poverty in South East Asia or Central America as well as drug bête noires – for example, Spice abuse – still frequently make the news, but mass consumption of legal and illegal medicines and merchandise continues to escalate, pressure from the brain’s pleasure centre and persuasive media generally overriding any ethical consideration.4

The ultimate legacy of overseas expansion in early modern Europe is it persuaded more consumers to become users and abusers on the backs of used and abused producers, and psychologically turned luxuries into necessities.


Properties of psychoactive ingredients recognised in early modern Europe and present-day


1599/ 1600



mitigareth and openeth obstructions… purgeth fleagme [phlegm], helpeth the reines [common cold], and comforteth the belly”

** Can trigger rapid changes in respiration, heartbeat and skin colour. Induces same responses as nicotine, cocaine, heroin and alcohol in the brain’s “reward centre”, stimulates release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Can lead to obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance, hypertension, possibly dementia and Alzheimer’s.


corroborateth all the powers of the body, restoreth them that bee decayed, purgeth the head, and succoureth [soothes] the cough”

Taken for colds, flu, digestive problems, pick-me-up, relaxes nervous system, stimulates appetite. Antibacterial, anti-diarrhoeal, anti-flatulence, anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea, antirhuematic, germicide, laxative. Negative/ overdose risk: cracked lips, facial flushing, gingivitis, shortness of breath, increased respiration & perspiration. Allergic reactions: skin irritation, second-degree burn, unusual excitement followed by drowsiness. Contains saffrole, a controlled substance as a precursor in MDA (narcotic).


taken moderatly, when the stomack aboundeth with fleagme in cold weather, and with moist meates, doe strengthen the body, stay vomits & fluxes, & correct a stinking breath”

# Most stimulating of all aromatics, used to treat nausea emesis, flatulence, indigestion and dyspepsia. Strong germicide, powerful antiseptic, feeble local anaesthetic applied to decayed teeth, and a stimulating expectorant treatment for bronchial problems.


vsed in cold weather and with moyst meates, breaketh winde, heateth the sinewes, and strengtheneth the stomack”

Stimulates appetite, central nervous system depressant and stimulant, anti-bacterial, anti-diarrhoeal, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, gastric stimulant. Overuse can lead to accelerated pulse, carcinogenic, digestive inflammation. Inhalation [snorting] can lead to respiratory irritation or arrest, severe anoxia & death. Contains saffrole (controlled substance).


sharpneth the sight, and prouoketh slothfull husbands”

Scientifically, almost all folk beliefs have been verified.” Prevents motion sickness, thins blood, elevate low blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol, circulatory stimulant, reduces stress, stimulates respiratory centres, antibacterial, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, antineuralgic, antioxidant, antiseptic. Negative/ overdose risk: Heartburn, stomach upset, sweat-inducing.


vsed in cold seasons comforteth the heart, and driueth away drunkennesse”

Oil contains saffrole, a poison used to make the narcotic MDA. Lowers blood pressure. Pick-me-up, reduces stress, stimulates appetite, abortifacent, anodyne, antispasmodic, diuretic. Negative/ overdose risk: damages kidneys, large dose can induce abortion, nervous laughter, sweat-inducing, anxiety, drowsiness, headache, yellowing of skin, eyes and mucous membranes, vomiting, dizziness, bloody diarrhoea, bleeding from the nose, lips and eyelids, numbness and other serious side-effects: 5g is toxic, 10g is abortive, 20g is lethal.


* “Mendeth a strong breath: taketh away pimpels: comforteth the sight: stomacke: spleane, and belly: prouokes vrine… hurteth such as haue the Haemorhoids, are costiue, or melancholicke…Vse it sildome, moderately, and with a litle Ginger.”

Contains two psychoactive drugs: myristicin and elemicin, precursors to synthetic mescaline and MDMA. Enhances libido, euphoria, pick-me-up, reduces stress, relaxes nervous system, visual distortions, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antihangover, digestive stimulant, diuretic. Negative/ overdose risk: after-effects last 3 days, constipation, convulsions, death, dizziness, double vision, epileptic seizures, feelings of depersonalisation, remoteness, hallucinations, headaches, hypotension, light-headed, nausea, panic attacks, poisonous, severe vomiting, shock, stomach pain. Eating two or more nutmegs can cause death.


[Beer] nourisheth the body, causeth a good colour, and quickly passeth out of the body. In summer it auayleth a man much, and is no lesse wholesome to our constitutions then wine. Besides the nutritiue faculty, which it hath by the malt, it receiueth likewise a certaine propertie of medicine by the hop.”

