From Javanese Coca to Java Coca: An Exemplary Product of Dutch Colonial Agro-Industrialism 1880-1920

Arjo Roersch van der Hoogte & Toine Pieters. Technology and Culture. Volume 54, Issue 1. January 2013.


In 1875 the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg introduced two coca plants on the island of Java, which was at that time part of the Netherlands East Indies. According to the Dutch pharmacist Emma Reens, the Botanical Garden initially had considerable difficulty introducing coca cultivation on Java. In 1908 one critic of the coca cultivation program stated that Javanese coca would never compete with the well-known Peruvian coca because the leaves lacked sufficient cocaine.He blamed the stubbornness of the scientists working in the Botanical Garden for pursuing this specific coca species instead of the well-known Peruvian one. However, around the beginning of the twentieth century, the prospects for Javanese coca had already begun to take a new turn. Within a thirty-year period, starting in 1892, Java succeeded in becoming the world’s leading exporter of coca leaves, surpassing the traditional coca producers in Peru and Bolivia. How and why did this occur? We will argue that the story of the transformation of Javanese coca into “Java coca” as part of a “branding” process is closely linked to the rise of the ethical pharmaceutical industry in Europe and a laboratory revolution in botany, chemistry, and pharmacy. The story is also one of transnational circulation of experts, expertise, and the coca plants and leaves that traveled among South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. As such, it links many sites of technological development and practice: the hills of Peru; laboratories and experimental fields at Buitenzorg; planter’s fields in Java; and cocaine-extraction facilities and pharmaceutical plants in Europe. Furthermore, it serves as an exemplary case study of how the demands for standardization, rationalization, and efficacy dramatically affected the development, production, and distribution of plant-based medicines at the end of the nineteenth century and vice versa.

The historical trajectory from Javanese coca to Java coca can be understood in the wider historiography of nineteenth-century science and technology as a case study illustrating the transition from colonial botany and “green imperialism” to what we conceptualize as “colonial agro-industrialism.” Historians like Londa Schiebinger, Claudia Swan, and Richard Grove have variously conceptualized the search for plants and objects during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as colonial botany or green imperialism. In these interpretations botany sat at the center of European colonial expansion, a form of exchange that was also a product of the coevolution of science and commerce. The result was the creation of a global network of botanical gardens supported by scientists, naturalists, and adventurists in search of this green gold. From the mid-eighteenth century onward, botany developed into big business and industrial research as part of the emerging colonial empires and the Industrial Revolution. The overall scientific and commercial interest in colonial flora and fauna and the interaction among science, commerce, and colonialism intensified from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, developing into both big business and a form of industrial research.

Agro-industrialism conceptualizes the development of a specific configuration among science, commerce, industry, and the nation-state within the context of the modernization process of the nineteenth century, the rise of modern science and technology-especially the laboratory sciences-industrialization, and the modern nation-state. For example, in the southern United States an agro-industrial system incorporating research into commodity crops like sugar, cotton, and tobacco had emerged by the beginning of the twentieth century. Planters’ associations in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture established science-based technology, research, and education centers, programs promoting the use of artificial selection and elaboration, and other activities. Colonial agro-industrialism refers to a particular subset of this broader category of activity, whereby tropical crops were made exploitable and profitable by both governmental and private agricultural laboratories led and organized by university-trained scientists. Elite groups of policymakers, planters, bankers, and industrialists had come to realize that scientific knowledge and technical prowess were keys to wealth and power. This group of stakeholders recognized that efficient overseas-transport networks allowed tons of raw plant materials to be processed by large-scale industrial complexes using the integrated management of labor, extraction, and standardization technology, as well as expertise, capital, and distribution networks in the colonial motherland. The Botanical Garden at Buitenzorg acted within the Dutch Empire as a central conduit in the system of colonial agro-industrialism, facilitating the industrialized exploitation of important commodity crops like cinchona, sugar, coffee, tea, and, of course, coca.

To obtain a fuller understanding of colonial agro-industrialism, this article describes the historical trajectory of Javanese coca to Java coca—a niche product of economic importance in Dutch colonial agriculture—from an experimental plant variety in 1880 to a commercial colonial cash crop and highly valued commodity for the international pharmaceutical industry by 1920. We will highlight the changing context of the Botanical Garden at Buitenzorg (also known as ‘s Lands Plantentuin), which evolved from an outpost of an international network of botanical gardens where tropical plants were collected and exchanged into a modern, large-scale research facility consisting of laboratories and field stations performing scientific research in the service of a colonial agricultural enterprise. The Botanical Garden played a pivotal role as a nexus of scientific and commercial activity that allowed Java coca to compete with and eventually dominate Peruvian coca on the global market.

