Hemp, Enc. Britannica, 1856

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Hemp, Enc. Britannica, 1856

HEMP, a tough fibre yielded by the large annual plant Cannabis sativa, of the natural order Cannabinaceae. There are, however, several other fibres known in commerce to which the term is more or less commonly applied. for example - Jute hemp is obtained from Corchorus capsularis and C. olitorius; Manilla hemp from Musa textilis; Brown hemp from Hibiscus canabinus; Pite or Pita hemp from several species of agave and aloe; Sunn hemp, Madras hemp, brown Bombay hemp and Malabar hemp, from Crotalaria juncea; Jubbulpore hemp, from Crotalaria tenuifolia, and several others.

The true hemp (Cannabis sativa) has been recognised as a useful plant from a very early period, although probably not of the same antiquity as flax. Herodotus is the first writer who mentions it (iv. 74), but he speaks of it in a manner which shows it must have been then well-known, for he describes the hempen garments made by the Thracians as being equal to linen (flax cloth) in fineness. Its use for making cordage is noted as early as 200 years B.C. by Moschion, who mentions that a large ship, the "syracusia," built by Hiero II, was rigged with ropes made from hemp brought from the Rhone.

The original country of the hemp-plant is not positively known, but it is generally believed to have been the mountainous districts in the extreme north of India, whence it spread westward through Europe, and southward through the peninsula of India. Its cultivation in each direction had in all probability a different object; for it is found to produce under tropical culture an inferior fibre, and a powerfully intoxicating drug, but in cold and temperate climates it yields an abundance of strong fibres in great perfection for textile purposes, and loses its narcotic qualities. The similarity of its name in various languages is a strong indication that it has taken the course here indicated; thus, in the Sanscrit it is called goni, sana, or shanapu; Persic, canna; Arabic, kanneh or kinnub; Greek, kannabis; Latin, cannabis; Italian, canapa; French, chanvre or chanbre; Danish, kamp or kennep; Lettish and Lithuanian, kannapes; Slavonic, konopi; Erse, canaib; Scaninavian, hampr; Swedish, hampa; German, hauf; Anglo-Saxon, haenep; and English, hemp. In India other names are applied, indicative of its intoxicating or narcotic powers; thus, according to Dr Royle, it is called the "increaser of pleasure," the "exciter of desire," the "cementer of friendship," the "causer of the reeling gait," the "laughter mover," &c.; and he also suggests that it may have been the nepenthes ("assuager of grief") of Homer, given by Helen to Telemachus.

The intoxicating properties of hemp reside in a peculiar resinous extract naturally secreted by the plant when growing in a hot climate. So remarkable is this peculiarity, that botanists until lately insisted upon the hemp of India being a distinct species (C. indica). It is now, however, decided that there is really no specific difference, the change being simply climatal.

The secretion is deposited by exudation upon the surface of the leaves, the slender branches, and the flowers. According to Dr O'Shaughnessy, it is collected during the hot season by men clad in leathern dresses, who rush with violence through the hemp fields; the resin adheres to their dresses, from which it is scraped off and kneaded into lumps which have the appearance of pieces of linseed oil cake in colour and texture, and a peculiar and by no means agreeable smell. In this state it is called "churrus;" and there are evidently several varieties of the substance, as Dr Pereira describes it as being "in masses of the shape and size of a hen's egg, or of a small lemon, and formed by the adhesion of superimposed elongated pieces. It has dull grayish-brown colour, and not much odour;" whereas one specimen in the writer's collection differs in being in large shapeless fragments of the colour of amber, with the loose friable texture of linseed cake, and a heavy unpleasant odour. Another specimen has a resinous lustre, a dark brown colour, and is formed into an elongated oval shape, but not larger than half a hen's egg. This is almost odourless, and is probably the momeea or waxen churrus, said to be collected with great care by the hand, and to be highly prized. The dried plant after it has flowered, and from which the churrus has not been removed, is compressed into bundles of twenty-four plants each, and is sold in the bazaars of India under the name of gunjah. The larger leaves and capsules, without the stalks, are also compressed into irregular sized masses, which receive the names of bang, subjee, or sidhee, in India. The hashish of the Arabians consists of the tops of the small branchlets after inflorescence, carefully gathered and dried. Both this and the two previously mentioned preparations are extensively used for smoking and chewing - the gunjah and bang in India and Persis, and the hashish in Africa. When the bushmen of Southern Africa were brought to England, they passed much of their time in smoking this narcotic in pipes made of the long teeth of alligators, hollowed out for the purpose. Its use as a means of intoxication is said to have given rise to our word assassin, from the fact that the low Saracen soldiery, called hashashins, when intoxicated with hashish, were sent into the camps of the crusaders for the purpose of killing whomsoever they met, the drug rendering them quite regardless of the consequences. The physiological effects of the various preparations above mentioned are most remarkable, and are unlike every other narcotic at present known. It produces inebriation and delirium of decidedly hilarious character, inducing violent laughter, jumping and dancing. The writer several times witnessed its effects upon the bushmen. After inhaling the smoke for some time they rose and began a very slow dance, which was gradually quickened until they became perfectly frenzied, and finally fell down in a state of complete insensiblity, from which they were a considerable time in recovering. Dr O'Shaughnessy relates some most remarkable effects of the churrus, particularly its power in producing a state of true catalepsy. The same effects do not appear to take place upon Europeans, but this point has not yet been fairly tried, as the drug evidently suffers some change in its transmission by sea.

