Photo and story Luis Feliu
It’s a radical new theory but Brisbane author Dr John Jiggens is convinced NSW was originally intended to be a hemp colony for the British Empire and not the convict settlement we’ve all been taught about in history books.
In his new book, Dr Jiggens argues that Australia’s settlement was for the purpose of growing and exporting hemp, and the convicts were just a cover story to mislead Britain’s rivals.
And he says the much-maligned fibre today is often confused with the drug variety of cannabis commonly known as marijuana (cannabis indica), yet 200 years ago hemp, or cannabis sativa, was the most important plant on the planet.
Its use as the basis for sail and rope in the ‘Age of Sail’, as well as banknotes and textiles, was as strategic as oil is today.
Dr Jiggens, who visited Byron Shire this week to promote his latest book, Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp, is passionate about the subject, saying Banks was not just Australia’s most famous botanist, but one of Britain’s most eminent and influential figures of his time who was obsessed with hemp, becoming an authority not just on hemp but alternatives to the much-used fibre.
Banks deemed it vital to secure and dominate supplies of fibre hemp for the British navy and economy and conducted trials on the plant in the colonies.
Subtitled Hemp, Sea Power and Empire, 1776–1815, it’s the third book Dr Jiggens has written in a series dealing with both types of cannabis. The other works are titled Marijuana Australiana and The killer cop and the murder of Donald Mackay, which also provides a fresh new theory on the killing of the anti-drugs crusading MP.
Dr Jiggens will give a talk at the Nimbin Mardi Grass in May on his new theory.
The author said he knew Australia had ‘a fabulous history on cannabis’ before 1938, when the plant was prohibited, but couldn’t write a book on it until he had finished his PhD.
Hemp’s US history
It was while going through a book by US amateur historian on cannabis, Jack Herer, called The Emperor Wore No Clothes that he learnt America’s founding fathers and presidents had written essays on hemp ‘which was extremely important early in the history of the US’.
While researching the subject, he discovered Banks was most keen on hemp and how he wanted to secure supplies of the fibre and boost trade for Britain at the time when it ruled much of the world through its sea power.
Dr Jiggens said Banks was not just a botanist who financed the scientific side of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour expeditions around the world, but also the head of the Royal Society, a member of the Privy Council, a close friend of King George III and ‘adviser to just about everything to the British King and his government’.
He came across Banks’s file on hemp in a book by one of Banks’s first biographers, Joseph Maiden, so he ordered a copy from the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London, once also run by Banks.
He said research on the subject was tricky also as Banks’s collection of letters were scattered all around the world.
‘The three main points I wanted to make in this book are that Australia was founded as a hemp colony, that hemp was as strategic as oil is today (the Russians dominated the hemp trade at the time) and that hemp is not marijuana, because it’s banned as a pretext that it is the drug marijuana, and I want to create debate on the many species of the genus cannabis, of which I think there are many,’ he said.
‘What comes out of this story is that Banks attempts to solve the question of hemp and he does this by growing hundreds of acres of marijuana in India, because he doesn’t recognise the difference, and he’s very puzzled by it as the drug cannabis was just unknown in Europe.
‘In India of course it was a sacred plant and known as an intoxicant but not used as a fibre crop because it wasn’t that, just as hemp is not a drug crop.
‘Hemp never had the chemical or psychological properties of marijuana. Banks was a great hemp expert but had no idea there’s a drug use in it.’
Dr Jiggens said Banks only learnt of the drug cannabis when the British consul of Tangier, Morocco, James Matra, who was a former friend and midshipman on the Endeavour expedition to Botany Bay, sent him a sample of cannabis indica in hashish form.
‘We’re very backward in our knowledge of the genus cannabis because governments have been destroying cannabis in the wild for a long time, claiming it to be a drug plant. Cannabis plants have been grown for thousands of years in Africa, the Middle East and Asia for food, fibre and medicine. Over this enormous time and distance, the genus has evolved to become several different species,’ he said.
Dr Jiggens said hemp was a vital strategic material in the 18th century which, as such, was ‘kept secret just as oil supplies to this day are.
‘For the past 10 years or more, wars have been fought in the Middle-East and presented to the public as a series of humanitarian interventions, but it’s really a long war to do with the strategic control of oil, so when it’s strategic it’s covered in secrecy.’
Dr Jiggens’s books are available online at www.drjiggens.com.
IMAGE: Brisbane author Dr John Jiggens visited Byron Shire last week to promote his new book on the history of hemp in Australia with its controversial new theory that Australia’s founding fathers planned New South Wales as a hemp-growing colony for the British Empire.