In 1896, a German archaeologist, Hermann Busse, unearthed an ancient tomb at Wilmersdorf, near modern-day Brandenburg, which contained a funerary urn dating back to the Fifth century B.C. It was not the oldest grave to be discovered in Europe. People had been living in what is now Europe for thousands of years and remnants of their existence were not uncommon. The thing that made Busse'e discovery unique was that the funerary urn that had lain buried in the earth for almost 2500 years contained various identifiable plant fragments, among them cannabis seeds.
How did these seeds get there? Did the Scythians penetrate this far west in their restless search for new lands and people to conquer? Hiero II of Greece had sent men to the Rhone Valley in France in the third century B.C., but this discovery placed cannabis in northern Europe 200 years before that, and indicates that even at this early date, cannabis had acquired a special significance in the burial rites of the dead.
A thousand years later, the limestone tomb of the French queen Arnegunde, who was buried around A.D. 570 in Paris, likewise contained cannabis.
As was typical of the crypts in which the medieval French nobility were laid to rest, Arnegunde's tomb was lavishly furnished with precious objects. Gold coins, rich jewellery, and costly garments were all interred with the dead to guarantee that they would enjoy as comfortable a life in the next world as that from which their souls had just departed.
The buckles on her shoes and garters were made of silver. Around her neck was a gold broach. At the side of her temples were gold pins which held a veil of red satin over her face. On each ear was a gold filigree earring. Her body was dressed in violet silk and rested on a bright-red blanket over which was draped a cloth made from hemp, a material apparently deserving of this place of honor among the rich and elegant burial wardrobe of the French nobility during the early Middle Ages.
Cannabis in one form or another has been found in other parts of Europe as well during this early period of history. Hempen ropes, for instance, have been found in a well from a Roman fort in Dunbartonshire, Britain, which was occupied between A.D. 140 and 180. However, modern scientific studies of pollen in soil samples shows that cannabis was not cultivated in England until around A.D. 400 when the Anglo-Saxons migrated to the island from their homes in mainland Europe. Since they had no way of knowing if there would be enough cannabis in the lands they conquered to meet their needs, the Romans took hemp ropes with them. When these ropes wore out, orders were sent back home for replacements. The pieces of hemp rope from Dunbartonshire were thus made elsewhere and sent to England as part of the supplies needed for the occupation.
Hempen ropes have also been found in Iceland among artefacts that date back to the early Middle Ages. These ropes were carried there by the intrepid Vikings, for whom strong rope often meant the difference between survival or disaster in the vast uncharted Atlantic. Pieces of cloth and fishing line made from hemp have also been discovered in Viking graves in Norway, and cannabis seeds have been found in the remains of Viking ships that date back to A.D. 850.
Cannabis in its various forms was thus no stranger to Western Europe by the beginning of the Middle Ages. However, it was the Italians who began the first large-scale cultivation of the plant and eventually turned hemp into haute couture.
The Virgins and the Pirates
During the Middle Ages, the Italians ruled the seas and nothing surpassed the strength and durability of the hempen ropes with which their ships were outfitted. To maintain their supremacy on the seas, the Italians had to be assured that their supplies of hemp fiber would not be jeopardized by foreign control of hemp. Only by raising their own crop of the precious fiber could they be certain that Italian shipbuilders would never be blackmailed by foreign suppliers. Foremost among those who promoted domestic production of hemp were the merchants and shipbuilders from the city of canals and gondolas.
Although Venice emerged as one of Italy's most powerful city-states, initially it was but a swamp village at the head of the Adriatic Sea and it was only goaded into asserting its dominance by the abduction of its virgins by a gang of daring pirates.
The event that led to Venice's rise to a major sea power began inauspiciously enough on February 1, A.D. 945. For centuries, all Venetian marriages took place on the first day of February. It was an event celebrated with great pomp and ceremony by rich and poor alike. It was a day of expectation, excitement, anticipation - a day of love.
From all parts of the city they came, the young radiant girls of Venice and their proud mothers and fathers. Their destination - the Church of San Pietro di Castello in the eastern sector of the city. At the church door, the nervous bridegrooms rubbed their hands and shuffled their feet. Inside, the bishop was giving last-minute instructions to the choirboys. The doge (ruler) was seated in the front row, ready to give his blessing as well to the newlyweds.
