Moments when alcohol changed history

Words by Theodora Sutcliffe

Over four thousand years ago, the law code of Sumerian ruler Urukagina records beer being used as currency. And, from the gin craze in 18th-century England to Prohibition in the US, booze has long shaped the way that people live. Yet alcohol has also changed the course of history – and sometimes even more radically than you'd think.

1: The Start of Farming

Farming was, after language and fire, the greatest game-changer in human history. Farming meant that people settled, which led to the development of villages, towns, cities, nations, factories, cars, the internet - the whole shebang.

Yet life for the very first Stone Age farmers struggling to domesticate wild grains was much, much harder than for their hunter-gatherer neighbour. Hunter-gatherers ate more and better, worked much, much less and could wander where they wanted. So many anthropologists have wondered what could have inspire people to start farming - and to keep working at those unrewarding grains.

Until the 1950s the standard assumption was that farmers started growing grain in order to make bread. But an increasing number of experts now think that humans would have needed a much stronger motivation than bread to get to work. Specifically? Beer.

And there's evidence to back the idea up. The first maize ancient Mexicans grew was much better suited to beer than flour; the earliest Chinese pottery, at more than 9,000 years old, contained rice beer, probably fermented using saliva; while people in Stone Age Syria and Lebanon may well have been brewing beer as much as 12,000 years ago, around the time when brewing yeasts start to diverge from wild strains.

Why? Well, beer contains all the same nutrients as bread, it makes water safe to drink - and, of course, it gets you drunk. Which, whether they used it for religious rituals or just for feasts, must have been the point for those long-dead Stone Age farmers.

2: Alexander The Great dies

Whether you consider him Greek, Macedonian, or, in modern terms, neither, Alexander the Great of Macedon was probably the greatest military leader of all time. Taking over his father's kingdom aged 20, he led an army across some of the world's toughest terrain and built an empire that covered over five million square kilometres on three continents - the largest the planet had ever known. He never lost a single battle - even when outnumbered.

When Alexander died, either after consuming a cup of wine that was enormous even by his impressive standards or after an all-night bender, he was only 33, with plenty more conquests left to him. In fact, he was on his way back home from India to consolidate his empire before expanding south into Arabia. The world would have been unimaginably different if Alexander had lived: the Roman Empire might never have existed, and India and the Middle East would have followed different paths, meaning Christianity and Islam might never have come to pass.

3: America is settled

The colonists on the Mayflower stopped at Plymouth, rather than where their Royal Charter said they should land, partly because they were running short of key provisions - particularly beer. Would they have survived if they'd landed where they were supposed to? Or vanished without trace like the colonists at Roanoke? Could the United States have ended up being French, Spanish - even Dutch?

Later, alcohol played its part in colonial expansion across America and the extermination of its indigenous people. Settlers used spirits as a bargaining tool to gain land and territory - one account of a negotiation records Chippewas leaders begging repeatedly for more whiskey, which settlers withheld until they'd signed away their land. And some believe that alcohol, alcoholism and toxic brews like the famous firewater were deliberately used to weaken indigenous American resistance to the settlers.

4: Triangular trade

Colonists didn't start the slave trade - slavery had been practised in Africa for centuries. But they did vastly expand its scale and cruelty: as many as half the people kidnapped for slavery would die on long death marches to the coast, while a further 10-15% would perish on the Atlantic slave ships. One engine that fuelled the slave trade? Rum.

During the 1600s some genius found that molasses, a waste product from sugar manufacture, could be turned into rum, which became a motor for the North American colonies then known as New England. Not only did New England society run on rum - the typical chap drank more than 8 shots of high-strength rum a day - but it enabled the profitable Triangular Trade.

Slaves were exported from Africa in exchange for rum, and shipped to grow sugar on Caribbean plantations. The molasses from the plantations was exported to New England, where it was distilled into rum. And from New England, the rum returned to Africa, where it bought more slaves. A "prime" African male slave cost the equivalent of 150 gallons (567 litres) of rum: over a year's work, he would grow and harvest enough sugar cane to produce 1,000 lb (453 kg) of sugar, as well as the 150 gallons of rum that bought him in the first place.

5: The rise of communism

Vodka has, historically, been both a tool and a challenge for the Russian state. And, after a complete fiasco in a war against Japan, where sloshed troops could barely mobilize and battles were lost because the army was too drunk to fight, one of the Tsar's first acts when the First World War broke out in 1914 was to ban vodka.

The lost vodka taxes instantly wiped out at least a quarter - and possibly a third - of government income, at a time when Russia needed money to fund an expensive war. The government's solution - printing money - led, predictably, to hyperinflation.

Further, countryside peasants had no need to sell their surplus grain to buy vodka, leading to grain shortages and hunger in the cities. Conscript soldiers and ordinary citizens rioted, and turned to moonshine, shoe polish and worse. Some raided first class restaurants, where the rich were initially allowed to drink vodka - at Oryol, 20,000 soldiers ransacked a local nobleman's house and nearby distillery, and drank both dry.

Producers who needed to get rid of unsold stocks blocked up the railway system exporting booze to France. Russia, meanwhile, didn't even have enough alcohol for its own war effort, which went catastrophically badly: more than three-quarters of its army, or over nine million men, were killed, wounded, taken prisoner or lost.

There were many, many reasons why Russia fell to Communism in 1917, but one contemporary observer remarked that: "the chief contributory cause to the revolution was the prohibition in 1914 of the sale of spirituous liquors." And without Communism, the twentieth century would have followed an utterly different course.

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