At the start of the twentieth century the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg had earned a reputation as a renowned international center for research in tropical plants and cultivation, characterized by researchers as “the finest institution in the tropics for the aid of agriculture.” An important element of the Botanical Garden’s reputation was the joint application of botany and chemistry as a means to create colonial cash crops that would be both exploitable and profitable, such as cinchona, coffee, tea, and rubber. When the first two coca plants arrived in the second half of the 1870s, however, this reputation had yet to be earned. From its founding in 1817 until the late 1860s, the Botanical Garden was a rather typical colonial garden interested primarily in the collection and exchange of plants, and it was linked to other botanical gardens in Europe like Kew Gardens near London, the Jardin du Roi in Paris, and the Botanical Garden of Leiden University in the Netherlands. It was not until after the mid-nineteenth century that the Botanical Garden at Buitenzorg became a pivotal agent in aiding the growth of a large-scale colonial-plantation economy.

The first step in transforming ‘s Lands Plantentuin occurred in 1851 with the establishment of an agricultural-chemical laboratory under the auspices of a leading Dutch professor of chemistry in the nineteenth century, Gerrit Jan Mulder (1803-1880). Mulder sent one of his doctoral students, P. F. H. Fromberg, to Buitenzorg to oversee his interests in the laboratory and to deploy chemistry to improve and exploit agricultural crops. Mulder’s role in the founding of the laboratory at Buitenzorg in 1851 is closely connected to what historian Andrew Goss has called “the bedrock of science” in the Dutch East Indies: the cinchona-cultivation program. This program marked a new period in agricultural cultivation in which chemistry became a tool for colonial agriculture, specifically for improving existing large-scale colonial plantations. The laboratory did not survive Fromberg’s death in 1858, and it took almost thirty years before a similar laboratory was reestablished at Buitenzorg. But the idea of jointly applying chemistry and botany remained. When botanist R. H. C. C. Scheffer (1844-1880) was appointed director of the Botanical Garden in 1868, experimental botany became the central theme for the scientists working there. Scheffer extended the garden’s collection by reestablishing contact with other gardens and scientific centers and exchanging plants and knowledge. Furthermore, he created a facility, the so-called Cultuurtuin (cultivation garden), where chemistry was applied to improve agricultural crops for the sole purpose of producing profitable commodities. Melchior Treub (1851-1910), who was Scheffer’s successor, completed the transformation of the Botanical Garden as a site for scientific experimentation.

By the end of Treub’s directorship (1880-1909) the Botanical Garden included a complex of field stations and chemical-botanical laboratories that aimed to improve and exploit colonial agriculture for monetary profit. He had reestablished the agricultural-chemical laboratory in 1884, and by 1890 also created a chemical-pharmaceutical laboratory to this end. Furthermore, Treub incorporated privately owned field stations financed by several agricultural syndicates (for example, those for coffee, rubber, and cacao) into the scientifically influential sphere of the Botanical Garden. Botanists, chemists, and pharmacists worked at the garden with local and exotic plants and exchanged knowledge with private and government-owned plantations, as well as with international scholars and institutions, making it an important site for the production and circulation of agricultural knowledge and expertise in addition to specimens. One of the plants that was transformed into an exploitable and profitable agricultural commodity by the efforts of the Botanical Garden was Javanese coca, a product that emerged in direct competition with the better-established Peruvian coca.

Regional Production and Local Consumption: The Organization of Peruvian Coca

By the mid-nineteenth century, coca, the “divine plant of the Incas,” was lauded for its stimulant effects by Peruvians and Europeans alike. Despite such interest and the popularization of coca wines like Vin Mariani, it was not until 1884 that coca and its most important alkaloid, cocaine-isolated in 1859 by Göttingen chemist Albert Niemann-became sought-after medical substances. The “discovery” in 1884 by Austrian surgeon Karl Koller that cocaine was an excellent anesthetic and the famous cocaine papers of Sigmund Freud set the stage for the growing demand for coca leaves from Peru. Peruvian coca became the raw source for what has been called the first modern panacea of Western medicine-cocaine.

Between 1884 and 1905 Peruvian exports of coca leaves and crude cocaine to the European and North American medical markets rose exponentially to almost ten tons of the latter and a thousand tons of of the former. In Paul Gootenberg’s extensive history of cocaine in the Andes, he found that by the late 1880s Peru was able to satisfy the growing demand by pharmaceutical manufacturers because of the combined response of Peruvian planters, peasants, pharmacists, and factory entrepreneurs. In 1884 a French immigrant in Peru, pharmacist Alfred Bignon, developed an extraction method resulting in an easy and economical preparation of crude cocaine that was viable in the regions where coca was cultivated. The Bignon method (a method still used today by drug traffickers and local farmers to create cocaine paste) produced a semi-crystallized cocaine (crude cocaine) that could be exported more easily and cheaply than coca leaves. Thus by the late 1890s Peru dominated the world’s coca and crude cocaine markets, exporting the latter mainly to German cocaine manufacturers through the port of Hamburg.

