The natural origin of hemp is believed to be the highlands of the Himalayas. Hemp seed was spread from this region around the world by animals and people. The Aryans who invaded India are known to have taken hemp seed with them to sow for fibre through the Middle East and Europe. Hemp cloth dating back to 8000 BC was also found in Mesopotamia and was mentioned in Assyrian scripts.
By the third Millennium BC, hemp had established itself as one of the major fibres of the world. No less than 80% of the world’s textiles were hemp. China fully utilised hemp by farming and cultivating it for its strong fibre characteristics and along with silk was its most important textile. Due to the cost of silk, the majority of people in China relied on hemp’s cheap but strong fibre for clothing.
Little evidence of the intoxicating effects of hemp is found in the literature of China at this time, however much was written about its industrial uses. The book, the Shu Ching (Circa 2300 BC), states that hemp was used as a superior string to bamboo string to equip their bows for war. Warriors’ armour was sown with hemp thread and hemp was grown “around every Lord’s castle to secure his military strength”. Scraps of paper made of hemp, articles of clothing such as slippers and evidence that the hemp seed was used in their diet and medicine suggests that the plant had a broad range of uses in Chinese society.
When traders and invaders made hemp seed available to Europe, it helped write one of the most important pages of history, by supplying boats with sails, rope and rigging made from the strongest fibre available to them. It was the Scythian traders who carried hemp from Asia through Greece, Russia and into the heart of Europe. Arabs later bought hemp from Africa into Spain. Aside from serving the Greek fleets with sails, it has also been written that “women made sheets of hemp”. Although the Roman Empire did not cultivate much hemp, large quantities were imported from Sura in Babylon to quench their need for its fibre, which was served as a common food of the time.
Venice became the heart of the Italian hemp industry, with a state operated spinning factory. Hemp was so important to Venetian society that the Venetian senate declared “the security of our galleys and ships, and similarly of our sailors and capital” rests on “the manufacture of cordage in our home of Tana”. In fact, statutes required that only the best quality hemp rope be used as rigging on Venetian ships for the purpose of security. Hemp helped the Venetian fleet reign over the Mediterranean shipping until the defeat of Venice by Napoleon in 1797.
For the first few hundred years into the second Millennium, most countries in Europe were putting this hardy plant to work as fibre and medicine, but it wasn’t until around the 16th century that hemp was involved in the struggle of the Nations of Western Europe for the dominion over the seas. England, Holland and Spain were reliant on the sea to obtain trade that would normally reach Venice via the Silk road from Asia. Hemp allowed them to build vessels that would help them generously tap into this market via the oceans. A great demand for hemp was born, as only the long fibres of hemp were strong enough to make sails and rigging that could withstand the sea journey to the Orient. It was Holland that was ready to supply to the West the hemp needed as the Netherlands had the current technology to meet this demand and quickly became the leading supplier of Canefis, canvas for sails. It was these sails that carried Colombus to America.
As did many ships of that time, Columbus’s boat carried hemp seed for use in case of shipwreck to grow crops for raw materials and as a source of nutrition itself. The newcomers did not initially grow hemp as a crop, for other crops were of more immediate importance such as corn and wheat. However, the demand for textiles rapidly outgrew what the land alone could offer and Governments of the time were known to offer incentives to grow this raw material of short supply. Tobacco crops however, had greater profit returns and a guaranteed market.
Hemp was an established commercial crop in America, and consequently, it had ardent believers in its value as an important resource. Two prominent upholders of this belief were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both active hemp farmers. Hemp was in such demand in the colonies that taxes could be paid in hemp and fines were levied against farmers who did not grow hemp. In the early 1800′s most of America’s hemp needs were met by supply from Russia, at the time, the world’s largest exporter of high quality hemp. Russia’s dominance of the hemp supply was largely due to the ease of transporting hemp by sea from Russia when compared to the difficulty (and expense) of transporting American hemp eastward to port cities. Water retted Russian hemp was also considered superior for naval purposes to dew retted American hemp.
England’s difficulty in procuring adequate supplies of hemp fibre to replenish naval stores of rope and sailcloth became critical in the early 19th century. Napoleon was blocking British ships from accessing hemp from Russia and the American Revolution cut off England’s supply of hemp from North America. Britain responded famously by capturing American trading vessels and forcing the Americans to cross Napoleon’s blockades into Russia under the cover of American flags—at the risk of losing their cargo and their ship if they refused to comply . The American ships were forced to fill their cargo holds to the brim with hemp in Russia and deliver their cargo to British ports. As a result of Napoleon’s actions, hemp, which normally sold at £25 per ton, reached a price of £118 per ton in 1808.
In New South Wales Australia, the crisis in hemp supply spawned a variety of schemes to develop Australia as a hemp colony. The dream of Australia, particularly NSW, as a hemp colony was very much alive in these years. Although agriculture had prospered and the colony was self-sufficient in maize and wheat, it needed to develop an agricultural staple for export. The view that hemp and flax would provide this agricultural staple was expressed in a letter from the colony of NSW in 1804:
“If government should consider naval stores, such as canvas and cordage, of any importance to be grown in this settlement they may be furnished any quantity – canvas might be manufactured by the prisoners, there being some hundreds of weavers in this colony sent from Ireland and England. The women prisoners might also be employed in spinning the Hemp and Flax.”
