In the 17th century, even though hemp was one of the most important agricultural crops, planted widely in Europe or the USA, nobody knew about the potentially psychoactive effects of the cannabis plant. One of the reasons for this was that cannabis planted in colder regions usually produces much less THC. Another reason was that, until later centuries, the cannabis planted was exclusively Cannabis sativa, which, before more recent cross-breeding, also usually produces less THC (Duvall 2019:8).
However, Cannabis indica, the variety most common in India, was generally much more psychoactively potent. A few intrepid European visitors—a third of the Europeans who went to India in those days died there from disease—witnessed locals eating and smoking cannabis and decided to try it themselves. These early reports are very interesting because they tell of the effects of cannabis, but without any prejudice or expectation of what to expect. These first reports in English, by a ship’s captain, Thomas Bowery, and by the great scientist Robert Hooke, are fascinating because some of the effects reported have only very recently been confirmed by medical science.
The earliest English reports on cannabis
Captain Thomas Bowrey (1659–1713), who was to become a merchant and ship’s captain, sailed with his mother from London via several ports to Fort St. George (modern Chennai), in India. He arrived, aged nine, in 1669. After travelling and trading in India and other Asian countries in the East Indies (including Thailand and Sri Lanka), he returned to Britain, nineteen years later, in 1688 (Paul 2020:10). His extensive observations on the ways of life and the customs of India, particularly in the Bengal region, were recorded in his manuscript, A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679, which was eventually published in 1905. Bowery also compiled the first Malay-English dictionary, which was published in 1701.
A Geographical Account provides many interesting insights and observations, including an account of getting high on cannabis. Bowery was in Machilipatnam, a coastal town in what is now the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, in a region formerly called Coromandel. Machilipatnam, which from 1598 to 1610 had been administered by the Portuguese, had at the time a large Muslim population. Bowery and around nine or ten of his young friends drank bhāṅg there together (pp. 80–81; Paul 2020:61–62).
Abel (1982:116) and Davenport-Hines (2001:1) observe that this report by Bowrey was the first detailed account of the subjective effects of cannabisas experienced by an Englishman. The first scientific report on cannabis inebriation in English, by Robert Hooke, was delivered in London in 1689, around the time of Bowery’s return to Britain.
Thomas Bowrey’s remarks on cannabis use
Among Bowrey’s observations on the customs of Choromandel, he observes (p. 77) that the local people drink Arack (spirit alcohol), which is forbidden for Muslims (Mohametans), though some drink it secretly; “but they find means to besott themselves Enough with Bangha [bhāṅg] and Gangah [gāñjā]”. Bowrey continues with a few remarks on using cannabis.
‘Bangha, theire Soe admirable herbe, groweth in many places of this Coast as alsoe in Bengala; but Gangah is brought from the Island Sumatra, and is oftentimes Sold here at Very high rates. It is a thinge that resembleth hemp Seed and groweth after the Same mannar, but the Other is of a larger leafe and grosse Seed. Gangah beinge of a more pleasant Operation, much addictinge to Venery, is Sold at five times the price the Other is. They study many ways to Use it, but not One of them that faileth to intoxicate them to admiration.
Sometimes they mix it with theire tobacco and Smoak it, a very Speedy way to be besotted; at Othersometimes they chew it, but the most pleasant way of takeinge it is as follows:—Pound or grinde a handfull of the Seed and leafe togeather, which mixt with one Pint of fresh Water, and let it Soake neare one quarter of an houre or more, then Strained through a piece of Calicoe or what else is fine, and drinke off the liquor, and in less than ½ an houre it’s Operation will Shew it Selfe for the Space of 4 or 5 hours.‘
There are several points of interest in these remarks. Firstly, it is apparent that prior to this report, English readers would have been entirely unaware that hemp, which at that time was being widely cultivated in Europe and the USA (see my blog ‘When not planting cannabis became illegal’), was the same plant that was used in India to get high.