The people of Venice were wealthy and respected, but they had their enemies. Among those who eyed their money with envy was a gang of resourceful pirates whose base of operations was the seaports of Dalmatia located opposite Venice on the other side of the Adriatic Sea. From these harbors the pirates ventured out in search of booty, plundering far and wide - the entire Mediterranean Sea their prey. No ship was safe once it left port. Even the Venetians paid extortion money when it was demanded, preferring to surrender some of their profits than to challenge the pirates and possibly lose everything.
Like most people who lived around the Adriatic Sea, the Dalmatian pirates knew of the annual nuptials about to be performed in Venice. Acting as much out of villainy as greed, the pirates decided to humiliate the Venetians by kidnapping their blushing brides on their wedding night. After all, what better time to attack? No one would be expecting them. The men would be too drunk to offer much resistance. And the women would both satisfy their lustful appetites and bring a bountiful ransom.
Silently they meandered their ships into Venetian waters. A token force was left to guard the boats while the main group of pirates stealthily made their way toward the Church of San Pietro. In the distance, the pirates could hear the music and celebrations. They grinned at one another. The plan was going well.
They struck at midnight. Swooping down on the unsuspecting merrymakers, the pirates burst into the midst of the festivities, and before anyone realized what had happened, the pirates were back aboard their ships with the irate brides and a cargo full of expensive wedding presents.
The raid caught the Venetians by surprise, but somehow the tipsy bridegrooms managed to sober themselves. Soon the whole city was aroused. From every quarter the men rushed to the port, swearing revenge on the pirates. At the head of the rescue mission was the doge himself.
The Venetian ships skimmed over the waves. Not an inch of canvas was left unfurled. Not only was the virtue of their women at stake, the honor of Venice itself had been besmirched. The gap between the fleeing pirates and the pursuing bridegrooms finally closed at Carole. The Venetians were inflamed, but the pirates were wily fighters. The battle waged for hours. When the smoke finally cleared, however, the brides were back with their husbands and those pirates who had managed to remain alive were in full flight. From that day on, the scene of the battle was called the Porto della Damigelle, the Port of Young Women.
The pirates had lost the battle, but the war was unresolved. Finally, in A.D. 1000 the Venetians decided that they had had enough. They had beaten the pirates before, they could do it again. On Ascension Day, the doge assembled all the fighting men and all the ships in Venice and set sail toward Dalmatia. Up and down the coast they hunted their pirate quarry. Every city that gave refuge was attacked and punished. No longer would anyone dare to threaten Venetian shipping. Her enemies were no more. Venice was now undisputed sovereign of the Adriatic and the Mediterranean.
It was the Crusades, however, which saw the emergence of Venice from a Mediterranean to a world power. Owing to its strategic port location, Venice was able to demand huge fees to transport the Crusaders from Europe to the Holy Land. Venice supported the war against the Moslem infidels, but its Christian fervor had a price. With each Crusade, Venice's power increased. By A.D. 1200, Venice had control over all the trade in three-quarters of what remained of the ancient Roman Empire. Virtually anything that moved across the Adriatic, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Marmara sailed in Venetian ships. From outposts in the conquered Moslem cities of Sidon and Tyre, Venice also controlled the entire trade route from Constantinople to Western Europe. Venice had become the trade merchant of the world.
This preeminence among European powers continued until the middle of the fifteenth century. With the discovery of an Atlantic route around the Cape of Good Hope to the Far East in A.D. 1486, European ships no longer had to sail by way of the Mediterranean to gain access to the East. This discovery, more than any other single event, initiated Venice's gradual decline to a second-rate power. Venice's demise did not happen overnight, however. The city remained a wealthy and important influence in the world until almost the end of the eighteenth century when it was finally conquered in 1797 by Napoleon and was made into an Austrian possession.