Given the dominant position of Peruvian coca in the 1890s, how can we explain its downfall in the subsequent fifteen years? Gootenberg emphasizes developments outside of Peru, including changes in the pharmaceutical industry and the movements of commodity chains, including the Andean-German, Dutch-European, and Japanese-pan-Asian. However, he does not give sufficient attention to other circumstances within Peru that contributed to the downfall of its coca by the start of the 1910s: namely, the predominance of small- rather than large-scale production without any sort of centralized producers’ organization, and the absence of a scientific infrastructure to improve the quality of the leaves.

After 1900 most coca production in Peru was concentrated in the southern part of the country near Cusco; in the central part near Huánuco; and also around the northern city of Trujillo. Except for a few large-scale production plantations near Huánuco and those in northern Peru after 1900, most coca production was characterized by small-scale cultivation fields. These fields were distributed over vast and difficult-to-access regions and produced coca that was usually for local consumption only. Due to the absence of a strong and reliable centralized producers’ organization and with no special government support of the industry, these local fields and production regions remained fragmented from one another and over time were incapable of adequately responding to the technological changes demanded by overseas (pharmaceutical) cocaine markets. The export of Peruvian coca also suffered from the lack of rapid transportation networks between the coca production regions on the eastern slopes of the Andes and coastal Pacific ports. Despite this handicap, Peru managed to dominate the coca and crude cocaine world markets at the end of the nineteenth century mainly because it produced bulk quantities of coca, and also because the other foremost producer, neighboring Bolivia, grew it mostly for domestic use. In 1905, for example, the Peruvian consul in New York wrote to the Peruvian minister of foreign relations that although various coca experiments had been carried out in other nations, none had succeeded. He concluded that it would be “unlikely that our product would ever meet a competitor on the market.” This lack of competition, the abundance of fertile land, and the Peruvian national emphasis on exporting as many raw products as possible-epitomized by its large guano exports—resulted in a singular focus on bulk export production instead of on improvements in quality. Indeed, when in 1911 Emmanuel Pozzi-Escot, a chemist working at the Peruvian National School of Agriculture, asked the minister of development if he could commence a series of experiments to improve the quality of coca (as he had done with other agricultural products like potatoes, sugar, and cotton) he received no response. According to Gootenberg, Peruvian coca production based on the Bignon extraction method of 1884 remained rudimentary until the late 1940s.

Scientists and Planters: Experimenting with Javanese Coca

Javanese coca differed botanically and chemically from the coca produced in Peru. Nineteenth-century botanists classified Javanese coca as belonging to the species Erythroxylum coca, var. novogranatense that originated from northern Peru and Colombia, while Peruvian coca was considered to be the ordinary species E. coca originating from central and southern Peru and Bolivia. However different the two in terms of species and variety, this does not explain the eventual success of Javanese coca; instead, the plantbreeding program in the colony accounts for it. At the Botanical Garden at Buitenzorg, coca was transformed into a Javanese cultivated plant adapted to local environments by scientific interventions. This early form of plantbreeding experimentation and manipulation was linked to the growing importance of laboratory-based scientific approaches to agriculture. The growth of commercial and industrial demand for coca in the late nineteenth century made coca a potentially valuable plantation crop, and the reestablishment of the agricultural-chemical laboratory at the Botanical Garden in 1884 rendered the necessary experimentation possible. In annual reports of the Botanical Garden coca was only sporadically mentioned between 1875 and 1884; however, the reports from 1884 to 1890 refer to coca experimentation far more extensively. During the latter period, a network of scientists, planters, traders, and industrialists emerged, all cooperating to make Javanese coca exploitable and profitable.

During the first series of experiments (1884-88) Botanical Garden botanists and chemists had to actively cooperate and exchange knowledge with planters and state officials regarding the cultivation of coca. The Botanical Garden distributed seeds to planters, and in return the planters provided information regarding their field experiments. A direct result of this knowledge exchange was that in 1886 scientists at the Botanical Garden created a manual for coca planters on how to sow coca seeds and cultivate the plants. Later work also established the significance of altitude, climate, and soil type for the succesful cultivation of the crop. Furthermore, scientists like K. W. van Gorkum (a cinchona expert) provided economic advice as well, suggesting in 1885 that planters cultivate coca as a niche product that was supplemental to their main products like coffee, sugar, and tea because of the still strong competition from Peruvian coca and the instability of European markets.

