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In a somewhat misleadingly named “museum” (it is more accurately the lifelong collection of a wealthy jeweller) in the Sri Lankan coastal city of Galle, there exists a fascinating find. Among the coins, guns, daggers and stoneware, survives a metal case embossed with the letters V.O.C (See main picture). These were the initials of the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century Dutch colonial trading organisation, the Dutch East Indian Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie).

This container was crafted for containing something not of Dutch, or even European origin, but for something that was indigenous to the island of Ceylon at the time: betel. Betel was a naturally-growing plant, the leaf of which was chewed by the locals in religious, ceremonial, and day-to-day rituals.

betel1

However, and in contrast to other foreign commodities that European powers made popular by transporting around the world (namely tobacco, coffee, and tea), betel did not achieve global popularity. Why not?

Betel is a psychoactive plant that has been used by the inhabitants of Sri Lanka for at least 2,000 years and it continues to be widely consumed across many parts of Asia today. When chewed, the leaves act as a mild stimulant. The nut of another plant (areca) is imbibed in tandem with the betel, often also in conjunction with tobacco and slaked lime (calcium hyrdoxide). This forms a “quid” or parcel of the four ingredients.[1]  In Sri Lanka, one can typically purchase one of these from street-side vendors for the equivalent of about 20p.

Scientific research has shown that chewing betel, as with chewing tobacco and with smoking, is carcinogenic and can contribute to a multitude of diseases.[2] However, for obvious reasons this was not known by seventeenth-century Europeans. So this cannot explain why the plant failed to achieve widespread assimilation in the West. Indeed, indigenous groups  throughout eastern Asia praised its supposed medicinal virtues – similar to the relationship that Native Americans sustained with tobacco.

A more convincing answer for the lack of worldwide assimilation of betel could be that betel lacks the same addictive qualities as tobacco.

On the other hand, “addiction” can be a hugely problematic term for historians. The daily habit of chewing betel could be enough to incur an addiction of sorts; both from the high that the plant induced, and from the social functions that betel served between fellow consumers. Moreover, historians of tobacco have sought to move beyond any so-called “biological determinism” argument to explain tobacco’s spread.[3] This is because by focusing solely on the intrinsic properties of substances, the idiosyncrasies of different cultures throughout time and space are not taken into account.

Another possible explanation, and one that fits much of the historiography of the period[4], relates to the form and structure of betel chewing. Masticating the leaf and nut produces much saliva. Consumers are forced to spit regularly. Chewing also produces a characteristic red stain in the teeth and gums of its practitioners. To many (modern) Europeans eyes, the habit of betel-chewing is messy at best, and at worst, unsavoury.

betel
Betel as it is consumed today, showing the leaf, tobacco, slaked lime and areca nut.

 

Early modern Europeans conceivably viewed the habit in a similar way. In a world of emerging sensibilities of taste and politeness, chewing a bitter, saliva-inducing nut was not compatible with social rules of decorum. However, a discreet and relatively mess-free sniff of powdered tobacco, or a sip of sugar-laced tea, could be well attuned to these social conventions.

However, this intricately designed Dutch betel box shows that the chewing of betel was adopted by at least some Europeans. Different rules of politeness existed in different places of the world, as they so continue to do today. The expatriate Dutch on the island of Ceylon acted as intermediaries between their own domestic culture, and those of whom they were trading with. For some individuals in the VOC, they had picked up enough of the habit of betel chewing to commission the manufacturing of devices designed to promote, and in part celebrate, both their trading company and the practice itself.

Stop press! in the week that this blog post was going up online, the BBC published an article describing a new initiative in Taiwan designed to clamp down on betel chewing. In the twenty-first century, any discussion on the consumption of betel will inevitably take its lead from modern medical science.

[1] Contemporaries referred to the habit as “betel-nut” chewing, although this is technically inaccurate as only the nut from the areca plant was (and is) consumed. See Dawn F. Rooney, Betel chewing traditions in South-East Asia (1993).

[2] For example, see http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2003/priarc/en/.

[3] See Marcy Norton’s Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (2010) for an excellent discussion of this.

[4] For example, Jordan Goodman, “Excitantia: Or, how enlightenment Europe took to soft drugs” in Goodman et al., Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology (2nd edition, 2007).

 

Further Reading:

Goodman, Jordan, “Excitantia: Or, how enlightenment Europe took to soft drugs” in Goodman et al., Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology (2nd edition, 2007).

Norton, Marcy, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (2010)

Rooney, Dawn F., Betel chewing traditions in South-East Asia (1993)

Alex Taylor is a first year PhD student at the University of Sheffield whose research explores the social implications of the introduction of tobacco in seventeenth-century England.

Tags : addictionbeteldrugsdutch east india companyearly modern historyhistory of intoxicantshistory of medicinetobaccotrade
Alex Taylor

The author Alex Taylor

2 Comments

  1. James Yeoman pointed me in the direction of this after reading our blog post on Yangon in Myanmar. A great read, thanks for informing us a tad more.

    From two more Europeans that can’t profess to be betel nuts.

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