The Venetian Hemp Guild
In Italy, hemp was once called quello delle cento operazioni, "the substance of a hundred operations", because of the many processes to which the plant was subjected before its fibers could be used.
long before the days of automation, young girls would assemble in the houses where hemp was to be split and they would work well into the night preparing hemp for the craft industries. It was not easy work. Each girl took five or six stalks in one hand and what remained of the roots in the hollow of her other hand. Then, with a quick snap, she broke the stalk about twelve inches from the root. Next, she crooked the middle finger of her left hand and passed the fibers through the crook. While the thumb and forefinger of her right hand still held the unbroken part of the stalk, she grasped the woody part of the stem and pulled it away from its fibers.
The stripped fibers were held between the thumb and little finger of her left hand and they were twisted into a coil. The coils were then placed in piles to be beaten and swingled. Beating involved pounding the fibers to make them soft. First, the fibers were tied into tight round bundles. If the beating were to be done by hand, the bundles were placed on a stone and were either pounded manually with a heavy wooden mallet or flayed with a whip. In hemp mills, the pounding action was done by rolling a heavy millstone over the hemp manually or by a water wheel.
Next the hemp was swingled. This was done by placing the hemp strands over a wooden board and removing any visible splinters. The last main step was combing - the separation of any fibers that still clung together by passing them through a rough and then a fine-toothed comb.
Very often these tasks were done in groups and they took on the atmosphere of a social get-together, much like the American sewing and quilting bees. In many villages, the townspeople worked on the hemp at night in someone's home and ended the evening on a festive note with games and dancing.
Whether hemp was processed in private homes or in large factories, the end product was fiber that was without equal for strength and durability. The Venetian Senate recognized the importance of hemp fiber for its shipbuilding and trade industries, and to ensure that Venetian hemp standards would remain high, it established a state-run factory called the Tana to oversee the quality of all the hemp that was processed into the rigging and anchor lines of the Venetian fleet. On "the manufacture of cordage in our home of the Tana," declared the Senate, rests "the security of our galleys and ships and similarly of our sailors and capital."
According to Venetian statutes, all rigging for Venetian ships had to be manufactured from the highest grade of hemp. Unfortunately, the best hemp came from Bologna, and the Florentines who owned the Bolognese fields charged exorbitant prices for the commodity. Although it had no intention of using inferior hemp in its ships, the Tana tried to dupe the Florentines into believing that because of their high prices, Venice was going to import a lower and cheaper quality of hemp from Montagnana. The ruse worked and the Florentines lowered their prices, a compromise that fattened Venetian pockets considerably.
Even with the lowered price, however, Bolognese hemp was still more expensive than Montagnese, so the Venetians decided to try and cut their costs even more by improving the quality of hemp grown around Montegnana. As part of its plan, the Venetian Senate hired a Bolognese hemp expert, Michele di Burdrio, to teach the Montegneseans how to grow a better quality of hemp. Such corporate looting was not regarded very favorably by the people of Bologna, and for divulging the closely guarded secrets of his homeland, di Burdrio was banished perpetually from his native city and all his property was confiscated. The Venetians, however, were prepared to compensate him for his losses, financial or otherwise. Di Burdrio received a handsome salary, a monetary settlement equal to his losses, and his descendants were hired as salaried supervisors in the hemp fields for many generations thereafter.
Despite the improvements in Montagnese hemp that followed the hiring of di Burdrio, the overall quality of the Montagnese product remained inferior to the Bolognese variety, and the Tana insisted the two varieties be clearly labelled. To ensure that the inferior product would not inadvertently find itself destined for one of the city's important shipping districts, procedures were implemented so that the two varieties of hemp would never be together in the same room. First-grade Bologna hemp also carried a white label attached to it, while first-grade Montagnana hemp was identified by means of a green label. In this way, the buyer was sure of the material he was purchasing.
Hemp spinners in Venice all belonged to a craft union and were paid according to the quantity of work they produced rather than on the basis of an hourly or weekly wage. Those who were employed by the Tana were closely supervised by factory foremen. Each spinner was given a specially marked bobbin so that his work could be easily identified. Removal of these "trademarks" or the use of someone else's bobbin was considered a criminal offence punishable by whipping and/or dismissal from the craft for up to ten years. Foremen regularly inspected all ropes made by Tana spinners and inferior workmanship was also punishable by fines.
