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Pirates and Cocaine: The Buccaneer Spirit and the Psychoactive Revolutions

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

In January 1681 an English buccaneer ship, the Trinity, appeared on the coast of Spanish America. The intended target of the pirates was the port town of Arica, now in the north of Chile close to the Peruvian border. At that time Arica played a vital role in the economy of Spanish America, as port of exit for the silver from the Polosi mines where Indian slaves toiled for the riches and glory of Spain: a prime target therefore for “the Brothers of the Coast,” as the buccaneers called themselves.

Buccaneers appearing on the coast

One of them was an educated and intelligent observer whose journal of the voyage was subsequently published. Basil Ringrose was a pirate with more interests than gold and silver.  While the pirates landed on the island of Iquique to prepare for their attack, Ringrose observed the ‘poor Indian inhabitants’ of the island. They were forced by the Spaniards to carry fresh water from a river on one side of the island over a path over the mountains to a barque on the other shore that brought the water to the mainland. Exhausting work, and the Indians were treated as beasts according to Ringrose. And he noticed that they ‘eat much and often a sort of leaves that are of a taste much like our bay-leaves in England, insomuch that their teeth are dyed a green colour by the continual use of it.’

The leaves were obviously a species of coca, and were distributed to keep the Indians fit to work. ‘The leaves of which we made mention’, Ringrose continued, ‘are brought down to this island in whole bales, and then distributed to the Indians by a short allowance given to each man.’


This is an early instance where we find a Western European adventurer both obtaining information about drug-consuming practices in other cultures in the New World, as well as publishing this information in his home country. Historian Joseph Kennedy in his Coca Exotica has even speculated on how the buccaneers and other Europeans would have taken over these practices.

The evidence for this is scant, but what is clear is that learned adventurers as Ringrose were essential in obtaining and distributing knowledge on drugs overseas and to Europe. As I describe in (allow me a little self-advertisement) my recent book Freebooters of Medicine: The Search for Medical Knowledge in the Tropics, 1600-1800 (in Dutch), ‘adventurer’ or ‘buccaneer’ ‘scientists’, capable of empirical observations and of survival in dangerous and violent regions, were more needed to gain knowledge than arm-chair academics in London, Paris, or Amsterdam.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these kinds of adventurers would be employed in a more systematic way by pharmaceutical companies – often in alliance with imperialist states, and others. Take for example the search for coca, now not as a labour stimulant for Indians but as the basis for medical and recreational cocaine consumption of middle- and upper class Europeans and Americans, by the American explorer Henry Rusby, who is sometimes described as an ‘Indiana Jones type of scientist.’ To give an idea of what Rusby was up to I quote from David Courtwright’s Forces of Habit: ‘On … the first of his seven expeditions to South and Central America, [Rusby] rounded up 20.000 pounds of coca leaves, only to have his shipment delayed by a revolution. The shipment spoiled while waiting to cross the Colombian isthmus. Assembling a crew of soldiers of fortune, he nevertheless kept on somehow making his way across the Amazon and gathering 35,000 to 45,000 botanical specimens – the number rises in the retelling – before reaching Parà [in Brasil] half dead.’

Adventurer scientists as Ringrose (who returned to England with charts and other geographical as well as cultural and political information on Spanish America) and Rusby (returning with his freights of leaves and botanical information) were not frightened by war, revolution and violence. They were therefore essential actors in creating the psychoactive revolutions, both the revolutions of the early modern period bringing the consumption of natural drugs, and the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries bringing both synthetic as well as natural drugs. If we describe their roles in the more obscure terminology of the philosophical ramblings of Frenchmen Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the adventurers were the ‘war machine’ that the states and other institutions needed and used to establish and maintain their territorial and economic dominance.

The archetypal adventurer ‘war machine’

Since the Second World War production and distribution of many psychoactive substances have increasingly returned to terrains outside the control of the modern states. Of course this has only strengthened the role of a buccaneer spirit in production and distribution, whether in alliance with crime syndicates, resistance movements, countercultures or intelligence agencies, or with all of these.

Three or four months ago Yuri Fedotov, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, asked for a closer investigation of the connections between the blooming African cocaine trade to Europe and West African pirates. And from the town that once was a target for Ringrose’s buccaneers as well as a centre of coca distribution, a press agency reported three weeks ago:

‘The Chilean Navy has seized more than 500 kilos of cocaine, hidden in a truck coming from Bolivia and headed for Europe, in the port of the city of Arica. The drugs, more than 500 kilos of cocaine, were in a shipment of scrap metal transported by a truck coming from Bolivia and that was going to be loaded onto a ship that had Europe as its final destination.

The cocaine seizure took place on the docks in Arica, following an investigation that began the week before and involved the Navy, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and Customs, which had been monitoring the truck since it crossed the border between Bolivia and Chile at the Chungará border crossing.

The Chilean border with Bolivia and Peru extends over a distance of 1,300 km and has become a nexus between the producers of drugs and their final destination, according to the Chilean government.

Chilean authorities have detected around 30 unauthorized crossing points along the border with Peru and 106 along the border with Bolivia.’

In and around Arica drugs and buccaneer spirit remain to be linked.



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