During this period, the colonial government encouraged the hemp industry in Australia with bounties and by providing seeds free to any settler who desired to cultivate hemp.
By 1895, James Miller of Miller & Co, was growing hemp in Gippsland, Australia. A Melbourne firm Cliff & Bunting were pioneers in the hemp converting industry by making one of the first hemp breaking machines in the Australian colonies (this arduous work formerly performed by convicts). An ad in the Melbourne Leader features a man feeding hemp through a Cliff & Bunting machine4.
Hemp was mainly used for such things as readying fallow land for crops such as wheat, but by around 1850 hemp production increased domestically and by the turn of the century and the industrial age upon them, new mechanical means of harvesting and retting allowed hemp to be manufactured much more efficiently. However this new era of industrialisation also brought about steel cable, steam powered and Iron hulled ships, which rendered much of the hemp industry obsolete. Hemp was in decline as cotton also became easier to produce and petrochemical industries introduced synthetic textiles such as nylon.
All paper, until the late 19th century, was made of hemp rags. The rags came from used clothing, sails and rigging. In the late 1700’s, only one percent of all clothing was made from cotton or linen. The rest of that which was not wool, was hemp.
In 1938, New South Wales was celebrating the 150th anniversary of white settlement without any reference to the crucial role hemp had played in the decision to found the colony. In the week ending April 23, 1938, the front page of the Australian newspaper, Smith’s Weekly, was dominated by a headline that shrieked “Drug That Maddens Victims”. The article was subtitled “Warning From America” (a clue to its author) and informed readers (in capital letters) that the “PLANT GROWS WILD IN QUEENSLAND”. The plant in question was cannabis sativa; the drug, of course, was marijuana. This article marked the start of the Australian version of “Reefer Madness”5.
“A Mexican drug that drives men and women to the wildest sexual excesses has made its first appearance in Australia.” –Lead line from the April 23, 1938 issue of Smith’s Weekly.
That which was being called a “violence producing drug” in America was thusly transformed into a “love drug” once the news crossed the Pacific. Appropriate legislation and eradication programs were soon to follow.
Conspiracies alone cannot be blamed for hemp’s downfall. At the same time as these manoeuvres were bearing fruit for the corporations, a fashion revolution of sorts was beginning as the world emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Technology spin-offs from WWII began to seep into daily civilian life.
In those days, consumers were seeking all things new, shiny, plastic and modern. “Natural” food, “natural” fibres, “natural” medicines did not carry the marketing cachet that they do today. People wanted “fast food”, “high tech” fibres, modern design in their furniture and their homes and their automobiles. They wanted the promise of a better future in all of the accoutrements in life.
A long series of technological advances and economic decisions that made perfect sense at the time has led us to today: we have forgotten the bounty of the renewable fruits of the soil and we now rely on petroleum for our very existence. Today, we are finally recognising that the petroleum was finite.
“When Rudolph Diesel produced his famous engine in 1896, he assumed that the diesel engine would be powered by a variety of fuels, especially vegetable and seed oils. Rudolph Diesel, like most engineers then, believed vegetable fuels were superior to petroleum. Hemp is the most efficient vegetable.
In the 1930s, the Ford Motor Company also saw a future in biomass fuels. Ford operated a successful biomass conversion plant that included hemp at their Iron Mountain facility in Michigan. Ford engineers extracted methanol, charcoal fuel, tar, pitch, ethyl acetate, and creosote—all fundamental ingredients for modern industry, and now supplied by oil-related industries.6”
Farmers soon found that they could not compete against coal and oil for energy production at those prices. Fossil fuel producers succeeded in their campaign to dominate energy production by making fuels and chemical feedstock at lower prices than could be produced from biomass conversion and other products of chemurgy7. Farmers couldn’t compete against trees for paper, (basically free or near free) at that time of modern history when trees were being cleared to make way for villages, towns, cities and then, sprawling suburbs.
As the 20th century unfolded, new, better, more “modern” materials were developed based not on plants, but petroleum. Plastic, nylons, polyester and other complex “polymers” were to become the basis for a new wave in fashion and consumer acceptance to the detriment of natural, renewable, sustainable fibres and oils. Timber and paper pulp became a corporate agribusiness. The “Chemurgy Movement” faded away. Modern, “space-age” materials took the place of old, traditional, rustic materials in both the markets and the minds of the populace.
If Hemp is So Great, Why Aren’t We Using It Now?
The answer is that we are using it. Little by little it is coming back. The most visible recent use is in automobiles as a technical fibre in the door trim, and other interior panels in cars like the Mercedes C class. The story of what happened is complicated but the answer is simple: The 20th century saw inexpensive petroleum replace hemp and many other sustainable materials in manufactured products from the inception of the industrial revolution to this very day. There was also a deliberate corporate campaign to eliminate hemp as potential competition for their products forever. When the Marijuana Tax act was passed, most Americans did not know that the law banned common, useful, profitable industrial hemp along with “marijuana”. Nobody would associate the evil weed from Mexico with the stuff they tied their shoes with.