Secondly, Bowrey mentions smoking gāñjā with tobacco. Tobacco was only introduced into India around 1600 by the Portuguese (Indian Tobacco 1960:1); but it seems that within around seventy years smoking gāñjā mixed with tobacco had become customary throughout India. Still, to this day, cannabis is always smoked there with tobacco.
Thirdly, it seems that Bowery associated cannabis use mostly with the Muslim community (Breen 2020:4). This accords with the evidence that it was Sūfīs who first began popularising cannabis use in South Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries (see my blog on Sūfīs and cannabis).
Fourthly, Bowrey mentions that gāñjā is imported from Sumatra. This reveals an international, maritime trade in weed in the seventeenth century, a trade that, as far as I am aware, has not yet been fully explored by historians.
The observed effects of cannabis
Bowrey then goes on (p. 79) to describe the effects of cannabis. This is interesting as his observations are made without any prior knowledge at all of what the effects of cannabis might be. The observation is that the main effect of cannabis is to amplify one’s prevailing mood.
‘And it Operates accordinge to the thoughts or fancy of the Partie that drinketh thereof, in Such manmner that if he be merry at that instant, he Shall Continue Soe with Exceedinge great laughter for the before mentioned Space of time, rather overmerry then Otherways, laughinge heartilie at Every thinge they discerne; and, on the Contrary, if it is taken in a fearefull or Melancholy posture, he Shall keep great lamentation and Seem to be in great anguish of Spirit, takeinge away all manly gestures or thoughts from him. I have often Seen these humors Experienced in Bengala.‘
Bowrey and his friends get high
Bowrey then describes (p. 80–81) his own experience.
‘Eight or tenne of us (Englishmen) to trye practice, wee wold needs drinke Every man his pint of Bangha, which wee purchased in the Bazar for the Value of 6d. English. I ordered my man to bringe alonge with him one of the Fackeers [a Sūfī ascetic] (who frequently drinke of this liquor), promisinge him his dose of the Same to come and Compound the rest for us, which he Cordially and freely accepted of, and it was as welcome to him as a Crowne in moneys. Wee dranke Each man his proportion, and Sent the Fackeere out of dores, and made fast all dores and Windows, that none of us might runne out into the Street, or any person come in to behold any of our humors thereby to laugh at us.
The Fasckeere Sat around the Street dore, callinge us all Kings and brave fellows, fancyinge himselfe to be at the Gates of the Pallace at Agra, Singinge to that purpose in the Hindostan Languadge.
It Soon tooke it’s Operation Upon most of us, but merrily, Save upon two of our Number, who I Suppose feared it might doe them harme not beinge accustomed thereto. One of them Sat himselfe downe Upon the floore, and wept bitterly all the Afternoone; the Other terrified with feare did runne his head into a great Mortavan Jarre [clay pot], and continued in that Posture 4 hours or more; 4 or 5 of the number lay upon the Carpets (that were Spread in the roome) highly Complementinge each Other in high termes, each man fancyinge himselfe noe less than an Emperour. One was quarrralsome and fought with one of the wooden Pillars of the Porch, untill he had left himselfe little Skin upon the knuckles of his fingers. My Selfe and one more Sat sweatinge for the Space of 3 hours in Exceedinge Measure.
Taste it hath not any, in my judgement lessse then faire water, yet it is of such a bewitchinge Sottish nature, that whoever use it but one month or two cannot forsake it without much difficultie.‘
Abel (1982:117) comments that the addictive property of bhāṅg noted by Bowrey was probably due to the opium mixed into the concoction, which was a quite common practice in those days.
The first scientific report on cannabis inebriation
The report on the effects of cannabis by Bowrey was the first one of its kind in English; it also sheds interesting light on the cultural world of India in the 17th century. However, beyond private circulation, Bowrey’s travelogue manuscript was not published until 1905. It was Robert Knox, another East India Company merchant, whose experience with cannabis led to its inebriating properties being revealed for the first time to the English-speaking world (Breen 2020:8).
