Confessions of British bhang-eating

In 2006, Britain’s Home Office reported that 8.7 percent of residents of England and Wales used cannabis. This is an unexpected downward trend; in 2004, when the penalty for possession of cannabis was reduced from five to two years in jail, most believed that consumption would increase. (In 2009, the penalty reverted to five years.) Nevertheless, cannabis remains the most popular illicit drug in England and Wales, mostly used recreationally, though its medicinal use is rising. After a century of research aimed at discovering the drug’s dangers, the British Medical Association described it as ‘remarkably safe … with a side effects profile superior to many conventional medications’.

Far Out: Parvati offering bhang to Shiva


Three centuries ago, the British only knew of the related industrial hemp, cultivated to make cordage, clothing and paper. Today, over 30 countries, including Great Britain, grow hemp for these purposes but also to manufacture biodegradable plastics and biofuels. The British encountered cannabis, or rather bhang, during their initial interaction with the Subcontinent in the 17th century. Sailors, soldiers and merchants no doubt witnessed the sacred as well as recreational use of bhang – smoked by swamis in a chillum, inhaled from a hookah, or mixed in thandai, a drink prepared with almonds, milk, sugar and spices during Holi. Perhaps they also witnessed its therapeutic use in curing fever, dysentery, gonorrhoea and, purportedly, even lisping.

The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that bhang was first mentioned in English in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): ‘Another [herb] called Bange, like in effect to Opium’. In fact, however, this reference was lifted from another book – in all probability the first European book printed in India – called Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India (1563) by Garcia da Orto, a Portuguese doctor practicing in Goa. The Portuguese, leading in the colonial scramble, had already stumbled upon bhang.

Thomas Bowrey’s A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal 1669 to 1679, written in the 1670s but not published until 1905, provides the earliest record in English of the recreational use of cannabis. The incident occurred in Bengal and involved Bowrey, a merchant seaman, and a handful of his kind. He writes of the preparation: ‘Sometimes they mix it with their tobacco and smoke it, a very speedy way to be besotted; at other times they chew it.’ But he advises that ‘the most pleasant way of taking it is [to] Pound a handful of the seed and leaf together, which mixt with one pint of fresh water, and let it soak one quarter of an hour, then strained through a piece of calico, and drink off the liquor and in less than half an hour its Operation will shew itself for the space of four or five hours.’

Of course, a central part of the preparation instructions includes how to deal with the concoction’s effects. Bowrey cautions that the ‘Operation’ will be executed according to ‘the thoughts or fancy of the Party’, so that if someone is ‘merry at that instant, he Shall Continue So with Exceeding great laughter, rather overmerry’. But ‘if it be taken in a fearfull or Melancholy posture, he Shall keep great lamentation and Seem to be in great anguish of Spirit.’ Bowrey is grateful when the cannabis begins to take effect ‘merrily’ upon him and his friends, save for a few, one of whom is so ‘terrified with fear’ that he ‘run his head into a great Moryavan Jaree [earthenware pot], and continued in that Posture four hours or more.’ Others ‘lay upon the Carpets complimenting each other in high terms, each fancying himself an Emperor.’

17th-century score
The first medicinal use of cannabis by Britons was documented during the 1670s in Ceylon. Robert Knox, the son of an East India Company ship’s captain, was confined to the island’s independent Kandyan kingdom for 19 years. In An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), Knox discusses how, between 1673 and 1679, he and a shipmate journeyed towards the Dutch-held northwestern coast in a bid to escape. It was during this journey that they came across the substance, when they were ‘sick of violent Fevors and Agues’ from drinking rainwater that was ‘so thick and muddy, that the very filth would hang in our Beards when we drank’. They learned that the antidote to counter the ‘venomous water’ was a mere ‘dry leaf’ called banga in Portuguese, which they ate with ‘some of the Countrey Jaggory Morning and Evening upon an empty stomach’.

Knox eventually escaped and returned to London in 1680. His reintegration with English society began when he visited London’s fashionable coffee shops with his brother James, a talented limner (painter of miniatures). During this period, he was acquainted with eminent persons such as Robert Boyle, Edmund Halley, Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke – and thus he came to the notice of London’s intelligentsia. By the time An Historical Relation of Ceylon was published, the story of his confinement and escape had spread, partly accounting for the book’s success.

During Knox’s absence from England, Robert Hooke had risen to fame as a physicist. In 1678, he introduced the ‘inverse square law’ to describe planetary motions, which Isaac Newton later used in modified form (though Hooke always complained that he was not given sufficient credit for this). During this time Hooke and Knox first met, and the former gave invaluable assistance in the editing and publication of the latter’s book. This marked the beginning of a friendship that endured until Hooke’s death 23 years later.

