Editor’s Note: Points welcomes guest poster, Bradley J Borougerdi. Borougerdi holds BA, MA, and PhD degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington. His dissertation, “Cord of Empire, Exotic Intoxicant: Hemp and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1600-1900,” presents hemp as a vehicle for intercultural exchange in the modern era.
William Brooke O’Shaughnessy’s legacy looms large in the hemp liberation movement that is gaining momentum in America today. O’Shaughnessy was an Irishman of relatively humble origins who enjoyed some success as an employee of the British East India Company (EIC). He was remembered in the 19th century for successfully engineering the first telegraph system in Colonial India, an accomplishment that earned him a knighthood in 1857. Neither his obituary nor the brief biographies of him mention his career as a chemist, yet today’s hemp activists elevate him to near godlike status for his medical experiments with Indian hemp. He encountered the plant being used all across India, he said, “in various forms by the dissipated and the deprived, as the ready agent of a pleasing intoxication.” He concocted a preparation of the plant’s resin that became popular in the Atlantic world during the second half of the 19th century, but, for a number of reasons, it fell out of favor by the early 20th century. Today’s hemp activists– without acknowledging the complex nature of hemp’s place as a medicine in Anglo-Atlantic culture– describe O’Shaughnessy as an objectively brilliant, ahead-of-the-times genius. Some also see his work as living proof of a conspiracy against hemp for various economic and political reasons. Not only do these arguments demonstrate how readily history can be exploited for contemporary purposes, but the memorialization of O’Shaughnessy illuminates the complicated discourse that has surrounded the hemp plant over the last two centuries.