Java Spirits, Jewish Networks, Japanese Markets: Crime and Chemical Innovation in 1930s Colonial Calcutta

 “Alcohol flows across cultures: Drinking cultures in transnational and comparative perspective”

International Research Symposium, St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29–30 June 2016

[Symposium Podcasts]


"Java Spirits, Jewish Networks, Japanese Markets: Crime and Chemical Innovation in Colonial Calcutta"


Dr Projit B. Mukharji

Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, USA


Whilst historians of chemistry readily admit the role of breweries and distilleries in advancing chemical knowledge and applications, the role of moonshining or criminal distilling has seldom featured in these narratives of chemical innovation. Yet, criminal networks, I would argue, were often key promoters of crucial chemical innovations. To prove my case, I will turn to the so-called Gariahat Conspiracy Case of the late 1930s. This Case unearthed one of the largest, transnational moonshining networks in the world. Involving mainly Jewish merchants, crude Javanese alcohol, cutting-edge German chemical equipment and alcohol markets ranging from Japan to France, the case was unprecedented in its size, audacity and innovativeness. While the state tried its best to prove that the enterprise was a public health hazard, the more likely motivation for the prosecution came from an unlikely alliance between a cash-strapped imperial state’s quest for revenue, Gandhian temperance activism and thinly-veiled British Anti-Semitism. Not only were the alleged health hazards largely unproved, but in fact it was criminal assemblages such as this, which, by mobilizing transnational skills, machinery, funds and markets, laid the foundations for India’s now-thriving “Indian Made Foreign Liquor” [IMFL] industry. By drawing upon press-reports and case files, I will argue that the villainized Gariahat conspirators were key innovators of chemical knowledge. On this basis I would also argue that historians of science will benefit from engaging with crime and criminality as an arena of knowledge-production and innovation—albeit without social sanction.



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