Was Cannabis the Real Reason Britain Colonised Australia?

Convicts and Cannabis

The first shipment of medicinal cannabis arrived in Perth earlier last year, but weed’s history in Australia stemmed from the arrival of the First Fleet.

At Joseph Bank’s request, hemp boarded the first Fleet as cargo ‘for commerce’. His hope was to produce hemp commercially for the new colony.  According to Dr John Jiggens, Britain was deep in the hemp trade. Banks saw the settlement of Australia as a way of expanding Britain’s hemp trade:

“ The implications of Britain´s need for hemp made the hemp trade a strategic target in times of war, as this brief overview of the Hemp Question shows. Although the strategy of reliance on Russian hemp was risky, it was the basis of empire. Without the Russian hemp trade, the British Empire would never have been as great. Great as Great Britain became, its empire dangled by that ribbon of hempen trade that wound its way through the narrow and dangerous passages of the Baltic Sea.¨

Jiggens believes the original plan for New South Wales was to develop a new hemp colony, the resettlement of convicts was just an elaborate cover. In those days, cannabis wasn’t about marijuana; it was all about hemp. The long-stem fibres of the plant were used for sails, cables and rigging. For a first-rate warship, hemp was of great importance. Hemp was to them, as oil is to us today. 

The Cannabis plantImage: Pixabay, The Cannabis plant

So was the real reason for colonising New South Wales to create a potential hemp colony?

Banks played a major role in the plan to colonise New South Wales. Banks, as we know, had an interest in hemp and may have seen New South Wales as a potential hemp colony. Even publishing a file called Hemp 1764-1810.  Historian K.M Dallas suggested that the ‘the dumping of convicts view’ was way too simple an explanation for colonisation of Australia and that there were hidden reasons.

The flora homoeopathica,

Image: Wikipedia, The flora homoeopathica, illustrations and descriptions of the medicinal plants used as homoeopathic remedies /by Edward Hamilton

This may have included Bank’s hemp replacement plans. At the height of the French Revolution wars in 1797 Banks was appointed to the Privy Council of Trade. A crucial time for France, Banks was put in charge of hemp policies within the British Empire. His file: Hemp 1764-1810 was full of his papers on hemp trade, growth and economic trade.

The British experimented with hemp colonies in India, but due to an error in cannabis taxonomy, they were unaware that they were trying to turn “dope into rope.” Ganga (the plant they were growing in India) is not a fibre crop it’s a crop that produces the drug marijuana. Banks seeing the intoxicating the drug has supplied it to the poet Coleridge. Not only was Banks a substantial cultivator of the drug cannabis, he was also the first recorded drug dealer in Britain and Australia. 

A View Of Botany BayImage: Simple Wikimedia

Cannabis was enjoyed recreationally and medicinally in Australia and the western world until the 1930s when the drug was demonised as "an evil sex drug that causes its victims to behave like raving sex maniacs.”

Surprisingly the campaign against the ‘sex drug’ didn’t stop demand or use. And now more than 100 years after its arrival in Australia, it is (somewhat) legal again.

I guess you could say Joseph Banks really blazed the way forward…

Header: Wikimedia Commons

The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th

Related Articles

Discuss this article


Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
We use our own and third-party cookies to improve our services, personalise your advertising and remember your preferences. If you continue browsing, or click on the accept button on this banner, we understand that you accept the use of cookies on our website. For more information visit our Cookies Policy AcceptClose cookie policy overlay