A notorious spendthrift, in his diary Hooke noted down his expenses at coffeehouses. From this we can gather that there were three coffee-shop meetings within a fortnight – almost a decade after Knox’s return from Ceylon – at which bhang was mentioned. The first two record its effects:

Sat [26 Oct 1689] At Jon. Cap. Knox choc. ganges [ganja or bhang] strange intoxicating herb like hemp, takes away understanding and memory, for a time frequently used in India with benefit.

Tu. 5 Nov 1689: Capt Knox told me the intoxicating leaf and seed, by the Moors called Ganges, in Portug. Banga; in Chingales [Sinhalese] Consa: ‘tis accounted wholesome, though for a time it takes away the memory and understanding.

The third reference is an innocent description of what today would be called a score, albeit without money changing hands: ‘Thu 7 [Nov 1689] from Cap. Knox. Konsa leafe and seed.’

Six weeks later, Hooke employed Knox’s information in a lecture – revolutionary for its time – to the Royal Society that described the social, psychiatric and therapeutic uses of bhang. Hooke informed his audience about its ‘very general and frequent’ use in India, and how his source (Knox) ‘hath made many Trials of it, on himself, with very good Effect’. This suggests that Knox had become accustomed to using bhang on his travels and could well have imported some for his own use.

Hooke instructed how the bhang was to be consumed, and described the onset of the ‘Operation’:

The Patient understands not, nor remembereth any Thing … but becomes, as it were, a mere Natural, being unable to speak a Word of Sense; yet is he very merry, and laughs, and sings … yet is he not giddy, or drunk, but walks and dances … after a little Time he falls asleep, and sleepeth very soundly and quietly; and when he wakes, he finds himself mightily refresh’d, and exceeding hungry.

Hooke also specifically mentioned Knox’s illness in Ceylon, ‘which troubled his Stomach, or Head’. Yet after the bhang, he noted dramatically, Knox had been ‘perfectly carried off without leaving any ill Symptom, as Giddiness, Pain in the Head or Stomach, or Defect of Memory’.

Useful for Lunaticks

Knox had informed Hooke of bhang’s sacred use in Ceylon – no doubt by Indian holy men participating in a pada yatra to a shrine such as Kataragama, some 200 km southeast of Colombo. A devout Christian, Knox was not impressed: ‘He saith “tis commonly made Use of, by the Heathen Priests, or rambling Mendicant Heathen Friars, who will meet together, and dose themselves with this medicine … talking they know not what, pretending after that, they were inspired.”’

In an historic demonstration that would be illegal in Britain by 1925, Hooke produced for his Royal Society audience a quantity of seed and some plants he had cultivated. He intended to sow the seeds to see whether the plant would have the same ‘vertues’ as the ones found in the Subcontinent, having found out after ‘Several trials’ that ‘it hath lost its Vertue, producing none of the Effects before-mentioned.’ The ‘loss of virtue’ is hardly surprising, for it was winter, and even if cultivated indoors the seedlings would have had insufficient sunlight for growth.

Hooke’s experiments the following spring go unrecorded. Assuming they were unsuccessful, though, Hooke must have been disappointed, for he was an insomniac and regularly took laudanum (an opium-and-alcohol solution), the drug of the era, as well as other concoctions. Indeed, it is clear from his diaries that he was quite drug-dependent and suffered unpleasant side-effects. In fact, drug dependency was rife during the Enlightenment period. Robert Boyle revealed that he never left home before imbibing a cocktail of chemically laced remedies, and Edmund Halley read a paper to the Royal Society on his experiences with opium.

Hooke saw great potential in the medicinal and psychiatric applications of bhang, and must have found it an agreeable alternative. He noted that it could ‘prove as considerable a medicine in Drugs as any that is brought from the Indies’, and suggested that it may be of ‘considerable use to Lunaticks, or for other Distempers of the Head and Stomach’ because it seemed to put ‘a man into …a Quiet Sleep’ and ‘in all Possibility would, cure them.’ Hooke’s proposals along these lines were ignored, however, by the medical community. It was not until the 1830s, when bhang’s therapeutic properties were investigated in India, that doctors began to use it as an alternative to opium. Curiously, modern campaigners for the legalisation of cannabis have searched medical texts for supportive references, but have missed Knox’s experience and Hooke’s obscure lecture to the Royal Society.