Parallel to these practical experiments, three important chemical-lab investigations conducted by botanists, chemists, and pharmacists in the reestablished chemical-pharmaceutical lab determined the properties of Javanese coca. The first was conducted in 1885-86 by a retired professor of chemistry from the University of Tokyo, F. Eijkman. As a visiting scholar he researched the amount of alkaloids in the various Erythroxylum species the Botanical Garden possessed. His finding was clear: the E. coca had considerably more alkaloids than other Erythroxylum (such as montanum, retusum, and laurifolium) and therefore was the best agricultural crop for the medicinal production of cocaine.

In 1888 Maurits Greshoff, who was recently appointed to conduct chemical-pharmaceutical research on the plants found in the Javanese archipelago for their possible medicinal properties, investigated the amount of alkaloids in E. coca leaves.38 Researching coca leaves of various ages, Greshoff-concluded that the highest concentration of alkaloids could be found in the younger leaves. This finding was important because at that time the leading production centers in Peru only used older leaves, assuming that they contained the highest cocaine content. Moreover, Greshoff-determined that in addition to cocaine, other “ecgonine-combinations, socalled amorphous coca bases” were found in the leaves and that these could be added to the cocaine content when determining the total amount of alkaloids. His recommendation therefore was that “for the time being, the determination of the total amount of alkaloids is the only reliable criterion in [e]valuating the leaves,” and for “rational culture [that is, profitable cultivation of coca] the knowledge of this fact [that the younger leaves contain more alkaloids] can be considered of great significance.”

Greshoff’s researchmade scientists and planters on Java realize that their coca was different from Peruvian coca. In response, scientists at the Botanical Garden led byWillem Burck, the assistant director, launched a study exploring the differences between Javanese and Peruvian coca, reporting their results in the first issue of the journal Teysmannia in 1890. This was the first publication to classify Javanese coca as a different coca species than the Peruvian coca. The publication presented the botanical differences between what Burck and his colleagues identified as E. coca, var. spruceanum, or Javanese coca, and the species E. coca (sometimes called E. bolivianum), which were both present at the Botanical Garden. According to their research, which combined field and laboratory experiments, E. coca, var. spruceanum had smaller leaves but grew more rapidly in the Javanese climate; E. coca had larger leaves but had to be shaded, which slowed its growth. Their published research is important not because it changed the botanical nomenclature, but instead for guiding planters to focus on cultivating E. coca, var. spruceanum because the more leaves that the coca could produce, the more alkaloids could be extracted and the higher the crop’s value. Burck and colleague’s 1890 published research was the final step leading to the commercial and industrial cultivation of Javanese coca. In the following year Teysmannia published an article on the progress of the conversion methods of coca by German scientists, first using the name “Java coca.”

The Temporary Failure of Java Coca

The transformation of Java coca into a cash crop was closely associated with the rise of an ethical pharmaceutical industry in Europe and the gradually increasing demands for standardization, rationalization, and efficacy of medicines. In 1889 the first planter started producing Java coca commercially, and in 1890 the first shipments of Java coca were sent to European markets. However, European traders and manufacturers considered the Java coca leaves, with their low cocaine content, to be inferior in quality. Therefore over the next few years Java coca, despite its competitive pricing, gained only a small portion of the European coca market. Consequently, between 1890 and 1905 the number of acres cultivated with Java coca remained limited. In 1908 chemist G. van der Sleen, in an article concerning Javacoca, concluded that while the Dutch were able to introduce a superior quality of cinchona through a system of crop innovation, they had failed to do the same with coca.

Why did Java coca fail? The answer lies in the technological limitations of the pharmaceutical industry during the late nineteenth century, and the remoteness of the scientists at Buitenzorg and the regional character of its scientist-planter network. When the scientists at the Botanical Garden’s agricultural-chemical laboratory recommended the cultivation of Java coca for its superior content of cocaine (thus adding the ecgonine alkaloids as “amorphous coca bases” to the total cocaine content), they most likely ignored the fact that European cocaine manufacturers would only value the Java coca for its more readily extractable cocaine alkaloid. Since this coca contained far less of the cocaine alkaloid its processing costs were significantly higher than those for Peruvian coca, thus raising doubts that commercial cultivation of Java coca could continue. The Botanical Garden’s scientists must have known that this low amount of cocaine alkaloid would cause problems, because in 1888 two shipments of Java coca leaves were sent to the leading cocaine manufacturer, the pharmaceutical firm E. Merck, for analysis of the cocaine content. According to the firm, both shipments contained notably small quantities of the cocaine alkaloid. In the Botanical Garden’s annual report for 1888 this analysis was disregarded, based on the argument that the drying process of the leaves was as yet inadequate. Thus the Botanical Garden’s criterion, based on Greshoff’s recommendations, for appraising Java coca’s leaves by using the total level of cocaine alkaloids or ecgonine base was not the same as E. Merck’s and that of other European manufacturers. Whether this difference was due to the remoteness of the Botanical Garden from European centers of processing or overconfidence in its crop-improvement system, it resulted in the initial failure of Java coca to attain commercial success.