Even today people only relate to Cannabis as Marijuana when in fact there are over 2,000 different varieties that make up the cannabis family, 90% of these produce harmless seed, oil and fibre and only 10% have the high level of THC or drug that would make it Marijuana.
It is a little known fact but when the United Nations Single Convention on Drugs 1961, of which almost all nations are a signatory, specifically omits the use of Cannabis Hemp for industrial purposes from any ban whatsoever. Yet, thanks to relentless government sponsored “marketing”, the word Cannabis is synonymous with drugs even today.
There are other plants that suffer image problems similar to cannabis. Poppies for example can be a harmless ornamental flower or capable of producing heroin or opium and yet it is not illegal to grow the ornamental variety—or to produce seeds for culinary purposes. The big difference is: poppy flowers pose no competitive threat to powerful interests in the rough and tumble of big business.
Hydrocarbons vs. Carbohydrates
The use of petroleum takes carbon that’s been stored over tens of millions of years and releases all of it in ONE CENTURY. By using carbohydrates rather than hydrocarbons, we will no longer be increasing the CO2 content in the atmosphere. As the hemp grows it takes in CO2 from the air; when it is burned or biodegrades, the CO2 is returned to the air, creating a balanced system. The threat of global greenhouse warming and adverse climatic change will diminish.
We know we need the trees to sop up all the millions-of-years-old carbon we’ve been carelessly spewing into the air for over a century and we know now that the petroleum was not infinite.
The inevitability of hemp’s return to its former place of glory as a source of fibre, food and fuel becomes obvious as you realise that no other plant can produce all three of these essential facets of life in such copious amounts. There are few plants that can produce as much biomass in such a short period of time as hemp.
As this is being written, oil has topped $60 US per barrel and there is market chatter that indicates that $70 per barrel has the potential to plunge the world into deep recession. When we talk about “synthetic fibres”, we’re talking about your clothes, your carpets, your diapers, your tampons, your curtains, many parts of your automobile, anything in your material life that’s not made out of a “natural” fibre (vegetables)—is made out of petroleum-based synthetics (minerals). Especially plastics.
Some geologists think that “peak production” of oil has already passed and that prices will go up and up and up until it’s all gone in 20 or 30 years. Others, more optimistic, think that all the petroleum won’t be gone for 50 or 60 years—but the prices will go up and up anyway. And wars over this finite resource will be our lot in life over that time. That part is already beginning.
Either way you think about it, we’re going to have to find some different “stuff” to make our stuff out of very, very soon, it’s unavoidable, it’s inevitable. The “stuff” that grows, and grows back fastest and with the most weight, is hemp.
Hemp produces the most biomass per area per time. Hemp is a healthy crop to grow: it requires little or no pesticides, can grow dryland or with minimal irrigation and adds organic matter to the soil. Hemp sequesters carbon commensurate with its biomass, storing this carbon in its fibrous stem, leaf and root. The leaf and root carbon is returned to the soil, adding an important component of soil fertility. The carbon in the fibre becomes our raw material, stored on earth for the life of the goods we use.
At a certain point, economies of scale and high oil prices will make hemp the most viable dedicated biomass fuel crop available for ethanol production while also providing vegetable based diesel fuel, food and fibre all from the same renewable source!
If Everything About Hemp is True…a Caveat
If all or even most of the oft-cited claims for hemp are true, the substance may know no earthly equal among non-toxic renewable resources. If only half the claims are true, hemp’s potential as a commercial wellspring and a salve to creeping eco-damage is still immense. At worst it is more useful and diverse than most agricultural crops.Henry Ford noted that “Anything that can be made from hydrocarbons can be made from carbohydrates”. Cellulose is one of the “cheapest” materials—simple CO2 + H2O combined in the carbohydrates by plants. This “fuel potential” of hemp is NOT YET COST EFFECTIVE. Once economies of scale have been reached engaging in the fibre, food and biomaterials markets, it may be Earth’s only viable solution to vanishing oil and increasing prices on — everything.
“All things are possible once enough human beings realise that EVERYTHING is at stake.” — Norman Cousins
For more information, see:
1] This practice was the cause of the War of 1812 between England and the young United States.
2] Jiggens, John. “Hemp & the Marijuana Conspiracy in Australia”. 1995. P. 12.
3] Ibid. Extract from a private letter dated Aug 11 1804. Mitchell Library card catalogue Aa/100/1.
4] bid. p. 18.
5] Jiggens. p. 21.
6] Downs, Hugh, Transcript of Hugh Downs commentary on hemp, for ABC News, NY, 11/90
(American Broadcasting Company)
7] Finlay, Mark. “Old Efforts at New Uses: A Brief History of Chemurgy and the American Search for Bio Based Materials”. Journal of Industrial Ecology. Vol. 7. No. 3+4. Massachusetts Institute for Technology. 2004. http://mitpress.mit.edu/journals/JIEC/v7n3-4/jiec_7_3-4_33_0.pdf