Irina Ridzuan

The dark side of medicine

Dutch cocaine and opium trade

A revised narrative in Dutch history?

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Nederlandsche Cocainefabriek - Part of the 1902 plan for NFC's renovation. Designed by H. H. Baanders. Image taken from Amsterdam Archive . Item no.:  5221BT906183

The infamous Coca leaf is at the crux many modern-day debates surrounding drug policies. But the plant itself doesn’t appear to be as daunting in form. Its natural smell has been likened to that of tea, a familiar earthy scent. To some, the leaf is tied to an indigenous cultural practice; to others, it is synonymous with something far more sinister. For the Netherlands, it is a historical gateway into a past narrative that is often re-written.

In 1900, a historic building was constructed in Amsterdam: the Netherlands Cocaine Factory (Nederlandse Cocaïnefabriek, or NFC). The building stood tall and almost proud, to manufacture a substance most known as the flavouring for Coca Cola, and a type of prescribed medicine. But this factory was not built in a vacuum economy.

Back track to 1875, the Dutch brought two coca plants from Brazil to be cultivated in Java, through the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg. The Garden at the time was ambitious in transforming their status as a typical colonial garden through “deploy[ing] chemistry to improve and exploit agricultural crops” (Hoogte, 2013). This ambition marked an era where investment in chemistry was a means for colonial agriculture. Very soon after, circa 1892, Java became the world’s leading exporter of coca leaves, even surpassing the traditional exporters in Peru and Bolivia. By then, ‘Java Coca’ became tantamount to cocaine. And demands for the substance only grew higher until production had to be shifted closer to home ground. Thus, rose the Dutch Cocaine Factory in Amsterdam, whose clients were very much international. But the cocaine trade was neither the first nor the only drug trade in which the Dutch was involved…

While the NFC construction constitutes an important event, it is merely a fraction of a larger and darker history: of the Dutch role in the opium trade. When the Dutch landed in Asia, competition was critical. In 1613, Jan Pieterszoon Coen noted that little of what Europe or colonial goods had to offer was found valuable in the existing market (Burger, 2003). This sparked the VOC’s interest in the inter-Asian trade to gain some advantage. Soon, opium became a main interest as its value was comparable to that of Indian textile and Spanish silver.

Obtained from the Mughal Empire, the Dutch set out to cultivate opium in Bengal, as the location proved most advantageous for trade between the East Indies and China. But as Batavia became the VOC’s main depot, the Dutch opium trade took hold of the East Indies. In fact, almost all of the VOC’s profit from opium comprised of the price difference between production in Bengal and market price in Batavia (Burger, 2003). From Batavia, merchants often shipped and traded opium with the rest of the Archipelago and China. Yet, what is interesting to note is that the opium as a substance was rarely shipped to Europe despite VOC's chief role in the trade. This has led some modern scholars to question the motive behind this trading network and if it gave rise to the Dutch Golden Era's flourishing economy (Burger, 2003).

While the VOC's intentions in these roles remain arguable, it is powerful to imagine:

Massive cargoes filled with ‘Java Coca’, imbuing the air around Amsterdam’s port with a novel aroma. And this new fragrance is pregnant with a profound history of the Dutch colonial impact.