By insisting on only the highest grade of hemp and by enforcing rigid codes of excellence in her rope factories, Venice outfitted a fleet second to none in Europe. Any cargoes, whatever their value, had a better chance of reaching their destination if carried by a Venetian ship than by any other vessel. Because of its superiority, the Venetian merchant marine dominated the Mediterranean for centuries, an accomplishment due in no small measure to the high quality of raw materials such as hemp which went into each and every one of her sea-going armada.
During the nineteenth century, Italy became one of the world's main hemp-producing centers, supplying hemp fiber to Switzerland, Germany, England, Portugal, and Spain. It was not for cord or heavy rope that Italian hemp was prized, however, but for the fine fabric and clothes that could be manufactured from its whitish fiber. In skilled Italian hands, hemp fiber was turned into a thread that almost equalled silk in its delicacy. It was much finer than cotton and certainly much stronger. Two and one-half pounds of hemp, for instance, could be spun into 600 miles of lace threads! For those who could afford them, tablecloths and specially designed dresses spun from fine Italian hemp were prized possessions.
In keeping with hemp's importance as a major agricultural crop, carious customs and ceremonies based on the homeopathic magical principle that like begets like were performed during the Middle Ages expressly to influence the growth of the hemp plant in the forthcoming year.
In many parts of Europe, for instance, peasant farmers kindled huge bonfires and danced around or leaped over the flames. The idea was that just as the flames and dancers soared into the air, so too would the hemp crop grow high into the sky. So seriously did the peasants regard these hemp dances, writes the noted anthropologist Sir James G. Frazer, that anyone not contributing to the fire could look forward to a bad crop next year and "his hemp in particular would not grow".
In parts of France, to make doubly sure that the hemp harvest would be good, the women dancers performed their leaps while slightly drunk. Unfortunately, we do not know if this drunkenness was another instance of the magical belief in like begetting like - the drunkenness of the women influencing the production of psychoactive plant material.
Another French custom designed to influence the hemp growth was for the farmer to hitch up his trousers as high as possible while he sowed his hemp seeds in the hope that the hemp plants would grow to the height he had raised his pants.
In many parts of Europe, it was also customary for farmers to sow their hemp seed on days dedicated to the celebration of saints remembered as being rather tall. By asking for the help of these tall saints, the peasants believed their hemp would also be tall.
Various other customs were followed to coax hemp into growing tall. In some countries, the hemp dances were performed on rooftops. In Germany, hemp seeds were flung high into the air in the hope that the stalks of these seeds would be able to find their way back into the air one day.
Yet another quaint custom related to hemp growing involved the election of a King and Queen of the Bean on the Twelfth Day (the Epiphany, January 6). As part of this custom, which began in the sixteenth century, a huge cake was baked on the eve of the Twelfth Day. Two beans were then inserted into the cake. Pieces of cake were then distributed and whoever got the beans became the King and Queen of the Bean.
As soon as the king and queen were chosen, they were saluted and hoisted onto the soldiers of their subjects so that they could make crosses on the beams of the houses. These crosses were supposed to protect the houses during the coming year against evil spirits. But the real point of the selection was augury: it was an attempt to peer into the future to determine what the next year's hemp crop would be like. If the king were taller than the queen, then the male plant would be taller than the female (and the fiber would therefore be better). If the queen were taller, then the female hemp plants would be taller and the fiber would nor be as good.
In the Balkans, an ancient folk ritual (still practised in the early part of the twentieth century) involved not so much dancing as running through a circle of burning hemp. As the peasants scampered through the flames, they chanted in unison: "We have been in the fire and not been burnt, we have been in the midst of illness and not caught it."
Behind this ceremony is the idea that fire has a cleansing action and can thus protect people from disease. The reason the fires were made of hemp is unknown, but no doubt it was because of hemp's connection with magic.
In Search of Gold
Between A.D. 1400 and 1700, Western Europe was gradually transformed from a backward provincial potpourri of motley nations into a nationalistically minded assembly of world-conquering and world-colonizing empires. The Cinderella-like metamorphosis came about largely as a result of a technological innovation. First introduced by the Mediterranean nations and subsequently copied and improved on by Western Europe, the innovation that changed the course of history was the triangular sail.