But it is not as a narcotic and excitant that the hemp plant is most useful to mankind; it is as an advancer rather than a retarder of civilization, that its utility is made most manifest. Its great value as a textile material, particularly for cordage and canvas, has made it eminently useful; and if we were to copy the figurative style of the Sanscrit writers, we might with justice call it the "accelerator of commerce," and the "spreader of wealth and intellect." for ages man has been dependent upon hempen cordage and hempen sails for enabling his ships to cross the seas; and in this respect it still occupies a most important place in our commercial affairs.

For its valuable fibre hemp is very largely cultivated in Europe, but chiefly in Russia and Russian Poland. It undergoes the same process for decomposing the parts of the stem as that described in the article on FLAX, called water-retting, by which the cellular tissue of the bark and medulla is destroyed, and the long fibres of the woody part are set free. This is not done by simply soaking in the waters of ponds and streams, for it requires to be dried both previously and subsequently to the retting process; after which it is beaten with wooden beetles or mallets, or by an apparatus called a break or brake worked by a treddle. Sometimes, however, this laborious operation is effected by water or steam-power. Some of the finer kinds of hemp are more carefully prepared; the seed is sown broad-cast instead of in drills, by which the stems are grown more slender and the fibres finer; and after the water-retting each stem is taken in the hand, and the epidermis is stripped or peeled off, and the reed or boon is then submitted as before mentioned to the breaking process. In both cases after breaking the stalks are conveyed to the scutching-mills, where the separation of the fibres is still further effected by rubbing and striking, after which it is heckled or hackled - the heckler taking as much as he can conveniently hold and drawing it through a number of iron spikes fixed in a board forming a kind of comb.

The process called dew-retting, described in the article on FLAX, is also adopted for very fine varieties of hemp, such as the white crown Marienburg, and the Italian garden hemp; and in Russia and Sweden another method called snow-retting is used. After the first fall of snow the hemp which has been put up in stacks is spread out over the snow, and left to be buried by successive falls. It thus remains covered until the snow disappears, and is then sufficiently retted.

We have hitherto received the largest quantity of hemp from Russia - St Petersburg, Memel, and Riga being the chief ports of shipment; but the late war, which put a stop to the supply from this source, is likely to produce a beneficial result to our colonies. The indefatigable exertions of Dr Royle on behalf of the Indian government have led to the knowledge of various fibrous substances which are prodeuced in the greatest abundance in our Indian empire, in the manufacture of cordage and canvas; so that having been forced into a knowledge of our own resources, it is not probable we shall ever be so dependent upon Russia in future for this necessary article.

The best substitute appears to be the Caloee or Rheea fibre produced by a plant of the nettle tribe (Urticaccae), Boehmeria nivea. The Rheea fibre can, it is expected, be produced very much cheaper than Russian hemp, and it is nearly twice as strong. Hitherto hemp has had one great advantage over all other fibres in the manufacture of cordage, and it remains to be seen whether the Rheea fibre has this qualification. When a hempen rope is worn out, if it has not been tarred, it is valuable for making paper; and if it has been tarred, it is even more useful for oakum. This is not the case certainly with the fine ropes of Manilla hemp (Musa textilis), which, though stronger than the best Russian hemp, are almost useless when worn out. The same may be said of the admirable coir ropes now so extensively used for ship's hawsers and other corage exposed to water. These ropes are made of the fibres from the husk of the common cocoa-nut.

The fibre called New Zealand flax, which is procured from the long sword-shaped leaves of Phormium tenax, a liliaceous plant, has been much recommended of late; but whether from the difficulty of preparing it, or from the inadequacy of the supply, it has not yet become a regular article of commerce. The epidermis of its leaves is more compact and harder than that of the stalks of the plants previously mentioned, and this may cause great difficulty both in retting and scutching.

We import hemp from Russia, Italy, Holland, Turkey, the East Indies, and latterly from the United States. That from America, however, is of inferior quality and blackish colour. The East Indian hemp is coarse, and is in small hanks plaited about the thickness of a man's arm. The Italian hemp is very fine, that variety called garden-hemp being the longest of any kind; its superiority is supposed to be the result of spade culture in very suitable soil. It is also as white and soft as the finest white Russian.

Of the Russian kinds the St Petersburg clean and the Riga rein (or clean) are the best for general purposes. The variety called white crown Marienburg is remarkably short, white and soft; it is only fit for fine canvas.

The quantity of hemp imported into the United Kingdom was-

From RussiaFrom other countries
In 1851.........33,229 tonsIn 1851..........31,441 tons
In 1852.........26,857 tonsIn 1852..........26,551 tons
In 1853.........40,320 tonsIn 1853..........20,619 tons
In 1854......... 1,044 tonsIn 1854..........35,927 tons
In 1855......... nil. .... In 1855..........28,010 tons

The price of Russian hemp has ranged from L38 to L90 (L=pound) per ton during the last five years, the maximum price being caused by the war. Considerable quantities are also raised in England and Ireland.

Of the figures just given those relating to Russia may be depended upon, but those referring to the imports from other countries are by no means satisfactory; for owing to the slovenly manner in which our commercial statistics are collected by the government, all articles which bear the trade name of hemp are included, such as Manilla hemp, and very often even jute.

There is one other useful quality in the hemp plant; it produces an abundance of seed, which not only yields a valuable oil, but the seed is extensively used in feeding singing birds. As the hemp is diaecious, only about one half the plants produce seeds; but these yield it in such abundance that an acre will yield from three to four quarters at about 40s. per quarter. As this is independent of the fibre produced it is a profitable crop in countries like Russia where the land is not too valuable.

For fuller information upon the subject consult Dr Royle's Illustrations of the Botany of the Himalayan Mountains, and his Fibrous Plants of India; Dr. O'Shaughnessy on the Preparation of the Indian Hemp or Gunjah; and the erudite work Textrinum Antiquorum, by James Yates, Esq., M.A. (T.C.A.)