A nervine and tonic that has a calming effect on the entire body. Appetite-stimulating, mild marijuana-like high (female hop contains substance related to cannabis psychoactive drug THC), mild sedation of central nervous system, reduces stress, tension and anxiety, sleep aid, anodyne, antibacterial, anticancer, antiseptic, antiviral, diuretic. Negative/ overdose risk: dizziness, drowsiness, mental stupor, mild jaundice, seizure, hyperthermia, restlessness, vomiting, stomach pain, stomach acid.


well dryed, and taken in a siluer pipe, fasting in the morning, cureth the megrim [migraine], the tooth ache, obstructions proceeding of cold [congestion], and helpeth the fits of the mother [?]. After meales it doth much hurt, for it infecteth the brain and the liuer”

# The alkaloid Nicotine when smoked dissolves into pyridine, collidine, hydrocyanic acid, carbon monoxide etc, causing poisonous effects from tobacco smoke. Local irritant, causes violent sneezing when taken as snuff, plus secretion of mucus, can produce nausea, vomiting, sweats and great muscular weakness. Disturbs digestive and circulatory organs, innervates the heart, causing palpitation and cardiac irregularities, vascular contraction. Once used as a relaxant now only rarely used to treat chronic asthma. Smoke acts on the brain, can cause drowsiness. Medicinally used as a sedative, diuretic, antispasmodic, to treat ulcers, painful tremors, piles, external antiseptic, assists actions of the bowels.

Sources: William Vaughan,
Naturall and Artificial Directions for Health (1600) and * Henry Butts, Dyets Dry Dinner (1599) / Sinead O’Mahony Carey, (Health Service Executive South (Ireland), 2014) Psychoactive Substances Manual (Edition 1.1), # Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal and ** Gary Taubes, Is Sugar the World’s Most Popular Drug? (London: The Guardian, 5 Jan 2017)

1 J. H. Elliott, The Old World and the New 1492-1650 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 47.

2 Ibid., p. 103.

3 Ibid., p. 64.

4 Jamie Grierson, Tens of Thousands of Modern Slavery Victims in the UK, NCA Says (London: The Guardian, 10/8/2017

1Anthony Chute, Tabacco (London: William Barlow, 1595)

2King James I, A Counterblaste To Tobacco (London: R. Barker, 1604)

3Thomas Dekker, The Honest Whore (London: Valentine Simms, 1604)

4Francis Thackeray, Shakespeare, plants, and chemical analysis of early 17th century clay ‘tobacco’ pipes from Europe (Johannesburg [South Africa], South African Journal of Science, 2015, No. 111) pp. 7-8.

5 David Nicholas, The Transformation of Europe 1300-1600 (London: Arnold, 1999), p. 309.

6 Ibid., pp. 217-9.

7 Ibid., p. 428.

8 G. C. A. Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500-1700, Vol 1: People, Land and Towns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 202; on servants, Vol 2, p. 35.

9 Nicholas, The Transformation of Europe 1300-1600 (1999), p. 340.

10 Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500-1700, Vol 1(1984), pp. 176-177.

11 John Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 70.

12 Aytoun Ellis, The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (London: Secker & Warburg, 1956), p. 44.

13Ibid, pp. 108-110.





1 Sinead O’Mahony Carey, Psychoactive Substances Manual (Edition 1.1) (Health Service Executive South (Ireland), 2014), p. 3. Accessed 5/12/17:

2 Baley, A Short Discourse of the three kindes of peppers in common vse (1588).

3 Walter Baley, A Short Discourse of the three kindes of peppers in common vse (London: Eliot’s Court Press, 1588).

4 John Heywood, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue (London: Thomas Berthlet, 1546), for example, or Petrus Frarinus, An oration against the vnlawfull insurrections of the protestantes of our time, vnder pretence to refourme religion (Antwerp: Ioannis Fouleri, 1566)

5 William Painter, ‘Dom Diego and Gineura’ in The second tome of the Palace of Pleasure (London: Henry Bynneman, 1567), p. 339.

6 C. R. Boxer, “Christians and Spices”: Portuguese Missionaries in Ceylon, 1515-1658 (London: History Today, Vol 8, Issue 5, May 1958

7 John Bakeless: America As Seen By Its First Explorers: The Eyes of Discovery (London: Dover Publications Inc., 1990), p. 114.

8 Jeffrey Knapp, ‘Elizabethan Tobacco’ in Stephen Greenblatt (ed.), New World Encounters (London: University of California Press, 1993) p. 273.

9 Knapp, ‘Elizabethan Tobacco’ (1993) p. 298 (on banning of homegrown tobacco); Heather Cole, The Age and Archaeology of Clay Pipes ( – on pipes)