A second reason why Java coca failed was its uselessness as a rawmaterial for the many galenic preparations that were available on the market at the end of the nineteenth century, again based on its low yields of readily extractable cocaine. In 1888, for example, Dutch pharmacist J. B. Nagelvoort received a sample of Java coca that he used to determine the amount of the cocaine alkaloid it contained in order to advise Parke, Davis & Co. of Detroit, a company that had expressed an interest in using the Java leaves in tonics and elixirs. Since Nagelvoort was unable to demonstrate the presence of sufficient amounts of the alkaloid after applying conventional extraction procedures, he recommended that Parke, Davis not substitute Java coca for the Bolivian coca the company was already using at the time. A decade later the Dutch Pharmaceutical Journal drew the same conclusion: Java coca could be used only in the production of pure cocaine drug products.

Java coca was unsuccessful because it could not meet the alkaloid standards set by the pharmaceutical industry in the 1880s. The technological limitations of cocaine manufacturers made it impossible to convert the ecgonine base into cocaine on a large scale. The regional character of the scientist-planter network prevented a successful conversion of Java coca’s qualities to commercial needs at the end of the 1880s. But technological and regulatory developments within the pharmaceutical industry during the first decade of the twentieth century and the continued efforts on the parts of scientists and planters to improve the quality of Java coca would change its prospects dramatically.

Java Coca: Conforming to New Industrial Standards

By the end of the nineteenth century the European and American medical markets were overrun by a variety of patent medicines, produced by a growing number of manufacturers and laboratories that had shifted to the mass production of drugs. This rapid growth of the packaged patentmedicine industry (so-called nostrum-makers) and its unrestrained marketing during the last quarter of the nineteenth century resulted in severe criticism from the medical profession and threatened to undermine the emerging pharmaceutical industry. With insufficient information about the composition of patentmedicines, it was difficult to impose quality controls, especially because their advertisements “went well beyond the scientifically informed advice the doctor and pharmacist could offer the patient.” The medical profession characterized patent medicines and their marketers as threats to society and public health. Cocaine-containing elixirs and tonics were among the most criticized because they were widely sold without adequate information about their effects on buyers and, moreover, the medicines were of poor quality. In this climate, “ethical” pharmaceutical companies successfully distinguished themselves from the producers of patent medicines by creating a trustworthy scientific image of drug innovation, drug standards, and medical progress. By presenting themselves as the gatekeepers of safe and effective drug development and distribution, these pharmaceutical companies allied with doctors and pharmacists and fought against both patent-medicine producers and the practice of self-medication. To ensure safety and efficacy these companies created in-house laboratories where high-quality medicines were developed and tested. And these demanded the best raw materials.

Developments within the German pharmaceutical industry affected these raw materials in a way that would prove to be important for Java coca. In the 1880s German chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers innovated more economical chemical methods to extract cocaine from coca leaves, seeking ways for extraction from the ecgonine base that both Greshoffand Bignon were studying. In 1885 chemist Willy Merck (of the family that owned E. Merck) was the first to prove that ecgonine (a combination of the alkaloids isatropylcocaine and cinammylcocaine) could be converted into cocaine. His method, however, was too costly for industrial production. Three years later, two other German chemists, Carl Liebermann and Fritz Giesel, succeeded in creating a chemicalmethod of converting ecgonine into cocaine, which was patented as the “ecgonine process.” Giesel worked as a chemist for the pharmaceutical company Buchler & Co. (also known as the Chininfabrik Braunschweig), thus making it probable that Buchler had been the first to make use of this conversion method. At the same time, two other German pharmaceutical firms were producing cocaine fromecgonine: Faberwerke Hoëchst in Frankfurt and C. F. Boehringer & Sohne in Mannheim. In 1888 Boehringer had patented a method that converted ecgonine into ecgonine methyl ester, which was then converted into cocaine. Meanwhile, in 1893 chemists at FaberwerkeHoëchst developed an improved process that could be used in combination with the two earlier patents.

