Historically, hemp was not used in wars solely as a material. It was also the cause of war. In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of his army towards Russia. Russia was mostly focused on cutting off Great Britain from cannabis supply. The war for hemp in which Napoleon was finally defeated is not commonly taught in history lessons. You can read more about Napoleon and the hemp war in this article.
HEMP RUNS THE SEA TRADE
From 1740, due to its low cost (or even slave like) workforce, Russia produced 80 % of all hemp and hemp products in the West. It was also known as the producer of highest quality hemp used for sails, ropes and nets.
Hemp was the number one trade material for Russia, which was the main exporter of hemp as well. It outperformed fur, wood, and iron. Russia’s dominance on the hemp market lasted until 1917.
Hemp ran the world sea trade. It was also the key factor for the British armed forces and their enitre empire. Especially very large British navy was highly dependent on hemp. Each british ship required from 50 to 100 tons of hemp every 1-2 years. Russia supplied 90 % of it for the British navy requirements. This made England the largest hemp international importer. Other countries required it in various industries as well.
There was no substitute for hemp. Compared to hemp sails, flax sails deteriorated in less than 3 months due to salt in the air and sea water.
THE WAR WITH FRANCE AND BOG DRAINAGE
Artefacts from this era were auctioned and dr. Arnold Horner of University of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy from Dublin was the one who researched them. Among the artefacts, there were 50 detailed maps and reports as well.
He found evidence that the British were very much aware of the strategic importance of hemp, and in the beginning, created various plans to meet the expected demand for it. One of the plans included drainage of the Irish bogs, to cultivate hemp. In case they would cultivate hemp on farmland, they would face farmer uprising, as food supplies were scarce as well.
In 1808, when the British ruled Ireland, Ireland was proposed as the base of a huge hemp cultivation operation. It should be the key in war with France. Hemp would be grown in drained Irish bogs and used to support the British navy.
One of the largest revisions of Irish landscape was performed in which a team of experts travelled to Ireland and revised many different bogs. The revision lasted for 4 years and included 10 % of the entire Irish land. They intended to continue the research, however the experts were recalled due to subside of Napoleons army.
It is questionable how real the plan of draining the bogs was, as it would be very hard and costly. This shows, that Britain was under a lot of pressure to find a solution to meet the demand for cannabis.
WAR BETWEEN FRANCE AND GREAT BRITAIN
From 1793 forward, Great Britain was a constant French enemy. The British were against the new French government due to fears of French revolution developing and escalating to French invasion of Great Britain.
In 1803 the war between France and Great Britain started. The British navy blocks France, including Napoleons continental allys. It does this by closing the English channel and Atlantic ports (Bay of Biscay). The British also control the access to and through Mediterranean and Atlantic, by controlling the Gibraltar strait.
Officially, USA remained neutral in this war. However, USA started dealing with their own problems and sent their navy to Mediterranean, to stop the extortion of American merchants by pirates of Tripoli.
NAPOLEON AND THE TREATY OF TILSIT
Russia’s economic rise and stable cannabis sales to Great Britain posed a great threat to Napoleon. In July 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte and Russian Czar Alexander I. sign the Treaty of Tilsit. The treaty ended the war between imperial Russia and the French empire, and began their alliance, which left the rest of continental Europe powerless.
Both countries secretly agreed to help each other in disputes. The treaty formed an alliance between Russia, France, Prussia, Denmark and others. It also forced them to break their ties (mostly trading) with Great Britain. In this way they wanted to isolate it from Russia.
With Tilsit treaty, Napoleon tried to gain the control over hemp market and trade. This would disable the British navy and he hoped to end the blockade of France and retrieval of the British navy. Even though, both sides signed the treaty, in the end Russia did not respect it as a large part of their economy was dependent on trade with Great Britain. Not very long after that, it led to Napoleon and the hemp war.
IMPORTANT ROLE OF USA
American ships had a choice to sail through British blockades and risk their ships, cargo and crew being seized, or illegaly cooperate with Great Britain to secure safety and profit. Majority chose the second option. John Quincy Adams (who later became a US president) was a US consul in St. Petersburg and in 1809 he wrote :
“In Kronstadt (port of St. Petersburg) there were over 600 ships sailing under the US flag in the last two weeks. They mostly loaded illegal cannabis for Great Britain and USA (which also had a high quality cannabis demand)”.
Napoleon persisted on Alexander I. should stop trade with the independent USA as their ships are forced to trade cannabis with Great Britain. Napoleon requested permission to place his French agents and army to Kronstadt for treaty control purposes.
Czar Alexander I. did not allow it and ignored the US merchant situation even though he made a pact with France. He required popular and profitable goods that he acquired from the USA. Furthermore, he could not lose large profits made from sales of hemp to Great Britain.
In 1809 Napoleon marched to Warsaw and in 1810 once again ordered Alexander I. to stop trade with American merchants. The Czar responded by excluding the part with does not allow trade with USA from the treaty.
INVASION OF RUSSIA & WAR BETWEEN USA AND GREAT BRITAIN
Due to non-complience of the agreement further hemp trade with Great Britain, Napoleon was furious. In June 1812, he gathered his army and started the invasion of Russia. In this way he wanted to punish the agreement non-complience and break cannabis trade routes to Great Britain. Things escalated for Napoleon and the hemp war.
Great Britain continued to hold american ships and insisted they should also trade other goods besides hemp with them. France and allies were especially desperate to sell anything in that moment and gather the capital that would allow them to continue the war. USA that were cut off 80% of Russian hemp supply discussed war in the congress. All the senators from seaside states were against the war as it would negatively effect their sea trade. All the western senators were pro war. The West won and on July 18th 1812, the US declared war against Great Britain. USA entered the war by Napoleons side, who also attacked Russia in June 1812. Because Napoleon did not stop before the winter (which was the original plan), he was shorly after defeated in Russia, due to harsh winter, Russian tactics and long supply routes. From the total of 450,000 – 600,000 French men, only 180,000 returned alive.
After initial success in the war with USA (burning of Washington), Great Britain found itself in financial and military trouble due to war in Spain with France and war at sea with USA. In December 1814 Great Britain agreed and signed a peace treaty with the USA. It also agreed not to get involved in American naval activities again.
In 1814 Great Britain defeats Napoleon in Spain and exiles him to an island Elba, from which he escapes after 100 days. He is once again defeated in 1815 in Waterloo (June 18th) and is exiled to St. Helen island where he died in 1821.
20th AND 21st CENTURY
Due to great worldwide historical importance of hemp it is interesting that American, British, French, Canadian and Russian schools teach a different version of history, where hemp is basically not even mentioned in these important historical events.
Maybe the history will repeat itself and we will once again find the strategic and socio-environmental value of this ancient plant. Napoleon and the hemp war is just one of the many historical events to explore.