Colonial History

The production of hemp (Cannabis sativa) was one of the prime motivators for the Anglo – European colonisation of the continent that became known as Australia.

Britain’s economy and security was almost entirely dependent on the traditional hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. At the end of the middle ages, improved ship design and sail configurations required stronger sails.

Hemp was the strongest natural fibre known to man. By using Cannabis, the strongest sails could be made for longer voyages.At the end of the middle ages Europeans were crossing the oceans instead of clinging to the coasts in search of wealth, converts and new knowledge. The strong sails employed to drive this expanding economy were named after the plant they were made from – Canvas – the Dutch pronunciation of the word Cannabis.
Canvas from canevas from Latin cannabis hemp, from Greek Kannabis – more at hemp~Websters Third New International Dictionary

Cannabis was as important to the economy of the Age of Exploration as fossil fuel oil is to the economy of the military industrial complex of the western world today. Furthermore, Cannabis retained its importance as a strategic raw material for over 400 years, until the development of steam shipping in the mid to late nineteenth century.

Britain had been importing hemp from the Baltic region since Roman times. When Britain’s maritime and naval fleet began to grow at the end of the 15th century, so did the demand for hemp. Other European naval and maritime powers also created a demand for this increasingly important resource. Cannabis became a Strategic Raw Material and one to be fought over. Whenever Britain went to war with a continental power, the first tactic brought to bear against the island state was to block its northern sea route to the Baltic. Although individually weaker than Britain, Holland and France grew as maritime powers because they had superior access to the Baltic trade routes and a more secure supply of Hemp. [Richard Natkiel and Antony Preston, The Weidenfeld Atlas of Maritime History, Weidenfield and Preston, 1986]

As early as the 1500s this had become an obvious weak point in Britain’s defensive and offensive ability. The obvious solution was to look to the west where the New World of the Americas had been discovered and was being settled by an increasing number of European peoples. All of the European powers with settlements in the New World were particularly interested in growing hemp and laws were made stipulating that the recipients of land grants in the new colonies must devote a portion of their land and labour to growing hemp. All trade depended on it and all naval military strategy was equally reliant on a steady and secure supply of hemp.

The British colonies in the Americas lived up to their promise in securing Britain a supply of strategic raw materials and a wealth of trade and commerce. By the late 1700s a major ship-of-the-line in the British navy required 80 tons of Hemp in sail and rope, this equated with 350 acres of hemp production. The sails and rigging had to be completely replaced every 3-4 years. Hemp production was labour intensive and a source of cheap labour proved valuable to secure a constant supply. In the southern colonies of north America, African slaves were used to produce tobacco and cotton. In the northern colonies of New England, convict labour from Britain was employed. There were no penitentiaries until the 1800s. Convicted felons were bonded as servants until they had ‘paid their debt to society’ through labour. By 1770 (the year Captain Cook claimed Australia for the British Empire), over a thousand convicts a year were being transported mostly to plantations in Virginia and Maryland in North America.

When the thirteen colonies in North America declared their independence from Britain in 1776, Britain was dealt a serious blow. The British lost the battle of Yorktown in 1781 and the Baltic supplies of cannabis, tar and timber were seriously diminished by the League of Armed Neutrality (an alliance of Holland and other northern European powers). With the Baltic sea route blocked and the north American Colonies lost Britain was isolated from her sources of strategic raw materials. No Cannabis: No Canvas. No Canvas: No trade.
Britain desperately fought to regain control of the American colonies but to no avail. 1783 saw their final defeat and the British Navy and nation was in a desperate situation when proposals to found a colony in the distant land of ‘New South Wales’ began to appear at the Home Office.

The decision to found a colony in Australia was not an easy one. Australia was in an almost unknown part of the planet on the other side of the earth. Sailing time was about 6 months and it was considered by most people to be to far away to be a useful or reliable supply route for such important strategic materials. One recent innovation in its favour, however, was the new technology of coppering ships hulls. A layer of copper prevented easy fouling of the ships’ hull by marine growths. Barnacles, algae and sea weed significantly affected a ships’ speed and handling ability. Coppering the hull meant that a ship could stay at sea for up to six months without careening (taking the ship out of the water and scraping the hull) [Natkiel & Preston, The Weidenfeld Atlas of Maritime History, Weidenfeld & Preston, 1986] This may have improved the viability of a supply line to New South Wales.

Two of the major lobbyists for the founding of a colony in New South Wales were Sir Joseph Banks and James Matra (aka Magra). Both Banks and Matra had traveled on the Endeavour with Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook.

James Matra was an American loyalist. His family had lost their land and wealth in the War of Independence and formed part of a group in London who had lost everything by their loyalty to the British Crown. They lobbied to be compensated, if not by money then by being allocated land in other British colonies. James Matra’s first proposals were to found a colony in New South Wales to be farmed under a plantation system by American loyalists and their bonded convict servants. Of course the colony would produce strategic raw materials for the British nation. This often went without saying. Everybody just knew and accepted the importance of producing hemp. There was also no need to advertise it to other competitive nations. But the other nations knew it too; Canvas (cannabis) was what the competition was all about.

