When ‘White Man’s Kava’ drove men insane: Entangling alcohol, race and insanity in Fiji, 1884-1964

Podcast Download: 

“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]


"When ‘White Man’s Kava’ drove men insane: Entangling alcohol, race and insanity in Fiji, 1884-1964"


Dr Jacqueline Leckie

Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Otago, New Zealand


‘White man’s kava’ was a name Pacific peoples gave to alcohol when it was introduced into their cultures from the late eighteenth century. The indigenous substancekava has sedative, social and spiritual qualities.  By the late nineteenth century, many colonies had regulated ‘native’ access to alcohol—with assumptions about race and alcohol common throughout the ‘webs of empire’. Access to alcohol was an entitlement of race and civilisation but Europeans considered that alcohol had a toxic effect on Pacific Islanders.  During this era, colonies such as Fiji, were developing medical infrastructure. Alcoholic insanity was treated in the Fiji Lunatic Asylum but alcohol abuse was not prominent in the aetiology and classification of mental disorders compared to asylums in Europe, North America and Australasia. Fiji’s records also reveal marked ethnic and gendered patterns. ‘Alcoholic insanity’ was an overwhelmingly ‘white man’s burden’ before World War II compared to Fiji’s principal ethnic communities, i-Taukei (indigenous Fijians)and Indo-Fijians (mostly from Girmitiyas). These cultures had their respective substances of choice—yagona (kava) and ganga. Sobriety was also strong within Fiji’s plural religions. The patterns of alcohol abuse changed after the war, when more Indo-Fijians (but fewer Fijians) than Europeans had alcohol-related mental disorders. The global forces of war had brought change—foreign troops, an informal economy, a loosening of social encounters—all lubricated by drink. By the 1960s access to alcohol for natives changed and cultural attitudes against abstinence shifted. Fiji was a multiracial ‘modern’ nation, where white man’s kava was entangled with local cultures.



© 2011. All content, Pulse-Project.org