Hemp’s Essential Role in the Royal British Navy

Updated on September 22nd 2023

Hemp plant seedling in hand superimposed over British flag

The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire

For centuries, Great Britain dominated the planet with military superiority, building bases on every continent and joining those continents with international trade. Integral to this system was an advanced Navy, which boasted the cutting edge of technology in both design and structure.

The Royal British Navy once established and commanded the largest world military and worldwide trade enterprise ever seen. Necessary to this structure was one crop – held in such esteem that no naval ship left Britain without a storehouse of its seeds for dissemination on foreign lands.

“…Hemp was so valuable, in terms of its contribution to the naval and trading successfulness of a nation, that wars were fought over it and, in some cases, pre-emptive strikes were staged on enemies to keep them from obtaining it.”

Followers of our blog will be familiar with several prominent past United States President’s admiration of the hemp plant. Today we’ll investigate the roots of their passion and discover that their love was fermented in the very land they fought so hard to liberate themselves from.

Hemp: Found in Smoke Shops, Head Shops, and …Navy Vessels?

Although you might be used to finding hemp next to water pipes and vaporizers at your local head shop, the commodity was so valuable to the maintenance and repair of British boats that a storehouse of hemp seeds was a requirement of all Naval vessels leaving port.

As one Farm Collector reporter explains, “Hemp arrived in Colonial America with the Puritans in the form of seed for planting and as fiber in the lines, sails and caulking of the Mayflower. British sailing vessels were never without a store of hemp seed, and Britain’s colonies were compelled by law to grow hemp.”

These seemingly extreme requirements become understandable by a quick l study of the plant’s naval usefulness. Firstly, it has a natural resistance to rotting, using its antimicrobial properties. This is of obvious import for a fiber perpetually inundated with salt water and agitating by harsh weather conditions.

Hemp is three times stronger than cotton fiber, as well, making it an obvious preference for avoiding unnecessary maintenance and the danger of damage on the high seas – easily a mortal danger in many circumstances.

Henry the Eighth (of Herb)

Hemp was once mandatory to grow in early American and British colonies. Hemp was recognized as so vital to British national security that in 1533 King Henry VIII mandated that all farmers grow Hemp (or flax, another naturally antimicrobial fiber useful for naval efforts) or be subject to hefty fines. From the British Hemp Association:

In 1533, King Henry VIII made hemp cultivation compulsory by law. For every 60 acres, farmers had to grow about 1/4 acre of flax or hemp, or else they would face a fine for breaking the law. They could even pay their taxes with Hemp.

The Navy was the nation’s priority in this regard but wasn’t the only reason British law mandated that every farmer share in the production of the plant. The fiber was used not only for sails and cordage (the massive ropes used to hold those sails in place), but the plant was common for several other commodities, as well. As a fiber, hemp was time-consuming to produce, but its superior strength and resilience led to its sustained popularity. Some figures estimate that until the invention of synthetic fibers in the 1920’s up to 80% of the fiber used for clothes across the globe was made from hemp. Other commodities made from hemp were popular as well. Seeds remained a popular staple food item and oil from those seeds was used as an industrial lubricant and as a lamp fuel.

Foreign Hemp: a Threat to National Security

Britain’s enormous appetite for hemp fueled an equally enormous industry across every country in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. So popular was the production of hemp in this region that many local place names are derived from the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon words for the plant, the most notable being Hampshire, which includes Southampton and Buckler’s Shire – all important locations for the former Navy.

Over time, British prominence in world trade allowed for the importing of hemp fiber to overtake the economic benefits of growing the plant at home, and soon, a foreign dependence on Russian hemp, in particular, began to concern the Monarchy.

Hemp was vital to the maintenance of the Navy, and as a consequence, the economic stability of the British Empire. This threat of a foreign dependence on hemp was deliberated over in Parliament as a concern of national security but the debate was not to last long. Technological progress soon intervened by way of the steam engine, and Brittan’s demand for hemp was eventually replaced by a demand for other materials to accommodate the strides in emerging technology.

710 Pipes carries a variety of products, including hemp apparel of your choosing. We also carry hundreds of gorgeous glass pipes, water pipes, and accessories for every budget! Stop by our Northglenn or Denver head shop seven days a week to browse our selection.

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