Long before greed and ambition prompted the countries of Western Europe to send their armies to conquer the New World, Europeans were exploring and exploiting Africa. The incentives that beckoned the white race to the "dark continent" were many, but chief among them were goods such as gold, ivory, and spices. Once they began to colonize the New World, however, European interest focused on yet another African treasure - the slave. The growth of the plantation system in both North and South America had created a sudden demand for cheap and obedient labor, and to meet this demand Europeans looked to Africa.
Africa was no stranger to the slave trade. Human bondage is one of man's earliest atrocities. It was commonplace throughout the ancient and early medieval worlds. But until the coming of the Europeans, slavery had existed on only a relatively small scale. Once the people of Western Europe "discovered" the continent, however, slavery became big business. Approximately ten million natives were taken from their homes between the middle of the fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth century to destinations sometimes halfway around the world, to be dispassionately sold like chattel.
By virtue of their early conquest of the treacherous seas off the African coast, the Portuguese were the first to establish outposts in Africa, but it was not long before the Dutch, the English, and the French began to challenge Portugal's claim to Africa and her domination of the slave trade. Unable to retain its grip over the entire continent, Portugal had to content herself with a few territories while her European rivals each staked claim to different parts of Africa. Ironically, Portugal was the last of the great European powers to maintain a colonial empire in Africa.
The trading posts and settlements that were subsequently established throughout the continent soon brought the Europeans into intimate contact with the different native tribes of Africa. And just as Europe craved to know all about the lives of the savages of India and the New World, so too did they eagerly await any news of the quaint and curious customs of the African aborigines.
What intrigued Europeans most about these native peoples was their primitiveness. They had no police and no jails. Their law was uncomplicated: a man who committed a crime was either fined if his offence was not serious by tribal standards, or he was executed. Their religion was pagan. They had never heard of Jesus. They were neither Moslems nor Jews. Instead, they worshipped many gods and paid homage to the spirits of the dead. They ate human flesh and they offered human sacrifices. Their lives were painfully simple. They had no books. They lived in mud huts without windows and shared their cramped living quarters with their animals. They sat on wooden stools. They ate with their fingers. They wore few garments, and those that they did wear were made of animal skins. Their women did all the work; their men hunted, looked after the cattle, farmed a little, and occasionally went to war. Surely, Europe rationalized, God had ordained such people to be slaves to the superior white race.
One of the native customs that seemed especially unusual to the European mind was their peculiar penchant for eating and smoking hemp leaves. To a part of the world that thought of hemp only as a source of fiber, this strange practice seemed particularly puzzling and fascinating.
The Cannabis Plant in Africa
When the natives first began using cannabis as a drug is not known. The plant is not indigenous to Africa. The only way the African natives could have learned about it would have been through their contact with outsiders, and the most likely point of contact was the Arabs.
The earliest evidence for cannabis in Africa outside of Egypt comes from fourteenth-century Ethiopia, where two ceramic smoking-pipe bowls containing traces of cannabis were recently discovered during an archaeological excavation. From Ethiopia, cannabis seeds were carried to the south by Bantu-speaking natives who originally lived in North Africa, and from them the use of cannabis as an intoxicant spread to other native Africans such as the Bushmen and the Hottentots.
One of the books about the people of Africa to mention the cannabis habit was written by a Dominican priest, Joao dos Santos, in 1609. The plant, he said, was cultivated throughout Kafaria (near the Cape of Good Hope) and was called bangue. The Kafirs were in the habit of eating its leaves, and those that used it to excess, he said, became intoxicated as if they had drunk a large quantity of wine.
Far from cowering before the white man, these Kafirs were a proud and confident people whose king received his white visitors as vassals rather than conquerors. Speaking of their chief, Quiteve, dos Santos writes: "if the Kafirs have a suit, and seek to speak with the king, they crawl to the place where he is, having prostrated themselves at the entrance, and look not upon him all the while they speak, but lying on one side clasp their hands all the time and having finished they creep out of doors as they came in." Visiting Europeans such as dos Santos were required to act in like manner. Those the chief desired to entertain were offered food and intoxicating spirits which "they must drink, although against their stomach, not to condemn the king's bounty." One of these intoxicating spirits was bangue.
In 1658, Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope, described the use of cannabis by yet another tribe, the Hottentots. These were a yellowish-skinned people who spoke a "click" language. They were not a "pure" native tribe, but rather the offspring of Egyptian soldiers who had deserted their posts in Ethiopia around 650 B.C. and Bushmen women.