In an unsigned draft of a letter sent to Hamilton, Under Secretary to Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, a paragraph states ‘But above all, the Cultivation of the Flax Plant seems to be the most considerable object’ of the settlement of convicts in Australia. This paragraph was omitted from the final letter. This illustrates a need for secrecy and censorship of information relating to strategic raw materials.[Roe, quoted in]

Sir Joseph Banks was a major influence in the direction and design of British policy. His fame, reputation, friendship with King George and Presidency of the Royal Society gave him profound influence. One of his main interests was the promotion of growing hemp as a strategic raw material for the British Navy within the British colonies. [Snyder, M.R. (1994) Sir Joseph Banks and commercial biology: A motivating force in British imperial expansion during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Unpublished master’s thesis. University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.]

When Sir Joseph Banks observed New Zealand on the Voyage of the Endeavour in 1770 he pointed out that the natives produced cloth and rope from a plant which was later to be known as the New Zealand flax. This plant, he hoped, may prove superior to traditional hemp.

But of all the plants we have seen among these people that which is the most excellent in its kind, and which really excels most if not all that are put to the Same uses in other Countries, is the plant which serves them instead of Hemp and flax. Of this there are two sorts: the leaves of Both much resemble those of flags: the flowers are smaller and grow many more together, in one sort they are Yellowish in the other of a deep red. Of the leaves of these plants with very little preparation all their common wearing apparel are made and all Strings, lines, and Cordage for every purpose, and that of a strength so much superior to hemp as scarce to bear a comparison with it.

Sir Joseph Banks Papers (

Sir Joseph gave a bag of hemp seeds as a gift to the First Fleet in 1788. A letter received by Joseph Banks from the East India Company in 1801 shows that he was still handing out bags of hemp seeds in the Australian colonies 13 years later. []

The experiment to develop New Zealand flax as a substitute for Cannabis was given top priority and one of Governor Captain Arthur Phillips first actions after the First Fleets’ arrival was to dispatch Lieutenant King with a party of convicts and a qualified weaver to Norfolk island. The weaver was not a convict, but was described by Lieutenant King as ‘an adventurer’ who had been a ‘master weaver’. [The Journal of Philip Gidley King: Lietenant R.N 1787 – 1790, Fidlon & Ryan (eds) Australian Documents Library, Sydney 1980]

Captain Phillips’ instructions from the British Government contained the order to colonise Norfolk Island in order to develop its resources and to prevent the French from doing the same. Phillip’s written orders to Lieutenant King stated:
After having taken the necessary measures for securing yourself and people, and for the preservation of the stores and provisions, you are immediately to proceed to the cultivation of the Flax Plant which you will find growing spontaneously on the island:[Historical Records of Australia, Series I vol. i pp 62 sqq]

At first their efforts were promising. Two Maori people were brought over from New Zealand to provide expertise in processing the plant and Watkin Tench reported:

Our Accounts from thence are more favourable than were expected. The soil proves admirably adapted to produce all kinds of grain and European vegetables. But the discovery that constitutes its value is the New Zealand flax…on trial, by some flax dressers among us, the threads produced from them though coarse, are pronounced to be stronger, more likely to be durable, and fitter for every purpose of manufacturing cordage than any ever before dressed…a ship from hence is ready to sail with an increase in force, besides many convicts for the purpose of sawing up timber, and turning the flax plant to advantage. [Watkin Tench, 1788]

Cultivation on Norfolk Island was more successful than on the mainland so Governor Phillip dispatched more convicts to Norfolk Island where they could be more usefully employed and better fed. The isolation of Norfolk Island also made it a useful place to send ‘incorrigibles’ and in February 1790 Phillip wrote to Lord Sydney, ‘Such convicts as are sentenced for life would be perfectly safe at Norfolk Island where they may be employed in cultivating the flax plant.’ [Historical Records of Australia, I, i, p 158]
In 1793, Lieutenant King wrote the following letter to Under Secretary Nepean:

Dear Sir,
To my public letter respecting my trip to New Zealand I must refer you for every circumstance attending it, and I hope to hear that my proceedings on that business will be approved of. I am confident much public good would result to the commerce of great Britain and these colonies if a settlement was made at the Bay of Islands or the river Thames. To my letters I must refer you for my ideas on that subject. Since my return from that country I am more confirmed in its apparent utility. Weavers and rope makers should be sent out with their proper implements, as it will answer much better to send the flax manufactured than in the raw state. If the plants get safe home, I think too much attention cannot be paid to the cultivation of it, as it will grow most luxuriantly in situations where scarce anything else will vegetate. I have sent a box with some very fine plants to Sir Joseph. [Historical Records of New Zealand. Vol 1, pp 179-181]

After some years of endeavour the experiment to replace Cannabis sativa with Phormium tenax was judged a complete failure. However, it is obvious that one of the prime motivations for the British colonisation of New Zealand was the same as that to colonise Australia: to grow Strategic Raw Materials for the British Naval and Mercantile fleet.

When Britain went to war against Napoleonic France, Napolean tried to revive the League of Armed Neutrality to block the Baltic supply route. Nelson’s victory at Copenhagen secured the supply route. [Natkiel & Preston, The Weidenfeld Atlas of Maritime History, Weidenfeld & Preston, 1986] Britain was to remain dependent on Cannabis for several more decades until the development of Steam Technology in Shipping made sails obsolete.

Source: Hemp in British and Australian Colonial History by Phillip Charlier

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