top of page


Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: On September 20, 2014, a group of emerging drug history scholars presented a panel at the Fifteenth Annual Graduate Student Conference on Transatlantic History at the University of Texas, Arlington. This week, Points will present abbreviated versions of these scholars’ papers, starting with recent Points blogger Bradley Borougerdi’s talk entitled “‘At Once a Curse and a Blessing’: Orientalizing Hemp in an Atlantic World.”

The 1840s was an important decade for the hemp plant. Before then, most Anglos living in Great Britain and the United States thought of hemp as an important strategic commodity for exploration, a common fiber, an oil, or an ingredient in various household goods. Most were unaware of hemp’s psychoactive properties, mainly because they were accustomed to using a genetic variation of the plant with virtually no THC. This isn’t to say that Westerners were entirely unaware of hemp’s ability to induce intoxication; rather, that they were confused and associated it primarily with an exotic space known as the Orient.

Orientalism positioned hemp used for so-called “nonproductive” purposes in stark contrast to the Western, industrial, and more “appropriate” uses. In 1838, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, a British imperial agent working in India, decided to investigate “Asiatic” hemp’s medicinal qualities. Medical investigators assumed India’s lush environment had altered the plant to suit the degenerative behaviors of Easterners, but Westerners might be able to transform it into a viable medicine. Positive accounts of O’Shaughnessy’s experiments spread quickly, with medical practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic praising hemp extracts.

Around the same time, literary accounts of Westerners who “played Eastern” by consuming hemp intoxicants started circulating in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Most of these first-hand accounts exacerbated the negative associations between hemp and the Orient, which bifurcated the plant into both a curse and a blessing, paving the way for its transformation from a strategic commodity to a banned intoxicant.

The transformation began in earnest during the late 18th century, when the British in South Asia prodded the Indians to abandon their traditional uses for hemp and start cultivating it “the proper way” so the empire could end its long history of relying on Russian imports. Growing the plant was not difficult, but processing it into the high quality fiber needed to rig ships was difficult and labor-intensive, so Britons briefly shied away from the industry.

After the American Revolution, India became the next logical place for the British to promote hemp cultivation within the empire, but– as one imperial agent complained– the “Natives were not inclined to depart from their established usage [for intoxication].” The contrast between Eastern and Western uses that developed within the discourse had an impact on the way the British perceived and dealt with “Oriental” uses, eventually leading them to pass laws designed to curb consumption and regulate production and distribution. Moreover, rumor had it that one of the hemp drugs – ganja – which was used primarily by people of the lower classes in India, caused insanity. Before long, the British were setting up insane asylums throughout India. The asylums were supposedly “filled with ganja smokers.”

O’Shaughnessy, however, remained convinced that hemp had beneficial qualities. Using indigenous knowledge gleaned from native doctors, he performed experiments on animals and human subjects, documenting how extracts of the plant’s resin improved symptoms of rheumatism, spasmodic convulsions, and labor pains. “I’ve never treated a case from which I derived so much satisfaction, or used a medicine [hemp] I felt so much indebted to for my patient’s recovery,” concluded O’Shaughnessy.

But the scientific world had not yet discovered THC, which made O’Shaughnessy’s preparations unpredictable in their effects, especially after traveling across the Atlantic on ships in less than ideal storing conditions. Moreover, various companies added a variety of components to these preparations, which often times exacerbated the drug’s negative effects. Once the medicine spread across the Atlantic and was mass produced for consumption, reports of its ineffectiveness increased, causing many to discontinue its use.

These reports coincided with an increase in negative literary perceptions of hemp intoxication that were circulating across the Atlantic. While O’Shaughnessy had described the “degenerate behavior” of Indians he witnessed using hemp for recreational purposes, French involvement in Egypt during the first half of the nineteenth century articulated this negativity much earlier. Orientalist Sylvester De Sacy’s essay (1809) was perhaps the earliest work in France to claim that hemp use for intoxication caused insanity.

