The role of hemp in Australian colonial history
Hemp comes from the same plant as cannabis, and therefore has been illegal for use in Australia for a long time. Australia did eventually legalise hemp again in 2017, being one of the last countries to do so. It has been agreed that it’s is safe for human use and is a great source of omega fatty acids. We are talking cannabis sativa when looking at hemp and cannabis. So we will take a look back at the history of this plant in Australian colonial history.
When the middle ages were ending Europeans sailed waters to find new lands, wealth and knowledge. To do that successfully they needed durable sails. Hemp was the strongest fibre known and therefore it was used to create the best sails for the ever-evolving shipbuilding industry. Therefore British were heavily dependant on the hemp plant and were looking at colonisation of our continent to produce hemp here.
Britain got it’s hemp from the Baltic region and their demand to get more increased as the number of ships increased. Because other Europeans were also interested in hemp, it became a crucial material that countries were fighting over.
Brits were searching for a better solution as their hemp requirements increased, so they made every new landowner in New World grow hemp for them. With that, they secured the supply for themselves.
In 1776 thirteen colonies in the New World declared their independence, this was a severe setback for the Brits. The Baltic sea route was now blocked and with that the source of hemp too. After a failed attempt to regain the control, they had to look elsewhere.
The new idea was to build a colony in Australia and start growing hemp in New South Wales. This was a daunting plan as this new land was so far away and mostly unknown. To get there you had to sail for six months, so people weren't very excited about this, it just seemed too far and too hard. The improvement came when new technology was introduced - coppering the hull of the ship. That helped ships to sail for longer times without the need to take the vessel out of the water and scrape the hull.
Growing hemp in Australia was not negotiable, everybody knew about it and accepted the importance. Sir Joseph Banks gave out bags of hemp seeds as a gift; he knew the strategic importance of the plant. Next step for him was New Zealand where he discovered an even better source for a strong rope - New Zealand flax. With the leadership of Captain Phillips, British Government colonized Norfolks Island. Growing hemp there had better results than on the mainland.
In his 1793 letter to Under Secretary Nepean, Lieutenant King wrote that it’s clear that the primary motivation for the British colonisation of New Zealand and Australia is to grow Strategic Raw Material - Hemp - for the British Naval and Mercantile fleet.
Cannabis was used in Australia both medically and recreationally until 1930 when suddenly the governments around the world started to campaign against it, demonising it and cancelling its use.
Now we are coming full circle and they are strong campaign to once again legalise the use of cannabis, just like it used to be.