Cannabis Colonialism: The Historical Influence of Hemp Trade in the UK

by Oliver Callaghan

The use of hemp in Britain has a deep history which goes back over a thousand years. This article will examine the origins of the hemp trade in the UK, the evolution of its use in colonial expansion, and assess how the cannabis trade was affected in India, Egypt, and South Africa as a result of colonialism.

Origins of hemp in the UK 

The cultivation and trade of hemp was a fundamental part of the British economy and the production of fibre which was used in textiles, cordage, fishing nets, canvas, and many other crucial materials. 

The earliest example of hemp cultivation stretches back to viking occupation in the 10th Century, after experts found hemp seeds in a well in York. It is believed that due to its proximity to coastal areas of the UK, hemp was a foundational part of fibre production for ships over alternatives like flax during this time. 

Hemp was so vital to the British economy that mandates were enacted during Henry the 8th’s reign in 1533, which stated that landowners must cultivate hemp or face fines. These mandates were furthered under Elizabeth the 1st, with stricter penalties designed to accelerate the hemp industry due to the increased demand for fibre to expand the British empire. 

The British navy relied on the fibre provided by hemp for sails, nets, and rope. This development of the navy is inseparably linked to the success of the British empire and their infamous expansion over the following centuries. 

This thirst for expansion meant that the demand for hemp drastically increased, resulting in the mass exportation of hemp to British occupied territories to replenish the navy’s supply of fibre. This resulted in a situation where the origins (or expansion) of the cultivation of cannabis plants can be inexplicably linked to the influence of British colonialism.

In 1928, the addition of cannabis to the Dangerous Drugs Act meant that hemp plants could no longer be cultivated in the UK. This issue was driven by a combination of fear among politicians about the psychoactive effects of cannabis alongside the desire for alignment with other countries in the League of Nations (LoN) for diplomatic harmony. During this time, the USA and Britain were more concerned about the devastating opium epidemics, but conformed to the LoN stance nevertheless. 

While hemp was legalised again in the UK in 1993, the landscape around hemp cultivation was permanently altered by prohibition, resulting in a situation where many of hemp’s unique potential was overlooked due to overreaching regulations which made the cultivation of hemp laborious, expensive, and complicated.

Cannabis’ discovery

Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy discovered cannabis during his deployment for the East India Company in the 1830s and 40s. There, he witnessed cannabis’ use in religious ceremonies, as well as a medicinal tool for a number of ailments. O’Shaughnessy believed this potential could be extrapolated to the UK, after he publishing the findings of his experiments on those with health issues such as rheumatism, convulsions, and muscle spasms relating to tetanus and rabies in his work “On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or gunjah” in 1839.

While hemp was a crucial part of the British empire, the psychoactive potential of Indian hemp had remained under the radar in this regard, and O’Shaughnessy’s discovery of this meant that cannabis and hash oil began to be used in a number of medicinal compounds in the UK. This knowledge gradually spread across the British empire, resulting in a number of trade routes opening which brought cannabis to a number of countries under British occupation such as South Africa, Jamaica, and Burma. This importation to Jamaica led to the contemporary cannabis culture in Jamaica, with terms like Ganja originating from this process.

Below is a list of the medicinal applications of cannabis during the early 20th century:

Sedative: Insomnia, mania, bronchitis, cholera, deliria, pulmonary tuberculosis

Pain management: Eye strain, headaches, inflammation, neuralgia, ulcers, indigestion, postpartum haemorrhage, eczema, dental pain 

Other: Improve appetite, diarrhoea, dysentery, cardiac palpitations, impotence, vertigo 

(more on the medicinal history of cannabis here)

A revolution in novel medicinal research in the early 1900s such as morphine, barbiturates, vaccines, and other more effective treatments for illnesses like cholera meant that cannabis as a medicine was gradually phased out until cannabis’ prohibition in 1928.

The Sociocultural Transformation of Cannabis in India

Cannabis has an extensive context in religious ceremonies and medicines in India dating back to Atharva Veda (2000 BC to 1400 BC). There it is described as a sacred grass- a source of life force and euphoria with medicinal value and a way to get closer to the gods. 