Although they had once been a warrior tribe, by the time the Dutch came to Africa the Hottentots were a tribe of cattle and sheep herders. The Dutch called them "beachcombers" because the Hottentots frequented the shoreline searching for any edible meat still on the carcasses of seals and whales stranded on the beaches. This curious scavenging for meat in the midst of herds of cattle intrigued the Dutch, as did the Hottentot's reluctance to trade his cattle.
The explanation was simple enough, as the Dutch soon learned. To the Hottentots, cattle were status symbols. The more a man owned, the more respectable his position in the tribe. Frustrated at not being able to buy cattle from these natives at a reasonable price, the Dutch brought their own cattle to the Cape Colony, along with farmers (Boers) to look after them. The coming of the Boers, it turned out, signalled the enslavement of the Hottentots.
At first, the Dutch and the Hottentots got on fairly well together. But as more and more Boers came to the Cape Colony, more and more of the Hottentot's land was expropriated, including their valuable grazing fields. The Boers were not merely content with robbing the Hottentots of their land, they also began raiding their herds.
The Hottentots offered only a token resistance. They were herders, not warriors; and their spears were no match for gunpowder. To preserve their precious cattle, many of the Hottentots moved further north into the interior. Those who tried to make a fight of it were either killed or taken prisoner and made to serve as domestic servants for the rest of their lives.
The Hottentot custom that most intrigued the Dutch, judging by the frequency with which they refer to it, was their unique use of hemp, which they called dagga. Dagga, van Riebeeck incredulously noted, was more valued than gold by the Hottentots, adding that it "drugs their brain just as opium". Since the Hottentots had no pockets, they carried their dagga in small leather pouches which they pushed under the ivory rings they wore around their arms.
In 1661, a Dutch surgeon named van Meerhof, who had married a Hottentot girl who spoke both Dutch and Portuguese, stated that the Hottentots had tried to smoke dagga but they could not master the technique. By 1705, however, both the Hottentots and their neighbors, the Bushmen, were smoking, having been taught the art by the white man.
Once the natives learned the technique of smoking, the inhalation of burning dagga leaves quickly spread from tribe to tribe. The popularity of smoking even created a new demand for pipes, and a new skill, pipe making, came into being.
Intoxication by means of smoking instead of chewing also altered African culture. No longer was dagga consumed alone. Smoking transformed the taking of dagga into a communal event, especially among those tribes that had few pipes.
Pipe bowls were made of various materials such as wood, stone, bone, or pottery, and were often fitted to a horn filled with water.
At the start of a typical native "smoke-in", a quantity of water was put into the horn, the mouth was applied to the large orifice of the horn, and the smoke, after being drawn through the water, was inhaled quickly three or four times and then exhaled in a violent fit of coughing, causing tears to stream down the cheeks: "This was considered the height of ecstasy to the smoker. The process continued until the fumes of the dagga produced a kind of intoxication or delirium and the devotee commenced to recite or sing, with great rapidity and vehemence, the praises of himself or his chief during the intervals of coughing or smoking."
Quite often, however, a tribe could not afford the luxury of a bowl and instead the natives improvised as best they could. Sometimes this took the form of a hole in the ground in which the dagga was placed. The drug was then mixed with burning manure and tunnels were dug into the sides of the mound. To inhale the fumes, the smokers lay down with their mouths over the holes. These earthen pipes were very common among the Hottentots, Bushmen, and the Bantus.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the natives had also begun to use tobacco, but they found it too weak for their tastes and usually mixed it with dagga. Wrote the Dutch explorer C.P. Thunberg,
Hemp [is] a plant universally used in this country, though for a purpose very different from that to which it is applied by the industrious Europeans. The Hottentot loves nothing so well as tobacco, and, with no other can they become so easily enticed into a man's service; but for smoking and for producing a pleasing intoxication, he finds this poisonous plant not sufficient strong; and therefore in order to procure the pleasure more speedily and deliciously he mixes his tobacco with hemp chopped very fine.
In 1818, the English Explorer, G. Thompson wrote that
the leaves of this plant [hemp] are eagerly sought after by the slaves and Hottentots to smoke, either mixed with tobacco or alone. It possesses much more powerfully stimulating qualities than tobacco, and speedily intoxicates those who smoke it profusely, sometimes rendering them for a time quite mad. This inebriating effect is, in fact, the quality for which these poor creatures prize it. But the free use of it, just like opium, and all such powerful stimulants, is exceedingly pernicious, and gives the appearance of old age in a few years to its victims.
