Drug dealing doctors and unstable subjects: Opium, medicine and authority in the Cape Colony, 1907-1910

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In 1907, disciplinary trials by the Cape Medical Council of 10 doctors charged with unprofessional conduct for allegedly prescribing opium for ʼnonmedicinal purposes’ brought public attention to the uncertain legal and therapeutic status of opium, a substance that defied regulation across political, social and corporeal boundaries. These events represented a minor and derivative drama, the repercussion of narcotic lawmaking in the Transvaal colony, where imported opium was being cynically channelled for consumption by indentured gold miners transported from China. In the Cape, public health administrators treated the ‘spread of the [smoking] opium habit’ and local illicit drug trade as an index of the challenge to its racial and civic visions in the years leading up to national unification. Yet, even as it worked to purge ‘disgraceful’ doctors from its ranks, the medical fraternity manoeuvred the ambiguities surrounding smoking opium to assert its authority of knowledge and practice over the bodies and the subject status of their clientele. Policies for drug regulation would gain widespread purchase in the 1920s through the labours of the League of Nations’ Dangerous Drug committees. The opium tribunals in the Cape Colony represent an early demonstration of tensions between medical and penal paradigms that were beginning to play out further afield, as chemical control began to be interpreted as a duty of modern civil governance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)342-365
Number of pages24
JournalSouth African Historical Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2016


  • Addiction
  • Body politics
  • Cape colony
  • Colonial medicine
  • Drug regulation
  • Opium
  • Race ideology
  • South Africa

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


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