Thus at the same time that Java coca failed to meet the existing European standards for cocaine content, several German chemists and pharmaceutical firms were already developing ways to convert ecgonine into highquality cocaine. This conversion process also resulted in much higher quality and therefore safer and more effective medicinal cocaine preparations than the method for extracting the cocaine alkaloid. So when the first shipments of Java coca arrived in Europe, at least two pharmaceutical manufacturers were able to convert its ecgonine into cocaine, but in both cases production capacities were limited because of problems with scaling up the systems. E. Merck, the largest manufacturer, continued to use Peruvian coca until 1905, relying on the Peruvian-German firm Kitz & Co. for its supply. Yet eventually the ecgonine process would prove disastrous for the Peruvian producers, who had always focused on production levels rather than on improving quality. In 1911, when the Peruvian minister of development asked chemist Emmanuel Pozzi-Escot if the country’s coca industry could apply ecgonine-conversion methods in response to the shifting quality standards in Europe for cocaine extraction, Pozzi-Escot answered that Peru had neither the knowledge nor the technology to do this.

With the expiration of the German patents in 1903; the ethical pharmaceutical movement calling for higher-quality materials; and the diminishing quality of leaves and raw cocaine from Peru between the 1890s and the beginning of the first decade of the new century, which according to E. Merck’s chemists resulted in a much lower quality of medicinal cocaine, the firm switched suppliers. Ultimately, Dutch coca planters supplied a large portion of the raw material for E. Merck’s cocaine production prior to World War I. Indeed, every coca manufacturer in Germany could now take advantage of the ecgonine base that was so abundant in Java coca. The rise in the fortunes of Java coca coincided with the rise of a successful cocaine industry in the Netherlands and the broadening of the scientist-planter network.

The Nederlandsche Cocaïnefabriek (NCF): The Dutch Cocaine Industry and Javanese Coca

An important factor in the growing demand for Java coca after 1900 was the emerging Dutch cocaine industry led by one company, the Nederlandsche Cocaïnefabriek (NCF). In 1925 the Dutch Pharmaceutical Journal published a short piece on the NCF’s twenty-fifth anniversary, praising the company for being among the leading producers in the world despite significant foreign competition and also for being an outstanding example of modern industry in the Netherlands. This praise was well-deserved. Twenty-five years after its founding, the NCF was one of the leading producers within an international cocaine cartel that included German, French, British, and Russian producers, and it almost single-handedly positioned the Netherlands as one of the Europe’s leading cocaine manufacturers during the interwar years. This status was achieved through extensive cooperation among scientists, traders, industrialists, and planters.

The founding of the NCF, on 12 March 1900, was the result of negotiations among a number of individual and institutional actors, including German salesman Georg Boldemann, German chemists Otto Eberhard and Franz Loth, the Dutch Colonial Investment Bank (Koloniale Bank), and J. van Hengst, the owner of the coca plantation L. O. Soekamadjoe. Following Boldemann’s initiative, the group established the NCF in response to the low prices paid for Java coca by the German manufacturers and the enormous profits gained by the latter for the cocaine end product. By the end of 1900 the NCF had succeeded in producing 78 kilograms of pure cocaine hydrochloride; four years later this had risen to 478 kilograms. Although this production level was quite profitable, it fell short of the NCF’s initial production plans. During the next decade the company sorted out its production problems, thus facilitating its growth into the first rank.

First, it needed to expand production of the raw material. The Soekamadjoe plantation was able to supply only half of the agreed upon amount of coca leaves; not until 1908 would the NCF succeed in contracting with an additional major supplier of Java coca. By that time both German and Dutch demand for the relatively cheap Java coca had increased exponentially, from 63,349 kilograms in 1908 to 412,541 in 1911, and Amsterdam developed into a major trading center for the now popular commodity. Demand for and trade in the South American crude cocaine product at the port of Hamburg dropped significantly, from 7,043 kilograms in 1907 to 2,417 in 1911, thereby facilitating Amsterdam’s prominence. This shift-promoted the integration of Java coca’s distribution chain.

Next, the NCF’s production quality needed to be improved. With the death of its scientific director, Loth, in 1907 and the appointment of G. H. Kramers as the new director, the company’s production process improved considerably and its production capacity increased accordingly. An extensive new factory built near the center of Amsterdamadded to its capacity through its state-of-the-art production technology. And finally, the NCF succeeded in securing a foothold in the European market, which had been difficult because the German cocaine syndicate of E. Merck, Boehringer & Sohne, Riedel & Co., Knoll & Co., and Gehe & Co. tried to prevent the NCF’s access to it. It was through Loth’s German connections that the NCF entered into an agreement with the German wholesale drug firm of Gehe & Co, which sold raw materials for drug manufacturing. After which the syndicate granted the NCF a production quota of 400-kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride. By the start of the 1910s and despite ongoing negotiations, the syndicate refused to allow the NCF to join it, although the NCF was granted a new contract with Gehe for 800 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride annually. Consequently, the NCF became one of the major cocaine producers in Europe.

