Study Guide

Deadly Medicine

by Peter C. Mancall

Deadly Medicine Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)


Peter C. Mancall’s Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America examines the effects of the alcohol trade on Native Americans in the colonial era. While other studies of North American Indians acknowledge the problem, Deadly Medicine offers an in-depth, well-researched study. Integrating extensive primary sources from government, church, and private papers as well as mercantile records, Mancall places this crisis for Native Americans within the greater framework of imperial trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this path-breaking work, Mancall explains how alcohol became a mainstay of the British imperial economy and traces the trade from the West Indies to the Mississippi, from French Canada to Spanish Florida. This concisely written book investigates why Indians drank, explores stereotypes of the drunken Indian, discusses alcohol production, considers the cost to Native Americans, analyzes the Indian temperance movement, and compares the differences in Indian drinking in the English, French, and Spanish colonies.

Mancall dispenses with some popular notions about Native American alcohol addiction. For example, he does not espouse the idea that certain people or groups have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, and he emphasizes his conviction that drinking is not a disease but a behavioral choice. There is no indication that Indians metabolize alcohol more slowly than the rest of the U.S. population. Unlike Asians, who lack enough aldehyde dehydrogenase isozyme (ALDHI), limiting alcohol assimilation, Native Americans generally have an adequate enzyme function. Since Indians have no inherent deficiency and their sensitivity to alcohol matches that of the rest of the American population, the “physical weakness” argument is invalid as an explanation for why Indians drink. Mancall maintains that American Indians made a conscious, self-destructive choice to drink which undermined their communities’ ability to deal with the crisis at hand—the takeover of North America by Europeans.

Mancall argues that the stereotype of the lazy, drunken Indian simply reinforced the colonial image that American Indians were inferior. He exposes the role of the British, who forced the trade on natives—an ironic tragedy, since the colonial imperial trade had the potential to civilize Indians. According to Mancall, the American Indian response to alcohol was not unusual but rather typical of many people in Western history who, when faced with a period of dramatic change, showed a marked increase in drinking. One such example is found in the Industrial Revolution: As members of the working class were forced into radically different lifestyles, they sought comfort in heavy drinking. Indians witnessing their own annihilation seized the means at hand to anesthetize themselves. Unfortunately, drunkenness only exacerbated the problems facing their communities and left Indians unable to deal with the crisis.

While their behavior may seem irrational to modern readers, the Indians’ response, while quite human, was not based on predetermined genetic factors. Indians made the tragic choice to drink when introduced and coerced into the market of colonial trade that profited from the unequal exchange of furs and pelts for alcohol—an uncontrolled trade that brought both devastation and death.

Sales of rum, sugar, and slaves also brought great wealth out of the colonies for the mercantile British Empire. By 1700, the fur trade and rum profits in New York alone yielded a 400 percent profit margin, which could be doubled and quadrupled if rum were diluted with water or if Indians were offered strong drink during trade negotiations. In peculiar commercial racial logic, the British constructed a trade empire of alcohol. The logic was racial in the sense that slaves and Indians were the victims of the triangular trade network originating in Africa and the West Indies and destined for the frontier trading outposts of the English, Dutch, and French colonies.

Demand for alcohol ensured that the logic of capitalism would override any Christian or legal principles. If furs were to be purchased, then rum must be available. Merchants realized that the great distances and the remoteness of Indian territory made any attempts at enforcement almost impossible. In any case, both merchants and traders regarded laws as violations of their right to participate in free trade. Colonial officials never succeeded in preventing or controlling the sale of alcohol to Native Americans, and the trade remained profitable for the English and the colonists until the American Revolution.

Colonists drank heavily but never suffered the devastating consequences that Native...

(The entire section is 1925 words.)