The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.


The People's History


If you have been following the recent issues of the Thistle, you know by now that in our “People’s History” section we try to show the invalidity of common misconceptions about certain issues. We have told you about the true nature of the “Great Men” whose pictures you see everyday on the money and the true nature and background of the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as [what was it on the first issue?]. In this issue, we will lead you through a centuries old history of hemp and tell you about the several uses of this plant which still remains banned in the “Land of the Free”.

Hemp has been one of the most significant crops for mankind up until this last century. It is astonishing to see how the widespread use of hemp has been deteriorated to such an extent that people barely recognise it as anything but a plant that “gets you high”.

Hemp was probably the earliest plant cultivated for textile fiber. Archaeologists found a remnant of hemp cloth in ancient Mesopotamia (currently Iran and Iraq) which dates back to 8,000 BC. Hemp is also believed to be the oldest example of human industry. In the Lu Shi, a Chinese work of the Sung dynasty (500 AD), we find reference to the Emperor Shen Nung (28th century BC) who taught his people to cultivate hemp for cloth. It is believed that hemp made it to Europe in approximately 1,200 BC. From there, it spread throughout the ancient world.

China appears to have the longest continuous history of Hemp cultivation (over 6000 years). France has cultivated Hemp for at least 700 years to the present day, Spain and Chile similarly. Russia was a major grower/ supplier for hundreds of years.

The Chinese were the first to recognize the usefulness of hemp in paper making. In approximately 150 BC, they produced the world’s first paper, completely from hemp. The oldest documents written on paper are Buddhist texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, composed of a mixture of bark and old rags, principally hemp. Hemp has been used as medicine throughout the world for centuries. Folk remedies and ancient medicines refer to the curative values of the leaves, seeds and roots. The seed and flowers were recommended for difficult childbirth, convulsions, arthritic joints, rheumatism, dysentery and insomnia.

During the middle ages, hemp became an important crop of enormous economic and social value supplying much of the world’s need for food and fiber. Sailing ships became dependent on Canvas (from the word cannabis), hemp rope and oakum due to it being 3 times stronger than Cotton and resistant to salt water. In the UK, in 1535 Henry VIII passed an act compelling all landowners to sow 1/4 of an acre, or be fined. During this period hemp was a major crop and up to the 1920’s 80% of clothing was made from Hemp textiles.

Hemp probably existed in North America long before the Europeans arrived. Jacques Cartier wrote in the 16th century that the land was “frill of hempe which groweth of itselfe, which is as good as possibly may be scene, and as strong.” It is known is that by the time the Puritans landed on Plymouth rock, hemp had reached the continent. It was grown in nearly every state at one time or another, including California, Kentucky New York, Oregon, Utah, Texas, New England, Virginia, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Missouri.

Hemp was grown throughout the western and central provinces of Canada well before confederation. It is known that hemp was grown under the French regime, and was the first crop to be subsidized by government. In 1801, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada distributed hemp seeds to farmers. Edward Allen Talbot, Esq., while living in the Canadas during the 1820s wrote “Five Years’ Residence in the Canadas”. Talbot wrote that if Canada produced enough hemp to supply Britain, this would end their dependence on a foreign power and greatly benefit Canadian settlers. In 1822, the provincial parliament of Upper Canada allocated £300 for the purchase of machinery to process hemp and £50 a year over three years for repairs. The 1923 budget offered incentives to domestic producers. Mr. Fielding, finance minister said that there was a market in Canada and with some government encouragement a mill could be established in Manitoba to draw from crops in the vicinity. There were six hemp mills in Canada at the time, and the government financed a seventh, the Manitoba Cordage Company.

Although hemp played a major role in the early development of North America, it was eventually overshadowed by cotton. Hemp harvesting was extremely labor-intensive. When the invention of the mechanical cotton gin at the end of eighteenth century made it easier to process cotton, hemp could no longer compete. Traditionally, Hemp was processed by hand which was very labour intensive and costly, not lending itself towards modern commercial production. In 1917 American George W. Schlichten patented a new machine for separating the fiber from the internal woody core (‘Hurds’) reducing labour costs by a factor of 100 and increasing fiber yield significantly. Mr Schlichten and his machines disappeared, not surprisingly!

The main crisis for Hemp arose in America during the 1930’s due to propaganda created from companies with vested interest from the new petroleum based synthetic textile companies and the large and powerful newspaper / lumber barons who saw hemp as the biggest threat to their businesses. The 1930s coalesce, unsurprisingly, with the DuPont patenting their new “plastic fiber”. By the 1930s, new machinery, which separated the fiber from the rest of the plant, was available and affordable. These innovations simplified the harvesting and production, making it more cost-effective. Manufacturers were also interested in byproducts such as the seed oil for paint and lacquer, and hurds for paper. According to the February 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics (written early 1937), hemp was then on the verge of becoming “the billion-dollar crop.” However, in September 1937, the United States government, under the influence of the lobbying of synthetic textile companies (like DuPont) and several other powerful groups who saw hemp as a big threat to their businesses, proposed prohibitive tax laws, and levied an occupational excise tax upon hemp dealers. Later that year hemp production was banned altogether. The Canadian government, following the American lead, prohibited production under the Opium and Narcotics Act on August 1, 1938.

World War II provided a new chance. The 1942 Japanese invasion of the Philippines cut the U.S. off from their major source of imported hemp. To meet demand for war production, the U.S. and Canadian governments lifted restrictions. Until the end of the war, farmers with special permits grew hemp to supply the war effort. To encourage farmers to grow hemp during this period, the United States Department of Agriculture released the film “Hemp for Victory”. It stated, “In 1942, patriotic farmers at the government’s request planted 36,000 acres of seed hemp, an increase of several thousand per cent. The goal for 1943 is 50,000 acres of seed hemp.”

However, the ban on growing hemp remained after the Second World War. Hemp, which has historically had over 25,000 diverse uses ranging from paints, printing inks, varnishes, paper, Government documents, bank notes, food, textiles (the original ‘Levi’s’ jeans were made from Hemp cloth), canvas (artists canvases were used by the great masters) and building materials still remains banned in this country whose Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. With modern technical developments, uses have increased to composite boards, motor vehicle brake and clutch pads, plastics, fuels, bio-diesel and Eco-solid fuel. In fact anything that can be made from a hydrocarbon (fossil fuel) can be made from a carbohydrate, but the strong lobbies still manage to keep the growth of this useful crop banned and the public disillusioned.



T O P

The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.