The success of the NCF and the readily available coca leaves from the Dutch East Indies provided incentives for other Dutch drug companies to start producing cocaine from Java coca, including the largest pharmaceutical company in the Netherlands, Brocades & Stheemann. In the process Java coca became a succesful colonial cash crop. The prominence of the NCF proved vital for broadening the network of scientists, planters, traders, and industrialists involved in Java coca production, and also for providing connections to the German pharmaceutical industry and research institutes.

Practical and Fundamental Science in Compliance with the New Standards, 1903-14

While work on extraction methods proceeded in Europe, scientists at the Botanical Garden had stopped their research on Java coca, publishing nothing on the subject between 1890 and 1903. The expiration of the German patents and the initial success of the Dutch cocaine industry changed this. Scientific interest at Buitenzorg revived with the growing commercial and industrial interest abroad, as might be expected by its commercial orientation. Starting with the 1903 publication of an article on Java coca by the head of both the Cultuurtuin and the agricultural-chemical laboratory W. R. Tromp de Haas, a new wave of publications emanated from the Botanical Garden, mostly from a single scientist, chemist-pharmacist A.W. K. de Jong. In the interim period since 1890 the Botanical Garden itself had changed. Under the leadership of Treub it transformed into the Department of Agriculture in 1905, placing greater emphasis on the practical application of science for colonial agriculture and also science as a part of the colonial bureaucracy. De Jong, in comparison to his colleagues in the 1880s, functioned as both bureaucrat and scientist responsible for providing scientific research on Java coca to planters in order to improve the profitabilty of the crop, promoting its exploitation as part of larger efforts to increase the value of commercial agriculture in the Dutch East Indies. Thus in addition to conducting scientific research, de Jong acted as a spokesman for Java coca.

From 1905 to 1914 he published twenty-one articles on Java coca in Teysmannia and dozens more in other journals, combining chemical- pharmaceutical research with commercial interests and placing himself at the center of a network of fellow scientists, planters, traders, and industrialists. In 1912, for example, de Jong was one of the first to suggest creating a syndicate of coca planters and a cocaine-extraction factory on the island of Java, and during the 1910s he was in contact with Louis Merck, the commercial director of the E. Merck pharmaceutical firm.80 In his position as appointed scientist at the Botanical Garden, de Jong worked exclusively on the improvement of the ecgonine-conversion method and evaluation process, researching the best ways to pick and dry the leaves in order to maintain the highest possible alkaloid quality-that is, the amount of usable cocaine alkaloid. In the 1880s Greshoffand his colleagues had already determined that the ways by which the leaves were picked and dried were critical for improving the alkaloid content. For example, Greshoffhad concluded in 1888 that drying the leaves artificially (in the same manner as tea leaves) instead of naturally (in the sun, as was done in Latin America) resulted in much-higher-quality coca leaves. Between 1904 and 1913 de Jong continued this research and confirmed that artificial drying was indeed the better option for maintaining the highest alkaloid levels, also confirming earlier work that favored young leaves as having the highest alkaloid content and therefore the maximal commercial value. He therefore recommended selective harvesting: namely, picking the youngest leaves at the ends of branches.

In addition to de Jong’s investigations in Buitenzorg, chemical research conducted at the Colonial Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands, focused on improving the method for extracting cocaine and converting ecgonine into the substance. The museum was established in 1864 as the foundation of the Company of Industry (Maatschappij van Nijverheid), a cooperative enterprise of entrepreneurs and industrialists, for the collection of colonial products from agriculture, industry, and mining. By the late nineteenth century the museum was not only collecting but also providing practical knowledge and advice regarding these colonial products. During the first decade of the twentieth century the director of the Colonial Museum was Maurits Greshoff, the same pharmacist who in 1888 found that coca leaves contained alkaloids other than cocaine. As director he published four studies explaining the method of extraction he developed in 1888 and the improvements he had made in the ecgonine-conversion method and the evaluation process of leaves. Greshoff’s work from 1888 through the early 1900s on the method of validating and extracting cocaine from coca leaves was highly regarded in the international chemical-pharmaceutical world. The method he developed is cited in the contracts between E. Merck and the Dutch company Maatschappij voor Industrieele Ondernemingen op Java for evaluating the content of the leaves. Up until his death in 1909 Greshoff responded regularly in the Haarlem Colonial Museum’s bulletin to questions sent by Dutch planters and manufacturers regarding Java coca. For example, in 1909 the bulletin published the “regulation,” a standardized procedure for determining the value of Java coca leaves based on the methods developed by Greshoffin 1888 and 1907. The high quality of cocaine extractable from Java coca was the result of ongoing research and exchanges between Greshoffand de Jong.

