Quinine’s Remains: An Alkaloid Anthropology

Cinchona: The Fabled “Fever Tree”

My new book project chronicles the lives—and afterlives—of an alkaloid that changed the world. Quinine is primarily known (and consumed) as the signature ingredient of tonic water, but historically this alkaloid served a more profound function. For centuries, it was the only known remedy for malaria. Extracted from the bark of cinchona, the ‘fever tree’ from highland South America, quinine was integral to the colonial project. Empires invested heavily in this life-saving drug—clandestinely appropriating cinchona varietals from indigenous South America; establishing networks of plantations, labs, and factories across continents; and orchestrating a global quinine trade where private capital and cartels ruled the day. With quinine coursing through the bloodstream of empire, it is no coincidence that the beloved Gin & Tonic became the consummate colonial cocktail. Enabling European rule across the planet, quinine was vital to colonial health and power. It was, in Hegelian terms, a ‘world-historical’ substance.

Government Quinine Factory

Quinine’s Remains aims to tell this alkaloid’s story in India. Quinine was indispensable to British rule on the subcontinent, but it has left in its wake grave uncertainty—and an urgent politics—for those who made it. Against all odds, government cinchona plantations established by the British in the 19th century to fight the great ‘scourge’ of malaria still exist, this despite not having produced a dose of quinine in decades. With Indian quinine too weak to compete on the global market, what is to become of this once-vital industry—and the 50,000 people who inhabit its remains in the Darjeeling Hills—is a pressing question.  The shuttered quinine factory and overgrown cinchona trees may conjure notions of ruination, but these remains are anything but dead. Darjeeling’s cinchona plantations have instead become the site of a charged politics to redefine these lands and lives for the 21st century. For those who call them home, the remains of this erstwhile medical frontier represent the grounds from which any viable future must be forged. Per their politics, quinine’s next chapter is yet to be written.

Quinine’s Remains

These are quinine’s lives and afterlivesTracking quinine from its career at the frontlines of colonial power to its present-day precarities, my project ventures a longitudinal reckoning of how human beings make history with  plants and chemicals—and, in a more contemporary vein, how we recursively forge a life and future through their remains. Quinine’s Remains combines historical and ethnographic methods to bring these colonial pasts and presences into a single frame. It unpacks the interplays of botany, chemistry, imperialism, and labor that made Indian quinine a world-historical substance—and have since spelled its demise. Through an alkaloid anthropology, it pursues a deeper, more-relational, exploration of how human beings make history with the plants and chemicals in our midst. It asks, fundamentally, how we become-with substances? And crucially also, what we make of life after they run their course?