Knox had escaped from nearly twenty years in captivity in Kandy, in the mountains of Sri Lanka. He then piloted a stolen sloop along the coast. Being short of water on his journey, he and his companions were obliged to drink muddy water from a pond, which made them sick and feverish. Knox was introduced to cannabis (banga) “as an Antidote and Counter-Poyson…by the blessing of God” and ate it in the morning and evening. “It intoxicates the Brain, and makes one giddy, without any other operation either by Stool or Vomit” (Knox 2004 :ch. VIII, 154). Knox and his companions fully recovered. In September 1680, Knox returned to London, where he published a report on the medicinal use of cannabis in Sri Lanka, in 1684 (Paul 2020:83). Knox had somewhere obtained cannabis—from an unnamed person—and gave some to the scientist, architect and polymath, Robert Hooke (1635–1703), who he met in a coffee shop in London, on 7th November 1689 (Breen 2020:8).
On December 18th 1689, Hooke gave a lecture entitled “An Account of the Plant call’d Bangue” (Hooke 1726:210–212) to the Royal Society in London, in which he explained that the drug is used by thousands of people and that the person who introduced it to him had experimented with it many times himself. Hooke reported that the dose of powdered leaves to be eaten was about the quantity that would fill a common tobacco pipe. He observed that:
‘the patient understandeth not, nor remembereth any Thing that he seeeth. heareth or doth, in that Extasie but becomes, as it were, a mere Natural, being unable to speak a Word of Sense; yet he is merry, and laughs, and sings and speaks Words without any Coherence, not knowing what he saith or doth; yet he is not giddy or drunk, but walks and dances and sheweth many odd Tricks.‘
He did not consider it at all dangerous, giving “no Cause of Fear, ‘tho possibly there may be laughter”. Hooke (1726:210–212) also observed that cannabis could “prove as considerable a Medicine in Drugs, as any brought from the Indies; and may possibly be of considerable Use for Lunaticks, or for other Distempers of the Head and Stomach, for that it seemeth to put a Man into a Dream, or make him asleep, whilst yet he seems to be awake, but at last ends in a profound Sleep, which rectifies all…and in all probability would cure them [lunaticks]”.
Interestingly, the observation made here that cannabis may be a cure for lunatics highlighted the potentially anti-psychotic properties of cannabis in the late 18th century. It has taken medical researchers nearly two centuries to verify this proposition.
Although the scientific community in London was introduced to cannabis by Hooke in 1689, it was, as Breen (2020:10) comments, “forgotten” by doctors and scientists for nearly 150 years. It was not until the 1840s that cannabis became more widely known to the medical profession, through the work of William O’Shaughnessy (see my blog ‘The Rediscovery of Cannabis’).
Abel, Ernest L. (1982). Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Bowrey, Thomas (ed. Richard Carnac Temple) (1905). A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society.
Breen, Benjamin (2020). ‘“Theire Soe Admirable Herbe”: How the English Found Cannabis’. The Public Domain Review.
Davenport-Hines, Richard (2001). The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics 1500–2000. London: Wiedenfeld & Nicholson.
Duvall, Chris S. (2019). The African Roots of Marijuana. Durham/London: Duke University Press.
Hooke, Robert (ed. William Derham) (1726). Philosophical Experiments and Observations of the late Eminent Dr. Robert Hooke, S. R. S. and Geom. Prof. Gresb and Other Eminent Virtuoso’s in his Time. London: William Derham/W. and J. Innys.
Indian Tobacco: A Monograph (1960). Madras: Indian Central Tobacco Committee (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Government of India).
Knox, Robert (2004) . An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in the East-Indies: Together with an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and divers other Englishmen now Living there, and the Author’s Miraculous Escape. Project Gutenberg [London: Richard Chiswell/Royal Society].
Paul, Sue (2020). Jeopardy of Every Wind: The Biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey. Melton Mowbray: Dollarbird/Monsoon Books.