French Romanticists in the 1840s disregarded these warnings and embraced the plant’s exotic reputation. Doctors, poets, and writers joined together to form Le Club des Hachichins, which met in Paris to consume preparations of Indian hemp and dress up to act out their oriental fantasies. Their meetings and the “Oriental” rituals they conducted blurred the lines between medical and literary depictions of hemp, and these depictions were exported to British society, where sources describing the “Hashish Club” mixed literature with scientific inquiry to invest new meaning into the plant. These perceptions travelled across the Atlantic and seeped into U.S. American culture as well.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a transatlantic discourse on hemp, insanity, and the Orient circulated in Britain, France, and the United States. One popular example came from Orientalist Bayard Taylor, whose 1854 article in Putnam Magazine reflects the blend of science and literature in the discourse on the hemp and the Orient. Taylor’s article, “The Vision of Hasheesh,” reveals how his “Oriental” imaginings led to drug experimentation on his travels through Damascus. The experience he reported was a lurid one indeed, with visions of ecstasy giving way to flashes of terror, confusion, dread, and fear, which he described as “this devil that has possession over me.” These two opposing experiences, described by Taylor as both the “paradise” and “hell” of hashish, reflect the duality at work in Orientalism. He was clearly attracted to hashish, yet he also feared the drug for the “demons” it brought out of the soul. Despite the obvious literary quality of this essay, Taylor’s description became a popular source of scientific information about the use of hemp resin in general. Journals, medical dissertations, and organizations such as the American Provers’ Union cited his work, blurring lines between hemp as a medicine and hemp as an intoxicant even further.

Fitzhugh Ludlow offered a similar account in The Hasheesh Eater, which also became an important source of knowledge on hemp drugs. Acknowledging how important Taylor’s essay was in sparking his own interest in subject, Ludlow told a story about encountering a substance labeled “Tilden’s Extract of Cannabis indica” at the local apothecary shop in his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York. Apparently, he was about to indulge himself in a taste of the new concoction, when his friend the shop owner exclaimed, “Hold on, do you want to kill yourself? That stuff is deadly poison!”

Ludlow then searched the medical textbooks for more knowledge about the substance and discovered it came from the same plant as “the hasheesh referred to by Eastern travelers.” Ludlow proceeded to refer to the extract as hashish instead of cannabis or hemp, clouding the lines between hemp medicine and intoxication. (Ludlow’s text cited O’Shaughnessy and other medical works on the plant, but neither the Irish doctor, nor any of his other medical references referred to the substance as hashish.) Judging the book as a whole, it seems Ludlow decided to call the drug hashish as a way of “playing eastern,” which had become a fashionable literary genre. Becoming intoxicated by using hemp in an Asian way reinforced Ludlow’s Occidentalism and essentialized hemp used for such purposes into an eastern trope. His book was published in 1857 and serves as a powerful example of how, through literature and oriental adventurism, the medicine literally and figuratively transformed into an intoxicant in America. Many reviews and editions were also published in England, and within a decade, Occultist circles in Great Britain and the United States were adopting the use of “Hasheesh” in order to reach a state of “Clairvoyance.” The hemp-induced experiences they described echoed Taylor’s and Ludlow’s imagery.

Paschal Beverly Randolph is a case in point. Randolph claimed to have “first learned of [hashish] in France, but in Egypt I studied it perfectly.” He also traveled to London twice, and to America, where he spread word of the drug’s value. By 1860, Randolph was one of America’s most enthusiastic importers of hemp intoxicants. Like his predecessors, Randolph warned followers of the dangers that could arise from using too much: “Look sharp, be steady, for there’s a power at work within you [while on hasheesh], capable of plunging you into thick gloom [or] elevating you into the bliss of paradise.” The drug was “at once a curse and a blessing,” which made it enticing and dangerous at the same time. This familiar duality of Randolph’s Orientalism celebrated curious writers and travelers experimented with the plant’s “deviant” properties and, at the same time, reinforced a discourse that constructed the east as a category of “Otherness” that helped define Western identity.

Hemp medicines continued to be included in pharmacopeias across the Atlantic throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, but negative associations continued to abound. The transatlantic network of knowledge exchange between Britain, France, and the United States helped circulate these associations, leading to widespread connections between Indian hemp and insanity by the turn of the century. It wasn’t until accounts of “Reefer Madness” surfaced that the federal onslaught against hemp developed, but understanding the plant’s earlier history helps contextualize the language used by the authorities who ultimately made it a prime target of anti-drug campaigns.

1 view

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page