Was Australia Colonised to Grow Cannabis?

Some scholars believe New South Wales was a secret hemp farm. They're not as crazy as you think.

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29 June 2017, 1:14am

Queensland-based historian Dr John Jiggens believes the British Empire had big plans for the colony of New South Wales. Big, green, leaf-shaped plans. He claims the first European settlement in Australia was founded in order to cultivate vast amounts of hemp, a once-crucial resource needed for making ship sails and rope. The British, he says, were obsessed with the potential of cannabis sativa. The whole convict thing was just an elaborate and convenient cover.

Jiggens is something of a weed scholar. I came across his work during a deep dive into the Australian marijuana reform section of the internet. His Phd was titled "Marijuana Australiana: Cannabis Use, Popular Culture and the Americanisation of Drugs Policy in Australia 1938—1988". He's the sort of person I might describe as one of society's outliers. Still, his interest in Australia's secret hemp history is based on rigorous research, mainly into Sir Joseph Banks—a key figure in the history of Australia's colonisation and British imperialism as a whole.

Banks was famously a botanist aboard the HMS Endeavour in 1770, discovering hundreds of Australian plant species. Returning to England, the wealthy and influential aristocrat made Australia famous among the British elite—and started pushing for colonisation of the continent. Why? Banks, according to Jiggens, envisioned Australia as one big cannabis farm.

"Banks had a whole file on hemp from 1764 to 1810, and I got a copy of that, read through it, and was able to discover all sorts of things about the importance of hemp and Banks' role as the main advisor on hemp in Australia and other colonies," Jiggens explains to VICE.

For Banks, Jiggens claims, hemp was a vital strategic resource that was would help Britain grow and maintain a second empire in the aftermath of the American Revolution. "It was a big blow to Britain to lose the American colonies," he says. "And when they lose the Americas the plan that Banks develops is to build a second empire based in India and Australia, a Pacific empire."

Botanical drawing of cannabis sativa by naturalist Hermann Adolf Köhler (1834 - 1879). Image via Wikimedia Commons

It's easy to forget now just how crucial a global resource hemp once was—humans are thought to have farmed cannabis for more than 12,000 years. For Jiggens, its importance in the 1700s and early 1800s is comparable to oil in the 2000s. "They truly needed hemp at that time. Great Britain was continually at war in that period and it was fighting for empire—it actually lost the United States because of the crisis in hemp supplies, they were cut off from their main source of hemp—Russia. Access to hemp was the reason why it had always been so successful in its wars. So that becomes a very central concern to the British state because they know that without hemp, they cannot retain empire."

The plan was to use the Australian colony not just as a dumping ground for convicts—Jiggens says this was just a secondary concern—but as an alternative source for hemp. Like most wartime strategies, the initiative was kept under wraps.

So if Australia really was just one big hemp farm, what happened to all the hemp? Sadly, the global demand for cannabis began to diminish just as the New South Wales colony began to flourish. While the colonists of New South Wales did plant some hemp crops, they never became what Banks envisioned, simply because the timing was wrong.

"Hemp formed the basis for war, trade, and empire in that early period of mercantile capitalism. But then in the early 1800s coal took over, and became strategic in the same way," says Jiggens.

A plate from "De materia medica" by Dioscorides, written between 50 and 70 AD. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Things went badly in India, too. The cannabis seeds that British colonists planted there turned out to be ganja—great to smoke, but terrible for making rope. "Interestingly though, Banks imports hashish to England and gives some to the poet Samuel Coleridge—and becomes the first hash supplier in Britain," Jiggens claims.

It might be what you learned in school, but the theory that Australia was founded purely as a penal colony has been disputed for decades. Sailing from Britain to Botany Bay made for a long, dangerous, and expensive voyage. The First Fleet took eight months to get from Portsmouth to New South Wales. Conditions were poor, the death rate was high. Sailing to the other side of the world just to relocate a bunch of prisoners does seem a little strange, and many historians would agree with Jiggens to an extent.

"This argument is quite old," chair of the University of Melbourne's History Trevor Burnard says. "But most historians would not say that it was only hemp that led to Botany Bay, but that growing hemp was a consideration alongside creating a convict colony."

The penal colony theory initially came unstuck back in 1966 when historian Geoffrey Blainey published his book The Tyranny of Distance, which dares to suggest the British Empire colonised Australia for reasons other than re-settling convicts. While controversial at the time, Blainey's book inspired a new generation of historians to look at the history of New South Wales in a more nuanced way. One of them, La Trobe University historian Alan Frost, has published two respected books that take inspiration from Blainey's research—Botany Bay: the Real Story and The First Fleet: the Real Story.

So while Australia as secret strategic cannabis colony sounds like a crackpot theory at first, Jiggens' wider argument makes a bit of sense. British colonists arrived here not just to dump their spare criminals, but to conquer. To assert their dominance not only over a culture that had lived on the land for thousands of years before them, but an entire region of the world. Seems kind of on-brand to me.

"If you control Australia you control the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean," Jiggens tells me, sounding less and less like a conspiracy theorist with every passing second. "Australia is probably the most strategic continent for a country which wants to be the head of the world."

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