By suspending a triangular sail from an oblique yardarm, sailors could sail against the wind. Hitherto, the square sail was the only means of propelling a ship, and most vessels were outfitted with only a single mast. After the triangular sail, galleons with three or four masts became commonplace and European ships began embarking from the safety of their ports to challenge the winds and the oceans of the world.
The triangular sail opened up new possibilities. The Italians had a solid hold on the Mediterranean. North Africa and the Middle East were controlled by the Arabs. Below Egypt lay the vast wastelands of the Sahara. Caravans sometimes trickled across the hot sands with their precious chests of gold, spices, and silks, but the journey was too hazardous and too costly to rely on an overland route to India and the Far East. Until the heroic rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 by the Portuguese adventurer Bartholomew Diaz, Western Europe had to be satisfied with its subordinate position.
But the triangular sail altered the balance of power and allowed Europe to master the treacherous winds that hitherto had made long voyages down the coast of Africa, and subsequently across the Atlantic, almost impossible feats of navigation. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese king popularly known to history as Prince Henry the Navigator set out to break the monopoly of the Italians and the Arabs. Henry's ultimate goal was to make Portugal master of the trade routes to the East, and to accomplish his goal, he was prepared to meet any expense.
Portugal was not a large country, however. During the fifteenth century it had fewer than a million people, most of whom were peasant farmers. What land there was was not very fertile. Most of it was stony. Only the river valleys were productive. During the Middle Ages, much of Portugal's food had to be imported from other countries.
Portugal's main economic asset was its long coastline with its teeming schools of fish. But fishing did not give Portugal a positive trade balance and the country was deeply in debt. Portugal needed gold. The Italians had it; the Portuguese wanted it.
There were two ways to get gold: take it from the Italians, or find some new route to some country, hitherto inaccessible, where gold was produced or where goods were made that could be sold for gold. Portugal wisely chose the latter alternative.
To get the gold Portugal needed, Henry's plan called for Portugal to outflank the Arabs in Africa by joining with a legendary hero of the Christian world, Prester John, whose headquarters were believed to be located somewhere in Africa. Since Prester John was said to command an army of millions, an alliance with his forces would certainly lead to victory over the Arabs and would result in a transfer of the trade monopoly from the Arabs and their Italian business partners to the Portuguese.
The Portuguese never linked up with Prester John. They couldn't have. He didn't exist. But their search for the elusive champion of Christianity got Portugal the gold she needed - at least for a time.
Every time Portuguese captains touched port in Africa, a new Portuguese outpost was established. It was not long before Portuguese ships were returning to Portugal laden with gold, ivory, and spices, just as Henry had dreamed.
Ten years after Diaz successfully rounded the Cape of Good Hope, another Portuguese adventurer, Vasco da Gama, dropped anchor in the waters off Calcutta and laid claim to the whole subcontinent in the name of the Portuguese monarch.
The empire which Portugal established in Africa and India was not based on colonization, however. Instead, the Portuguese erected a string of forts and naval bases. In this way she hoped to beat off rival nations who might also be looking for some foothold in these lands.
But aspire to greatness though she might, the territories which Portugal claimed were simply too vast and far-flung for her to retain control over. Portugal was too small a nation with too small a population to govern and maintain her newly acquired colonies. In addition to establishing a bureaucracy in each territory, she needed ships and sailors to man a navy large enough to guarantee the safety of her merchant marine and defend her colonial possessions.
Even if Portugal had had the manpower, the resources necessary to govern such an empire would have cut deeply into the profits gained from exploitation of these colonies. When rival Western nations finally began to flex their muscles at the beginning of the seventeenth century, tiny Portugal was forced to consolidate its holdings, and claims to vast territories in Africa and India had to be abandoned. Into the power vacuum sailed the Dutch and the English.