Although the cultivation and preparation of cannabis was present in India long before British occupation, the commission of hemp production by the British drastically changed the landscape of cannabis consumption in India, resulting in a situation where cannabis remained licensed and taxed in India despite numerous attempts to ban cultivation in 1838, 1871, 1877, and 1894 where the Indian Drugs Commission ruled that cannabis caused “little” injury to society or the individual, and that only very heavy cannabis use was associated with any physical, mental, or moral implications.

This decision (along with the redundancy of hemp in the context of growing steel manufacture) meant that the recreational use of cannabis exploded in India during the 20th century, reaching its highest point in the 1960s. This trend continued until the passing of the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985 which banned the cultivation, consumption, and sale of cannabis altogether. Since this decision, research into the medicinal viability of cannabis in India has been noticeably delayed despite the rich sociocultural and ritualistic background of cannabis use in India. 

Overall, the influence of colonialism in India resulted in cannabis’ reputation shifting from a religious vehicle for spirituality into an industrialised cash crop which permanently transformed the perception of cannabis in India for the better and the worst. 

Exploitation in Africa

While the specific date of the cultivation and consumption of cannabis in Africa vary, it is accepted that cannabis has been present in Africa since around 1000 BC, and has been identified under a number of names. While some of the cultivation in Africa can be attributed to the trade of Indian bhang, there are many names in which cannabis has been recognised as such as dagga, matokwani, kif, urimogi, or the more well known hashish which is most commonly associated with North and East Africa.

Prior to colonial influence in Africa, cannabis was primarily used as a psychoactive drug, apart from in Madagascar where hemp was an economically viable crop due to its use in fabrics. Information about cannabis’ horticulture, pharmacology and ecology was present due to cannabis gardens in South Africa and Mozambique in the 18th century, however this knowledge on cannabis cultivation also swept across many other countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Angola in the 19th century. 

During the European colonial movements, non-psychoactive hemp was imported at great quantities despite its economic difficulty to grow, and was widely used to replenish fibre supplies; purchased at a low cost with heavy taxation on growers. 

While there is a dense history regarding the political, agricultural, and economic factors affecting cannabis cultivation, trade, and consumption in Africa which I will not be able to conclusively articulate in this article, here are two of the most prominent countries in Africa which were affected by colonialism’s lasting impact on the cannabis and hemp trade.

South Africa

In the 18th century, the cultivation of cannabis gardens in South Africa was well cited. This culture resulted in a deep horticultural knowledge of the plant as well as a rich genetic biodiversity.

Although the Dutch had colonised Cape Town in 1652, it wasn’t until the British occupation in 1815s that the cannabis trade was substantively intercepted by foreign occupiers. Rather than invest or develop cannabis agriculture during this time, authorities used this opportunity to seize wealth from this trade through taxation. While cannabis remained legal during this time, the heavy taxation imposed by authorities meant that cannabis was no longer as economically viable as other drugs such as tea or tobacco. 

This replacement of cannabis along with the stigmatisation caused by beliefs about the immoral connotations of cannabis consumption meant that agriculture was suppressed. While cultivation was not officially prohibited until 1904, the damage to cannabis’ reputation had already led to the cannabis trade becoming an underground market which was increasingly associated with social outcasts.

This combination of factors meant that the South African government gradually adopted a rigid prohibitionist stance towards cannabis which was demonstrated during the 1925 International Opium Convention, where South African officials endorsed  the prohibition of cannabis.

Ironically, the stigmatisation and prohibition of cannabis meant that it became particularly lucrative to grow due to the decreased supply, resulting in a peak in its cultivation in the latter half of the 20th century. However, the underground nature of cannabis markets meant that socioeconomically exposed populations often had to rely on the precarious cultivation of cannabis to make ends meet. Consequently, many cultivators had to risk the prospect of prosecution or the danger of organised crime.

While cannabis is now decriminalised in South Africa and has considerable investment in its cultivation for medicinal purposes, its recreational sale remains prohibited. The neocolonial influence of Western investors also means that the cultivation of cannabis remains as a strenuous and competitive sector for South Africans. 


