HISTORY When the Malabar hemp was a star in the export market

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

‘Malabar hemp’ may not mean much to us now. Instead, it would raise many quizzical eye brows. But historical records show a time when the English colonisers went crazy about the Malabar hemp. The herb was cultivated in Malabar and then exported to England – a big market. Letters from the early 19th century often has the hemp as its subject. The English cultivated it profusely and sold it at competitive prices. According to Wikipedia, the hemp is a “commonly used term for varieties of the cannabis plant.” However, archival documents attribute the Malabar hemp with different virtues. In the Malabar, it was cultivated for its fine fibre and used extensively in textiles and rope-making.

In the archival letters, stress was often on the quantity that could be churned out – a testimony to its heightened demand. A letter from Captain Watson to the Principal Collector of Malabar in 1808 says, “It is estimated that the government will take thousand tons of Malabar hemp to send home as soon as that property can be produced.”

One that substantiates further the place of the hemp in the commercial set-up is a 12-page treatise by a French man on cultivating hemp. It is pinned securely in the official records. In the letter from M. Wilkes in August 1808 from Mysore to the Chief Secretary at Fort St. George, he forwards a copy of Abbe Brulles’ treatise on the ‘Culture of Hemp.’ Brulles’ treatise, titled, ‘A new method of cultivating and preparing hemp’, serves as a guide to cultivators, taking them through each process, beginning with sowing to harvesting and storing. The plant is approached with great care by Brulles who painstakingly classifies it into male and female and the way each has to be cultivated. His detailed steps create a visual image of the cultivation process.

He begins by stating the nature of land on which hemp can be grown. “It is sufficiently known that land intended for a crop of hemp must be well-manured and ploughed, cleansed and gotten fine,” he writes. Brulles advises that the fine, new hemp seeds should be sown, “not exceeding two bushels into an acre … At the end of six days visit the hemp and see if the seed will draw out …”. The sprouting plants are carefully transferred into a trough or a table. Brulles details the procedure to be adopted for each of these medium.

In the hemp, he says, one will find “great quantity of gum looking like a jelly”. He instructs the cultivators to “wash it as if you were washing any long strait piece of cloth observing not to displace the threads.” Such washing and cleaning, he says, will soften the hemp and make it “pleasant and easy to dress,” thus highlighting a use of the plant.

When the hemp is finally washed and dried, Brulles says it can be used either for “dressing or storing.” Some among them, he says, “may be carded and spun and brought into use for all the same purposes as cotton and the same methods for bleaching and softening.”

Once harvested, he advises that the seeds, leaves and roots be left to be manure, also paving the way for new crops. He also gives an estimated expense and the huge profits at stake. In his calculation, the total produce stands at 22 units and the total expense at seven units, making it about a profit of 15 units.

Brulles also finds a social purpose to hemp cultivation. “Further improvement of the material in dressing and spinning employs the poor and particularly women and children.” As an appendage, Brulles also attaches a note which he calls “detached notes on the hemp.” “It is capable of being cultivated in all kinds of land, the poorer land producing finer in quality though smaller in quantity,” he writes. Brulles also says hemp has the potential to “supersede almost all the uses of flax”, flax being a more “uncertain and less abundant crop.”

Drawing up a production chart, he says, “Fifteen pounds of male hemp may be gotten off in a day by one person, only seven pounds of female.” “It is necessary to pick the hemp over at several different periods in order to avoid having any bad stems among the good which might spoil a whole parcel, especially if intended for fine linen,” he writes.

He also hopes there is more purpose to this fine plant. “A dye might be procured from the water in which the hemp is scoured.” He lists the uses the hemp has in France, which is used even in soap.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)