The Dutch were the first to challenge Portugal's domination of the East. Late in the sixteenth century, the Dutch East India Company established its overseas headquarters at Batavia on the island of Java. From this outpost, it quickly took control of the spice trade and deliberately destroyed plant life in the East Indies to dry up supply sources. The effect of an increasing demand for sugar, cinnamon, and other spices, and a market deliberately crippled through manipulation of raw materials, was a skyrocketing increase in prices. The wealthier the Dutch became, the harder they tried to keep other nations from securing a foothold of their own in the rich spice lands of the East.
While the Portuguese and the Dutch were staking claims to the East Indies and Spain was establishing colonies in the New World, England was slowly coming to the realization that she was being left out of one of the greatest moneymaking opportunities ever to present itself to the European economy. One of the main reasons England was unable to compete was that she lacked the ships necessary for exploration and trade. To expand her economy and keep up with her European rivals, England had to build new ships and develop new trade routes. And if she hoped to be able to protect her merchant ships from attack, she had to have a navy capable of repulsing an enemy. To build such a fleet, she needed raw materials. In 1562, both Holland and England sent ships to the Baltic countries for these supplies. The Dutch sent 1192 vessels. The English sent as many as they could muster - 51.
The situation was acute and England rose to meet the challenge. Spurred on by hopes of sharing in the new riches of overseas trade, English mercantilists sponsored the building of more and more ships. A new mercantile industry, legalized piracy, or privateering as it became known, also stimulated the demand for ships, and huge profits from goods commandeered on the high seas whetted English business appetites even more.
With her growing successes on the seas, and her support for Protestant causes in Europe, the new upstart could no longer be ignored. Spain, whose ships dominated the Atlantic, began to make hostile overtures. A confrontation was brewing. In 1587, war was finally declared.
The great naval clash came in 1588. Under the swashbuckling privateer Sir Francis Drake, the English prepared to fight the Spanish for control of the Atlantic. The Spanish plan of attack had two objectives. The first was to gain control of the English Channel; the second was to land a large military force in England. The troops to be used in the invasion were to consist of soldiers brought from Spain and from Spanish garrisons in the Netherlands.
The Spanish sent out 130 ships carrying 29,305 sailors, oarsmen, and soldiers. Opposing them was an English fleet of 197 ships manned by some 16,000 men. The cannons carried by the Spanish were most effective at close range. The English relied more on small-calibre cannons that could demolish the rigging of an enemy at a distance, thereby crippling them and making them vulnerable to attack.
Although outnumbered, the English crews were better trained than the Spanish and the English artillery was manned by more experienced gunners than those who manned the Spanish weaponry. The Spanish in their huge ocean-going galleons also found it difficult to manoeuvre in the stormy waters of the English Channel, and when the two navies finally met, the great Spanish Armada had its bows slung full of grapeshot by the smaller, more manoeuvrable English vessels.
The Spanish never recovered from the humiliation of that defeat and the victory established England as the leading naval power in Europe. Now there was nothing to prevent her from founding her own colonial empire across the seas.
England's Need for Hemp
Even before the fateful battle in the English Channel, the kings of England recognized the need for hemp if their realm were ever to compete with Europe. Initially, the monarchs tried to coerce their subjects to raise hemp. The first such fiat came in 1533 when King Henry VIII commanded that for every sixty acres of arable land a farmer owned, a quarter acre was to be sown with hemp. The penalty for not doing so was to be three shillings and four pence.
Thirty years later, and long before the clash with Spain, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I reissued the command, raising the penalty to five shillings. Elizabeth may not have had the best interests of the realm in mind when she issued this proclamation, however. Most of the hemp seed in England was sold by a Lawrence Cockson, a man who enjoyed the queen's favor. If English farmers complied with the royal proclamation, he stood to make a lot of money.
Despite the law, few Englishmen complied with the royal decrees. The simple fact was that any landowner or small farmer could make more money by raising almost any crop other than hemp. Not only were the prices they received too low for them to make a good profit, farmers also complained that hemp exhausted the soil and made it unsuitable for growing other crops. It also gave off a bad odor when retted:
Now pluck up they hempe, and go beat out the seed,
and afterward water it as ye see need.
But not in the river where cattle should drinke,
for poisoning them and the people with stinke.
