Napoleon, the emperor who invaded Russia because of hemp

De: Contributor Cultura

Due to the plant stigmatisation, our educational system often seems to have overlooked important details about history if they are related to cannabis. This is perhaps more evident when you look at the role that hemp played during the colonial era, where it was not only an important crop throughout Europe and America, but was the most important, playing a fundamental role in capital events of our past.

Did you know that hemp once ‘fed’ world trade, just as fossil fuels do today? Everything is due to the economic power associated with this plant. During the time of colonialism, ruling the oceans was an important sign of power, and countries that could trade freely using ships gained great access to goods from around the world. Britain, France and Spain were known for their ability to colonise foreign lands thanks to their fleets. And in brief, hemp was absolutely essential to build a boat.

Hemp, for example, was used to make sailcloth. Each set of sails required nearly half a hectare of hemp, and each boat required two complete sets of sails. For ropes and riggings, only hemp would work, because of all the plant fibres available, it was the only one that could withstand after months at sea. Each boat would carry between fifty and one hundred tons of hemp riggings. Therefore, much land was needed to cultivate the hemp required to equip the ships.

Russia, land of hemp

And land was something that Russia had in abundance. By the turn of the century from 1700 to 1800, Russia had established itself as the hemp world’s leading supplier due to its servile labour under the yoke of the tsars. Around 1740, the country produced at least eighty percent of the hemp used in Europe for sailcloth, ropes, nets, etc., thanks to its ability to master a process called ” water retting “, which used moisture to break down the stems outer bark so it could be easily separated from the fibres.

Water retting produced softer and more durable hemp textiles. The quality of Russia’s hemp ropes and sailcloth was considered so superior that many sailors required any ship they intended to cross the ocean to be equipped with sailcloth made of Russian hemp.

Napoleon’s ambitions for Europe

But what does Russian hemp have to do with Napoleon? It is known that he was an ambitious man. Beginning as a general in the French Revolution, he won key battles that raised his notoriety until in 1804 he became emperor. However, his ambition was not only to govern France, but to control the whole of Europe.

He succeeded in extending his control across almost the entire continent through a combination of military muscle and political nepotism, putting his own family to rule nations such as Spain and Italy. His ambition did not stop there: he reached the water’s edge and Britain was on his wish list.

But, despite everything that happened on the world stage, with the United States gaining independence and France asserting its power over Europe, Britain still dominated the sea. The Royal Navy remained the main power in the water in the late 18th-century and the 19th-century. This was evident in the victories over the French in the Trafalgar campaigns, as well as in the limitations imposed on American traders trying to reach Europe, isolating the entire continent by controlling the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar.

Napoleon sought to weaken the English economically with a desire to rule all of Europe. If he could cut off supplies to the British Navy, then he would have a chance to defeat them at sea.

Eliminating the perfidious Albion

In the early 1800s, Russia exported thousands of tons of hemp per year. About 1/2 to 2/3 was going to feed the British Navy. Knowing that Britain depended on trade with Russia (a France ally), Napoleon managed to get Tsar Alexander I to agree to sign the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 which, de facto, imposed a continental blockade against the United Kingdom.

Cutting off the hemp supply to Britain might have been a good idea if it had succeeded. But Britain was able to replace the lost commercial relationship with France and its allies by trading with the American colonies. France, which was surrounded by the British Navy, could not do the same.

Likewise, the United States was able to trade with Russia. In fact, since Russia no longer supplied hemp to England, there was a greater supply available to the United States. Coincidentally, American ships had to pass through England on their way to Russia. By being ‘the older children in the playground’, the British Navy was essentially able to take away ‘school lunch money’ from American merchants and seize their possessions. It was also capable of requiring them to buy hemp from Russia to give to England if they wish to continue trading.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia

When he realised what the British were doing, Napoleon needed a different method to control the Russian hemp supply. He tried to get Tsar Alexander I to allow his men to dock in Russian ports, to make sure personally that hemp would not end up in the hands of the British Navy.

When the tsar refused (Russia did not respect the trade embargo for a long time because the hemp industry was too important for its economy), Napoleon decided to invade Russia. Then he learned, in the hardest way, what every nation that has tried to invade Russia has undergone: Russia is not a country for the weak-hearted and, as a nation, its resilience to invasion is and has been insurmountable.

Napoleon, with all his military genius, did no better. After assembling the world’s largest standing army, he marched west of Russia with his ‘Grande Armée’ in 1812. The Russian Army was outnumbered by almost 3 to 1. After suffering significant early losses, Russia relied on a strategy that is quite common to Russian military strategists with respect to the invaders: to survive.

A victory that turned into defeat

A calculated retreating defensive action into Russia and the reliability on the French army attrition has been proved to be a successful tactic. Napoleon won almost all the battles and took Moscow. But when they did, Moscow was a ghost town, burned down by the Russians themselves. And the powerful French Army, which once had nearly 600,000 men, was reduced to less than 100,000. The rest were buried along the way.

Napoleon remained in Moscow for about a month before returning to France, without success in his true mission. He could never cut off the hemp supply to the Royal Navy. At the same time, and at the other end of the continent, the Spanish War of Independence had just given the emperor the coup de grace. Although Spain paid a high price for its freedom, bleeding not only on the battlefield, but also in society, economy and politics, the failure of his expansionist cravings in the Iberian Peninsula meant the end for Napoleon Bonaparte (“This unfortunate Peninsular War was the first cause of all the misfortunes of France: all my disasters are bound up in that fatal knot”, he would later write in his exile).

After being forced to abdicate in 1814, Napoleon was banished to the island of Elba. He returned a few months later for a final battle at Waterloo, but was eventually exiled to another small island in the middle of nowhere where he would live the last years of his life.

The lost story you need to know

What’s really more amazing about this story is that it’s almost never taught. Most people will learn about Napoleon who was ambitious and military minded, but they probably won’t learn how important cannabis was to their military strategy.

Very few school textbooks could tell you that hemp once ruled the world like oil or gas today. Sure, everyone knows that the navies once ruled the world, but hardly anyone realises that hemp ruled the navies. A little over a hundred years before World War I, almost all the same players participated in the Napoleonic Wars.

The centre of strategy in these wars was the importance that hemp played in the maritime battle and international trade. Perhaps it would be better to call those wars the ‘Hemp Wars’. However, that would maybe push the boundaries too far and it would be uncomfortable for some. But, although our educational system is not prepared to deal with all the weight that cannabis has played throughout history, it is at least worth mentioning.

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Kannabia accept no responsibility for any illegal use made by third parties of information published. The cultivation of cannabis for personal consumption is an activity subject to legal restrictions that vary from state to state. We recommend consultation of the legislation in force in your country of residence to avoid participation in any illegal activity.

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