Despite his disapproval of the drug, Thompson says that the white landowners cultivated cannabis for their servants, even though its intoxicating and deleterious effects were not in the best interests of the whites. The reason for this anomaly, explains Thompson, was that the white man used dagga "as an inducement to retain the wild Bushmen in their service whom they have made captives at an early age... most of these people being extremely addicted tot he smoking of dacha (dagga)".
There were some whites such as evangelist Hugo Hahn who shared Thompson's belief that continued use of dagga was not in the best interests of the natives. Hahn had come to Africa to save the souls of the savages. Their use of dagga, Hahn felt, was a vile habit that would keep their souls from entering heaven. Not one to sit idly by while souls were at stake, Hahn raided Boer farms, burning the wicked plants wherever he found them. His actions did little to endear him to either the natives or the white settlers of the area.
Although he could not have cared less about the souls of the natives, another crusader who condemned the natives' indulgence in dagga was the famous American journalist Henry M. Stanley, whose rendezvous with the English missionary, David Livingstone in 1871 is immortalized in his terse greeting: "Mr. Livingstone, I presume".
Unlike the compassionate Livingstone, Stanley had little regard for the African native whom he described as "wild as a colt, chafing, restless, ferociously impulsive, superstitiously timid, liable to furious demonstrations, suspicious and unreasonable..."
Stanley was in fact totally prejudiced against the native African. Regarding the natives' use of cannabis, which he believed weakened their bodies and made them unfit to carry his cumbrous cargo, he wrote:
Certainly most deleterious to the physical powers is the almost universal habit of vehemently inhaling the smoke of the Cannabis sativa or wild hemp. In a light atmosphere, such as we have in hot days in the Tropics, with the thermometer rising to 140 Fahr. in the sun, these people, with lungs and vitals injured by excessive indulgence in these destructive habits, discover they have no physical stamina to sustain them. The rigor of a march in a loaded caravan soon tells upon their weakened powers, and one by one they drop from the ranks, betraying their impotence and infirmities.
Had Stanley had the misfortune to encounter the Zulus during his adventurous treks through the African jungle he might have thought otherwise of cannabis's devitalizing effects. According to at least one white explorer, A. T. Bryant, whose intimate contact with the Zulus is described in his book The Zulu People, "young [Zulu] warriors were especially addicted [to dagga] and under the exciting stimulation of the drug were capable of accomplishing hazardous feats." Some historians have even suggested that the Zulus were intoxicated with dagga when they attacked the Dutch at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.
The Zulus were not the only tribe to smoke cannabis before going into battle. Speaking of the Sothos, David Livingstone wrote that the warriors "sat down and smoked it [hemp] in order that they might make an effective onslaught."
Apparently, the unwillingness of the natives to risk their lives and break their backs so that Stanley could become famous was not due to dagga's weakening of their spirits. Yet, for the most part, both white man and black man agreed that indulgence in cannabis was not in the best interest of the individual or his tribe. Contrary to the Zulus, for instance, the Ja-Luo tribe of eastern Uganda prohibited their warriors from smoking dagga. In some tribes, the men forbade their wives to smoke dagga "on account of some evil effect it is said to have upon her or her child, should she be about to become a mother".
In his Life of a South African Tribe Henri Junod mentions that the Thonga likewise did not condone the use of dagga. To coax their sons off the dagga habit, they "break the pipe and take a little of the soot which is found inside and mix it with their food without their being aware of it. When this has been done three times it is said to fill them with disgust for hemp".
Despite attempts to eradicate the cultivation of dagga by both the white settlers and the natives, the dagga habit was too much a part of the African natives' way of life. Some tribes such as the Bergdama of South West Africa, for example, carried on a regular trade with neighboring tribes in which they bartered dagga for valuable commodities such as cattle, goats, iron, and copper. And when the Bergdama paid annual tribute to their overlords, the Saan, they did so in the form of dagga cakes.
Smoking dagga was a recreational activity for many tribes, which in turn spawned its own recreational games. One such game played by the Zulus and the Thonga was a spitting contest. Two contestants deeply inhaled the smoke from a dagga pipe and held it in their lungs as long as possible. Each player then spit what saliva he could muster onto the ground, sometimes with the aid of a reed, the object being to form a circle of bubbles around his opponent. The bubble symbolized the warriors of an army and the idea was that, once surrounded by this army of bubble soldiers, the opponent was trapped and thus defeated. The real achievement of the game came from the ability to spit, since cannabis has the effect of drying up the secretions of the mouth, much like atropine, thereby making it extremely difficult to produce any saliva at all.
