History of Hemp
Hemp, known in other languages as asa, hanf, hamp, chanvre, bhang, canamo, kannab or cannabis, is thought to be one of the earliest plants cultivated for the production of a textile fibre.
It was only during the last century that cannabis hemp has been associated with its narcotic cousin marijuana and therefore banned in many countries. For 8000 years or more before that it was the world’s largest agricultural crop, producing the majority of our fibre, paper, fabric, lighting oil, medicines, as well as food oil and protein for both humans and animals.
According to the Columbia History of the World, “The earliest known woven fabric was apparently of hemp, which began to be worked in the eighth millennium (8000-7000 BC).”
It appears from historical evidence that hemp originated in central Asia, between the Himalayas and Siberia, and then spread through the migration of man to all corners of the earth. More varieties are found in China than anywhere else and a statement from the “Lu Shi”, a Chinese text from the Sung dynasty (500 AD) says that Emperor Shen Nung (2800 BC) first taught the Chinese people to cultivate “ma” (hemp) for fibre.
There is no evidence of the Chinese using cannabis as a drug, only for fibre, food from the seeds and later as fuel.
Hemp was grown as a fibre crop in Northern India since at least the eighth century, and according to Mayhayana Buddhist legends, Buddha lived on a single hemp seed a day during his path to enlightenment. More recently cannabis in India was produced almost exclusively for its drug content, and this is where the name Indian Hemp, referring to marijuana, comes from.
Herodotus (450 BC) wrote that the Thracians and Scythians used hemp extensively, and it was most likely that the Scythians introduced hemp to Europe during their westward migration (around 1500 BC).
It was around 100 A.D. that the plant was named Cannabis Sativa by the Roman surgeon Dioscorides who described various medicinal uses. At the same time Pliny wrote a manual on farming hemp and explained its industrial uses.
In Japan, hemp or “Asa” has a long history, and is believed to have first been introduced by Chinese merchants. It is fundamental in many of the Shinto religions rituals and has been used as a clothing and food source for many thousands of years.
The incredible diversity and usefulness of the hemp plant accelerated its spread to almost every continent and culture. Because of its strength and durability as a fabric and cord, it was used almost exclusively in the sails and rigging on the ships that left Europe to discover the world. King Phillip of Spain (1564) even ordered that hemp be cultivated throughout his empire, and many wars were fought over the supply of it.
Wherever the explorers landed, hemp was one of the first seeds they propagated as it grew so quickly and could meet so many of their requirements for clothing, food and fuel. Hemp soon spread from Europe to North and South America in the 1500’s and at a later stage Australia where many people survived a famine in the 1800’s by eating hemp seed as protein and hemp leaves as roughage.
As with everywhere else that hemp was cultivated, it fast became the crop of choice in the new colonies in North America, many of them making hemp cultivation mandatory for all farmers. To promote it further, hemp was even accepted as legal tender and taxes could be paid with hemp.
Hemp had become so important that George Washington urged farmers to sow the hemp seed everywhere, growing it himself, and Thomas Jefferson called hemp a “necessity”. The American Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper, as well as the first pair of Levi jeans being constructed out of robust hemp fabric.
Hemp continued to flourish and meet many of the needs of the colonialists until the middle of the 19th century when new tropical fibres were introduced, the petrochemical age began, steamships replaced sails and the toxic sulphur and chlorine processes to make paper from wood pulp was developed.
The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1856 stated: “But it is not as a narcotic and excitant that the hemp plant is most useful to mankind; it is as an advancer rather than a retarder of civilization, that its utility is made most manifest.”
It continued in its rightful place as an important agricultural crop until the 1930’s when new machinery was invented to break the hemp, process the fibre and convert the hurds into paper. This drew the attention of the synthetic fibre producers (nylon had just been invented) and the paper and cotton industry magnates, who believed that they stood to lose billions of dollars if hemp’s commercial potential was fully exploited.
They were largely responsible for the “reefer madness” propaganda campaign that, in 1937, resulted in the outlawing of this natural fibre and, with this, their natural competition. They achieved this by demonising and outlawing the narcotic marijuana and thereby banishing the entire cannabis family, including hemp and its many thousands of legitimate uses.
It was around this time that Henry Ford invented a car (www.hempcar.org/ford.shtml) that had a body made of hemp composites and ran on hemp fuel, in an aim to fulfil his dream of “growing automobiles from the soil”. But because of hemp being banned at the time, and the advances made with the petrochemical industry, petrol was soon the prevailing fuel for motor vehicles, a move that has cost the planet dearly and will continue to do so until we move back to environmentally responsible fuel sources.
A few years later, during the Second World War, the legislation was again changed when the Japanese cut off the supplies of Manila hemp needed for uniforms and ropes. The USDA then promoted hemp again with a film “Hemp for Victory”, that urged farmers to grow the crop to meet the fibre demands. After a brief return to favour, hemp was again banned in 1955, and it remains so in the States to this day.
The USA’s attitude towards hemp has influenced many others to adopt similar legislation. Part of the USA’s criteria for foreign aid is the dismantling of the receiving country’s drug industry. Seeing as hemp and marijuana are seen as the same by the US government, a hemp industry would deny any country access to valuable foreign aid.
Recently many countries have recognised hemp’s potential and its value as an environmentally responsible crop. More than 30 nations, including England, France, Germany, China and Canada now have a legal hemp industry, and many more are undertaking research in a move towards a change in legislation.
Although hemp has lost out on nearly a century of technology and market development, farmers and businesses are rediscovering its incredible potential across the planet. As hemp research and cultivation resumes, many more uses for it will be discovered.
The search is on for alternatives to pesticide greedy cotton, forest-destroying paper, war-generating and polluting petrochemicals and nutritionally devoid western diets.
Although hemp is only part of the solution, many believe that it is the only known renewable natural resource that can meet nearly all our requirements to move back to a healthier, greener planet.
- Hemp Today – Ed Rosenthal
- The Emperor Wears No Clothes – Jack Herer
- Hemp – Lyster E. Dewey (Yearbook of USDA 1913)
- The Hemp Report – www.votehemp.com
- Global Hemp (www.globalhemp.com)