The Cult of O’Shaughnessy

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.

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (via Wikipedia)

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (via Wikipedia)

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The Tobacco Census v. “Ffrauds and Mischiefs”

Editor’s Note: Featured is another installment in our occasional series of fascinating cross-postings from the blogs published by various libraries and archives. Today’s post comes from Out of the Box: Notes from the Archives @ The Library of Virginia, and was authored by Sarah Nerney, senior local records archivist. 

Virginia’s agricultural production, as well as its economy, was dominated by tobacco for over three centuries, ever since John Rolfe sent his first shipment of tobacco to England in 1614. Growth of the Virginia colony and extension into the interior meant more soil and larger crops of tobacco. Despite the continuous growth in production, the tobacco trade was plagued by falling prices and decreased quality. By the 1720s, tobacco exports included large quantities of inferior product that even included shipments of “trash” tobacco—shipments that diluted tobacco leaves with foreign substances such as household sweepings. Consequently the price of tobacco sank so low that many planters struggled to recover production costs.

Tobacco growing in the streets of Jamestown. From Robert K. Heimann, Tobacco and Americans (1960). Image courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.

Tobacco growing in the streets of Jamestown. From Robert K. Heimann, Tobacco and Americans (1960). Image courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.

In 1723 Virginia’s General Assembly passed the first of its Tobacco Acts that attempted to control the quantity and quality of tobacco grown in the colony because it was believed that “most of the ffrauds [sic] and mischiefs which have been complained of in the Tobacco Trade” had arisen from the “planting on land not proper for producing good Tobacco” and the production of “greater Crops than the persons employed therein are able duly to tend.” The 1723 act established limits on the number of plants that certain classes of persons could grow with slave owners being allowed fewer plants. Each vestry of every parish had to appoint two people every year to count the number of plants being grown and report the numbers to the clerk of court by the month of August. Any number of plants over the allowed number were to be destroyed by the planter or, if the planter would not, by the counters. The act of 1729 provided various adjustments to and elaborations on the 1723 act. (For full text of the acts see The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 20, pp. 158-178.)

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