Egypt has a long history in the cultivation, importation, and cultivation of hashish. Sources suggest could have implemented some of the first bans on cannabis production in 1253 when Sufi muslim minorities were deemed a threat to society by the Egyptian government. The Sufis were a subsection of the Islamic faith in Egypt, mostly made up of poor labourers and farmers who believed that cannabis could be used as a tool for spirituality and enlightenment.

While the Sufis believed cannabis could be used as a method to deepen spiritual ties to Allah, the Egyptian government condemned the use of cannabis and attempted to destroy the cannabis trade on a number of occasions. This lengthy tension between the two parties culminated in the passing of martial law in 1378, where Egyptian troops raided and burned cannabis crops, imprisoned or executed farmers, and pulled the teeth of those who consumed the plant. Despite these actions, hashish production and consumption continued to flourish in the centuries that followed.

Unlike the British occupation of India, the French occupation under Napoleon in 1798 resumed prohibition, after French troops would recreationally consume hashish as an alternative to alcohol due to Egypt’s Islamic demographic which forbade the  consumption of alcohol. This resulted in a ban on hashish in October of 1800, an order which soldiers would ignore, resulting in widespread crackdowns and the prosecution of hashish distributors shortly afterwards.

While the French were forced to evacuate shortly afterwards in 1802 as part of British peace negotiations, cannabis was prohibited once again in 1877 by the Ottomans, who enacted disruptionary practices due to a belief that cannabis normalisation affected the quality of the labour force. This prohibitionist legislation was formally codified by the Khedivate of Egypt (an autonomous tributary state of the Ottoman empire) who formally banned the importation of hashish in 1879, and the cultivation of hashish in 1884. 

Interestingly, the British occupation of Egypt in 1887 liberalised the Egyptian cannabis trade, as officials argued that a prohibitionist stance on cannabis had not worked in the past, and would only lead to drug smuggling in underground markets which would not provide taxation. These changes meant that cannabis was confiscated and exported instead, effectively resuming the production and sale of cannabis to the benefit of the British. 

While cannabis was cohesively regulated under the 1925 International Opium Convention (due to a driving effort by Egyptian officials) the cultivation and trade of hash in Egypt continued to resist these regulations until international prohibitionist policies were accelerated in the 60s and 70s. The prohibitionist sentiments about cannabis by Egyptian policymakers have left contemporary Egypt in a position that remains sceptical to cannabis legalisation to this day. 

Although there are a number of reasons for this attitude, it has undoubtedly been influenced by the waves of foreign powers that have disrupted the Egyptian cannabis trade both in reformist and prohibitionist capacities. When occupiers have liberalised cannabis, it has been to confiscate from cultivators to profit from exports, whereas prohibitionist approaches have also been detrimental to the Egyptian interest by criminalising growers, stigmatising the poor and prosecuting consumers.


While colonialism has had a varied impact on the reputation of the cannabis trade, there are several themes which have emerged from this expansive history:

The primary influence that colonialism inflicted is the economic exploitation of punitive taxation. In almost all cases where the cannabis trade was permitted, the sole benefit of this trade favoured the occupiers who either used the cultivation of cannabis and hemp to fuel their territorial expansion or to generate revenue through the disproportionate and unsustainable taxation of their citizens.

Cultural suppression is another impact that western colonialism had on the cannabis trade. As can be seen in India or South Africa particularly, the transformation of cannabis from a plant with a rich cultural and religious significance to a drug which became associated with moral delinquency and social ostracisation has left a reputation which continues to inform perceptions about cannabis in many post-colonial societies.

Perhaps the only benefit to come from the dissemination of cannabis during the colonisation era was the reinvigoration of cannabis distribution in countries like Jamaica, where the importation of Indian ganja sparked the Rastafarian religion; propagating the consumption of cannabis to a wider audience who were able to redefine the cultural significance of cannabis to its roots.

While the modern prohibition of cannabis has been tied to efforts to eliminate counter cultural influence, there is an interesting paradox which was exposed during the colonial era. On many occasions, occupiers had to decide between stigmatising cannabis use or profiting from cannabis trade by permitting its continuation. As this article has demonstrated, a hypocritical and irresponsible combination of these options was often exercised which has permanently altered the timeline of cannabis.

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