In the French Congo, the Fang had a different use for dagga. Before Fang warriors went out to battle, the witch doctor erected an altar in the forest. A human sacrifice, usually a captive from a neighboring tribe, was then dragged out into the forest and tied to the altar. The binding of the victim was the signal for the chief to pronounce a ritual chant while the warriors began painting themselves and dancing around the altar. After the dance was over, the victim was forced to his knees, a white line was drawn across his neck, his arms were grasped firmly behind him, his head was jerked backward, and a single slash severed his head from his body. To prevent any struggling, the hapless victim was given a concoction containing dagga shortly before his sacrificial offering to the Fang war gods.
The African Hemp Cults
Perhaps the most interesting anecdote concerning cannabis in Africa relates the way in which the drug transformed the Bashilange from a tribe of feuding miscreants to one dedicated to peace and goodwill. The storyteller is a German explorer, Herman von Wissman.
The Bashilange were originally a very warlike people, Wissman tells us:
One tribe with another, one village with another, always lived at daggers drawn... The number of scars which some ancient men display among their tatooings gives evidence of this. Then, about twenty-five years ago [ca. 1850]... a hemp-smoking worship began to be established, and the narcotic effect of smoking masses of hemp made itself felt. The Ben-Riamba, "Sons of Hemp", found more and more followers; they began to have intercourse with each other as they became less barbarous and made laws.
The transition from feud to friendship was only one of the changes initiated by the hemp cult. An entire religion came into being based onriamba, the Bashilange word for cannabis, which became the symbol of peace, camaraderie, magic, and protection. Tribesmen were no longer permitted to carry weapons in their villages, they called each other friend, and they greeted one another with the word moyo, meaning "life" and "health". Although formerly cannibals, they abjured their previous custom of eating the bodies of their captured enemies.
For their religious ceremonies, which occurred nightly, the men stripped naked and shaved their heads. Then they sat in a large circle and smoked cannabis from large pipes. Those who did not take part in the communal smoke-in were charged with beating drums, blowing ivory trumpets, and chanting. In addition to these nightly get-togethers, cannabis was smoked on all important holidays and at the conclusion of all alliances.
Although widely used by the men, Bashilange women were rarely allowed to smoke cannabis. The prohibition was a matter of tribal policy and reflected the position of the female in Bashilange society. It was she who was required to perform all the routine jobs in the village and her busy schedule allowed her no time for idleness, especially of the kind endengered by dagga.
Following the adoption of the cannabis cult, the Bashilange also began to believe in reincarnation. The appearance of von Wissman in their village was in fact greeted as proof that the dead could return. This white man, they believed, was the reincarnation of their dead chief Kassongo. The German, the people said, had lost his black skin in the big water. When the joyful reconciliation ended, the natives brought von Wissman his old "wife", informing him that his other wives and his former property would be returned to him as well. Unfortunately, von Wissman did not record his reaction to his new matrimonial status.
Cannabis also assumed a special importance in Bashilange jurisprudence. Any native accused of a crime was required to smoke dagga until he either admitted his crime or lost consciousness. In cases of theft, the robber had to pay a fine, consisting of salt, to each person who witnessed his smoking. The crime of adultery required that the guilty male smoke dagga as well. However there was no fine. The amount of dagga to be smoked depended on the status of the man who had been cuckolded. If the latter were important, the guilty man had to smoke until he lost consciousness. He would then be stripped, pepper would be dropped into his eyes and/or a thin ribbon would be drawn through his nasal bone. More serious crimes were accompanies by additional punishments.
Not all the Bashilange were favorably disposed toward the new cult. For one thing, many Bashilange began to take advantage of the leniency of the new laws. Before the cult, the seduction of a woman carried a heavy fine, and inability to pay the fine usually resulted in bloodshed. The new law of the bene riamba forbade the payment of any such fines, much to the annoyance of many disgruntled fathers.
The Bashilange nobility was also upset by the new changes. Hitherto, high-status tribesmen were permitted to wear cotton garments. The new laws of brotherhood did away with such class distinctions. Now anyone who could afford them could wear such clothes.
The Bashilange also suffered a great loss of wealth after the adoption of the cult. Previously, neighboring tribes that were vassals of the Bashilange had paid them tribute. Now that their former masters had renounced the spear for the dagga pipe, these vassals refused to continue paying tribute, and without going to war the Bashilange had no way to enforce their demands.
