Neil Pike reviews Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp

Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp
Reviewed by Neil Pike

As Australians we’re all taught at a very early age that this country was “settled” by the British as a convict colony. The Yanks threw the Poms out and they had nowhere else to send their criminal classes, so they sailed halfway round the world and formed a bloody big prison farm here in the Antipodes.
This is the popular history of how Australia was formed and it’s always been enshrined in our history books right next to another familiar old tale. You know the one. The classic imperialist fairy story that has the indigenous inhabitants of this huge continent happily greeting the Great White Father, handing over the lease and shuffling contentedly off to die of smallpox. Upon such myths are national identities built.
Sometime in the last 30 years or so, people started questioning the second myth but until recently no-one ever queried the first. Dr. John Jiggens in his new book Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp finally does this. Jiggens is an author who has been kicking round the Australian literary scene (and Nimbin) for quite a few decades now. In that time he’s written a number of very readable and often controversial tomes. His first published book was a gonzo telling of the Aquarius Festival (Rehearsals For The Apocalypse published 1983). Since then he’s covered a lot of ground – the Hilton bombing (The Incredible Exploding Man published 1991), an Australian version of The Emperor Wears № Clothes with Jack Herer and an examination of the Don Mackay murder in Griffith and the role of the Nugan Hand bank in the whole sordid business (The Killer Cop and the Murder of Donald MacKay published 2009) among other writings.
He’s also managed to become the leading expert on the history of cannabis in Australia. His research always seems to turn up new angles on the subjects that he covers, so it’s no surprise that when he turned his attention to the British settlement of Australia he uncovered some unusual facts.
In his research, Dr Jiggens discovered that Sir Joseph Banks was the leading British expert in Hemp cultivation. He points out that hemp was the backbone of the empire in Banksy’s time, the only known source of the fibre from which the sails and rope that powered the English fleets came, the equivalent of what oil is today. Unfortunately for the Poms, most of their hemp came from Russia and had to be transported through areas controlled by their mortal enemies, the French. This lack of control of a primary resource played hell with the British ruling class’ sense of security. They desperately wanted their OWN stash of hemp. Attempts to achieve this in America and Canada were unsuccessful and the price of hemp kept rising. Sir Joseph Banks (in his role as court genius and all-round Renaissance man) spent considerable time and effort studying Hemp and researching ways and locations for Britain to cultivate a large quantity of high quality cannabis. Australia seemed perfect for this task but because of the political nature of the mission (hemp being such a vital part of the war effort) it acquired a “top secret” category and was buried beneath an official cover story of the need for a penal colony.
But before we raise our bongs in salute to yet another historic stoner, it’d be worth pointing out that Banks (like many a modern pothead) didn’t know the difference between psychotropic cannabis and the industrial kind. In fact Banks didn’t even realise there was a psychotropic kind until quite late in life and after several unsuccessful attempts to turn Indian dope into maritime rope. The Australian hemp farm experiments also seemed to have suffered from the same botanical mix-up.
The bottom line seems to be that cannabis requires very different strains and methods of cultivation to achieve useable hemp than it does to grow smokeable pot. The Brits, it seems, just didn’t get this. Eventually, Banks was astounded to discover that you could get very high off the stuff the Indians were growing and sent a stash of it to his good mate Coleridge the poet. What effect this had on Coleridge’s already bountiful appreciation of opium remains unrecorded. You can imagine him commenting that the dreams weren’t as good though…
Fascinating as these speculations may be, the main thesis of Dr Jiggens’ book is that Australia was founded as a hemp colony and that ignorance of the difference between dope and rope resulted in failure in these attempts. Although this thesis becomes very believable and almost self-evident with unbiased close appraisal, no-one it seems has ever done so before. Jiggens (in doing this) has come up with a fresh and radical reappraisal of the strategies behind the colonisation of Australia. A well-researched, informative and interesting read.


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