These investigations into harvesting and processing coca leaves, as well as the work on the improvement of conversion and evaluation processes, demonstrate that both Greshoffand de Jong were well aware of the pharmaceutical industry’s growing demand for high-quality raw coca materials. One of the main reasons that E. Merck, for example, changed suppliers was the noncompliance of the Peruvians, who continued to provide crude cocaine that did not meet the increasing quality standards of the industry. According to de Jong in 1911, “[w]here the preparation of cocaine from the Peru-alkaloid takes place by a process of partition, the chance is greater that the product is contaminated through traces of other combinations [such as side-alkaloids as isatropylcocaine]. With the preparation of cocaine from Java coca the chances of contamination by using the appropriate method are impossible.” Thus the demand for high-quality medicinal cocaine resulted in the emphasis on high-quality raw materials by the pharmaceutical industry, which in turn motivated scientists like Greshoffand de Jong to keep improving the production methods and chemical evaluation of coca leaves. This increasing knowledge of methods and evaluation was disseminated through journals and ongoing exchanges with interested planters, traders, and manufacturers.

The two centers of scientific work on coca leaves in Buitenzorg and Haarlem can be considered as, to use Bruno Latour’s term, “the knots and nodes” of a transnational network. In the case of Javanese coca a preexisting Dutch colonial agro-industrial network was already in place for crops like cinchona, sugar, and tea. The focus of this network changed over time, however. During the 1880s it had a strong regional basis, with the Botanical Garden as a “knot” providing exchanges among local scientists, planters, and colonial functionaries; it did not as yet have strong ties to the European pharmaceutical manufacturing centers like those in Germany, where better and/or new extraction methods were being developed. By the start of the twentieth century, however, scientists like Greshoffand de Jong were at the forefront of a transnational network and commodity chain linking these two previously independent research centers together and consequently rendering Java coca a successful colonial cash crop alongside more wellestablished colonial products like cinchona, coffee, tea, and sugar.


The transformation process from Javanese to Java coca involved three important elements. First was the laboratory revolution in botany and chemistry during the second half of the nineteenth century, which facilitated laboratory testing of the botanical-chemical properties of coca. Java coca was itself the product of a scientifically organized plant-breeding and -selection program: it had smaller leaves, grew more quickly than other coca varieties, and, most significantly, had twice as much of the active principle as Peruvian coca (although in a different chemical form). This latter point resulted in conflict between Buitenzorg’s advocacy of its Java coca and expectations of the European pharmaceutical industry. Overcoming this dissent required a great deal of technical work to resolve the issues. As Java coca’s fortunes improved in the early twentieth century, ongoing laboratory testing of the chemical-extraction process, in concert with experimention on the methods for cultivating, picking, and drying the leaves, resulted in a new and improved coca product that met the industry’s high quality standards for pure cocaine.

The second element involved was the changing landscape of the pharmaceutical industry during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, particularly with its new emphasis on quality. The demise of patent-medicine manufacturers and the rise of an ethical pharmaceutical industry resulted in the increasing use of drug standards and efficient production processes, consequently dramatically changing the prospects of Java coca. By 1910 cheap Peruvian coca had lost its competitive edge because its manufacturers had never focused on quality improvement and therefore had no scientific infrastructure in place when it was needed. The changes in Java coca conformed to the increasing requirement for standardized industrial and medical products at the turn of the twentieth century.

The third element involved in the transformation process and one intimately connected with the previous two was the role of the Botanical Garden of Buitenzorg as a nexus of science, trade, and commerce. The co-construction of scientific and commercial activity through the transdisciplinary working practices encouraged and coordinated by the Botanical Garden fostered the superseding of Peruvian coca byJava coca. Unlike in Peru and Bolivia, where coca cultivation was practiced on a small scale and potential networks of innovation remained fragmented, the Dutch East Indies made cash-crop innovation the cornerstone of its colonial economic policy and provided the infrastructure to support it. Planters, scientists, tradesmen, government officials, and industrialists alike cooperated and exchanged information on the cultivation and industrial processing of cash crops like Java coca. The linkage between Buitenzorg and the European pharmaceutical industry eventually fostered the environment for this work in both regions to proceed in concert. Thus Java coca can be regarded as a new technological product that emerged from an agro-industrial network supported by a “modern” colonial-plantation economy. The historical transformation from Javanese to Java coca illustrates how the circulation and exchange of knowledge among science, commerce, industry, and the state configured what is called “colonial agro-industrialism.”