All these problems came to a head around 1876 when a serious rebellion against the chief broke out. The chief, his brother, and his sister were accused of having killed a man by sorcery. It was a trumped-up charge, but the accused had to smoke dagga until they became unconscious. When finally they fell to the ground, they were attacked and stabbed by their enemies. Had it not been for the intervention of some of the other villagers, they would have been killed. Having failed in their attempt to assassinate the royal family, the leaders of the rebellion deserted the village, but they soon returned to their homes and were never punished for their crime.
The end was near at hand, however, and it was not long before the anticannabis forces mustered enough support to overthrow the riamba cult. The tribe returned to many of its old customs, but many of the changes initiated as a consequence of the adoption of the cult remained. The Bashilange ceased their warlike activities against their neighbors, much of the legal system was preserved so that harsh penalties were rarely applied, and cannabis still remained an integral part of their daily lives.
Another African hemp cult about which very little is known was located in the Sudan. The founding of the cult was attributed to a mysterious woman named Sirdar. Its purpose is not well known, but it appears that the participants shared feelings of opposition to the local chiefs in the area.
Directly under Sirdar were two lieutenants known as her mudirs. These officers had their own subordinates who supervised yet another group further down the hierarchy. The lowest level of the echelon was charged with establishing cliques to promote the smoking of dagga throughout the district. Sirdar's organization and her message, whatever it was, was apparently a huge success for gifts regularly poured into her camp from locales as far as two or three days' journey from her headquarters. Yet, like the riamba cult, Sirdar's influence in the Sudan eventually declined and the hemp cult she introduced also disappeared.
The "Coolie" Problem
By the time the white man came to Africa, dagga had become a part of the native's way of life. In the quest for altered consciousness and escape from the humdrum characteristic of nearly all societies, primitive or highly industrialized, Africa had become a country of dagga cultures whereas Europe besot itself in alcohol. Like alcohol, dagga was a relaxant, a social lubricant, an integral part of religious ceremony, and a drug of abuse. Since Europe sat in judgement of Africa alcohol was rarely given a second thought, whereas the natives' use of dagga was considered by many to be morally reprehensible. As long as dagga was taken primarily by the black man, white Africa took little interest, other than amusement, in these peculiar drug cults. When cannabis subsequently took root in their own cities, however, the fear of contamination by such foreign practices began to alarm segments of white society. The change in attitude occurred shortly after 1843, when the Republic of Natalia (Natal), on the northeast coast of South Africa, was annexed by England and made part of the Cape Colony. Following the development of the sugar industry in the new province, more and more laborers were needed to work the fields. When native manpower proved unequal to the task, workers were sought from other countries, especially from the British colony of India, and about 6000 mainly low-caste Indians entered the country.
Although brought over expressly to work in the sugar fields, these "coolies", as they were called, left the fields as soon as they were able to satisfy their indenture obligations and they sought jobs in other industries. Many became semiskilled laborers, domestic servants, farmers, storekeepers, fishermen, etc. But while they fitted into the European way of life, they never became part of it. Their dark skins, culture, social and religious background, and language set them apart from both the Europeans and the native Africans.
Europeans were also suspicious of them because of their use of cannabis, a habit which they brought with them from India. Cannabis, the Europeans believed, made the "coolies" sick and lazy and therefore unable to work, and also led them to commit criminal acts.
The Indian emigrees had not had to import cannabis seeds with them; cannabis was already a popular drug among the natives and it was probably from them that the Indians obtained their cannabis. It was not long, however, before legal steps were adopted to curtail such usage. By 1870, European settlers became so alarmed at the alleged dangers of cannabis to South Africa that they passed a law "prohibiting the smoking, use, or possession by the sale, barter, or gift to, any coolies whatsoever, of any portion of the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa)..."
But just as identical laws in other countries had no effect on the use of cannabis, so too was it ignored in Africa. In 1887, the Wragg Commission (named after its chairman, Supreme Court Judge Walter Wragg) concluded that the "coolies" were still using cannabis and that the drug posed a danger to white South Africans. Again, measures were taken to outlaw the sale, cultivation, possession, and use of cannabis. Such laws were no more successful than previous ones.
In 1923, South Africa tried to enlist the aid of the League of Nations in outlawing cannabis on an international scale, but to no avail. Five years later, the country passed yet another anticannabis law. This was followed by still more anticannabis laws. The result was always the same - try though they might to legislate cannabis out of existence, South African lawmakers were never a match for the plant's tenacious hold over its devotees..
References and Notes