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How the English Found Cannabis

In the 17th century, English travelers, merchants, and physicians were first introduced to cannabis, particularly in the form of bhang, an intoxicating edible which had been getting Indians high for millennia. Benjamin Breen charts the course of the drug from the streets of Machilipatnam to the scientific circles of London.

Detail from Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam (ca. 1755), a painting by John Greenwood executed on a bedsheet 

Not long after he arrived in Machilipatnam, Thomas Bowrey began to wonder what it was that the people of Machilipatnam were smoking.

wiet - ganja - the herb / foto Aart G. Broek
wiet – ganja – the herb – cannabis – bhang / foto Aart G. Broek

The bustling port city on India’s Coromandel Coast felt fantastical to the young East India Company merchant. During the first days of his visit in 1673, Bowrey marveled at wonders like “Venomous Serpents [which] danced” to the tune of “a Musicianer, or rather Magician”, and “all Sortes of fine Callicoes…curiously flowred”. Above all, Bowrey was most fascinated by the effects of an unfamiliar drug. The Muslim merchant community in the city was, as Bowrey put it, “averse [to]…any Stronge [alcoholic] drinke”. Yet, he noted, “they find means to besott themselves Enough with Bangha and Gangah“, i.e. cannabis. Gangah, though “more pleasant”, was imported from Sumatra (and as such was “Sold at five times the price”), whereas Bangha, “theire Soe admirable herbe”, was locally grown. The word Bangha came to be more commonly transliterated as bhang, and nowadays generally refers specifically to an edible preparation (usually a drink). It is not clear whether Bowrey uses the word with such a specific meaning in mind but either way it is this liquid form, “the most pleasant way of takeinge it”, which he opts to experiment with, as opposed to smoking it, which he describes (with perhaps some trepidation) as a “a very speedy way to be besotted”.
continue reading on the Public Domain Review website, February 20, 2020.

on 25.02.2020 at 18:15
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