Feature

The Early Colonists Encouraged Slaves to Smoke

By David Jenison

The Early Colonists Encouraged Slaves to Smoke

University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf authored the acclaimed study “High Points: A Geographical History of Cannabis,” which Geographical Review published in 2014. Dr. Warf noted in the study that Portuguese and British authorities actually encouraged slaves to smoke cannabis as a way to keep them pacified. We asked Dr. Warf how this practice came to be.

“I'm not sure,” Dr. Warf admitted. “They learned about it from Africa, like the Portuguese in Angola and the British in West Africa, and to some extent in South Africa as well. Cannabis had been deeply entrenched in many African cultures. One reading I heard is that the slaves themselves actually brought it with them and that their colonial masters learned about it from the slaves, and then basically concluded that anything that helped to keep them happy and reduce the chance of discontent or uprisings was fine by them.”

Though prohibition might be strong in England today, the British actively promoted cannabis during colonialism. Dr. Warf continued, “The British actively sold cannabis in Jamaica up until, I believe it was 1911 if memory serves me right, when they discontinued that under pressure from the U.S. In the 19th century, the British East India Company, which was a private corporation, a chartered monopoly, that had controlled India for several centuries. They had a worldwide cannabis business that was very lucrative for them. There's a whole book on the British empire and cannabis. As far as the origins of using it to pacify slaves, I'm not sure. It's possible that goes back much earlier to the Muslim slave traders in Eastern Africa, although I'm not positive about that.”

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