English farmers were also reluctant to substitute hemp seed for grain since they claimed the seed gave an "ill flavor to the flesh of the bird that feeds on it".
Since ships needed hemp and English farmers refused to supply it, merchants had to go elsewhere for their supplies. Most of the hemp that found its way into English ships during this period came from the Baltic. The best quality hemp came from Danzig, and on several occasions the British government ordered its agents in that city to buy all the hemp they could get their hands on so that England would have enough rope for her ships. Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, growing competition from Russia lured English buyers away from Danzig to the Russian cities of Riga and St. Petersburg. By 1630, Russia was supplying over 90 percent of London's hemp. By 1633, almost 97 percent came from Russia.
The Russian Brack
Russia was the world's major exporter of hemp since it alone, of all the major hemp-producing countries, was able to supply the most hemp and produce it at the cheapest prices. Since England had no other source of supply that could meet its needs, England was Russia's best customer, importing two-thirds of all Russia's exports by the eighteenth century.
The center of Russia's hemp industry was located in the Ukraine and in the countryside between Poland and Moscow. Farmers raised and cleaned their hemp for sale to wholesalers, who bought it from them and transported it to retailers in the towns, who in turn shipped it to various ports such as Riga and St. Petersburg.
Since hemp was sold on the basis of weight, it was relatively easy to increase its cost either by adding stones, timber, rotten hemp, or rubbish to the bales, by wetting down the fibers, or simply by giving the buyer a false weight. Because of the widespread fraud among Russian retailers, the Russian government instituted a formal inspection office called the brack, consisting of local port officials whose job was to make sure that fraud was not being perpetrated on buyers. Brack inspectors were supposed to be financially liable to a buyer on proof of fraud, but it was almost impossible to prove fraud until the hemp was unloaded in England. In some ports such as Riga inspection was rigorous, whereas in ports such as St. Petersburg it was lax and fraud was rampant.
In 1717, English merchants became so fed up with Russian cheating, they complained loudly enough to Parliament to pressure the English secretary of state to threaten the Russian ambassador that unless the abuses stopped once and for all England would go elsewhere for its hemp, such as its American colonies. It was a bluff, but the czar fell for it. Believing that Russia was in danger of losing its lucrative export trade with the English, he ordered abuses stopped, and offenders were threatened with loss of property, hard labor in the mines, and even death.
Conditions still remained unsatisfactory in most Russian ports, however, and despite efforts and negotiations to change the brack so that English buyers would also serve as brack inspectors, English buyers had to grin and bear the dishonesty. They simply needed the hemp and had nowhere else to get it. While Poland, Prussia, and France also were exporters, they were not able to sell enough to satisfy England's enormous needs for the product.
England's dependence on foreign hemp placed her in a precarious position should hostilities break out between her and Russia or with any third country that controlled the sea route to Russia. Without a reliable source of hemp, England could not build ships. Without ships, she would remain an island isolated from Europe and the rest of the world.
The royal navy and the navigation of England under God, the wealth, safety and strength of this kingdom [Parliament lamented] depends on the due supply of stores necessary for the same, which [are] being now brought in mostly from foreign parts in foreign shipping at exorbitant and arbitrary rates...
A pamphlet written by a Sir Richard Haines spoke directly at England's need to become self-sufficient in hemp:
a further advantage by this planting of hemp, etc., will accrue towards making of sails, cables, and other cordage necessary for shipping, of which may be made at home, without being beholden to our neighbours for a commodity so important to navigation, parting with our money to strangers for it, as we usually do to a very great yearly value.
To induce hemp workers who were fleeing persecution in Europe to seek refuge in England, Parliament passed a law in 1663 that any foreigner who settled in England or Wales and established a hemp-related industry within three years would, upon taking the oath of allegiance to the king, be accorded the same rights and privileges as natural-born citizens.
But despite all her efforts to induce her own farmers at home to comply with the laws to raise hemp, and the inducements she offered refugees abroad to come to England if they promised to practice their trades once they got there, there was never enough hemp. Faced with failure at home, the monarchy turned to her loyal subjects abroad for cooperation.
References and Notes