Hollands’ Hemp History

3 07 2008

Hemp is one of the oldest crops domesticated by man. The history of hemp in Holland also goes back for thousands of years. The stalk of the hemp-plant produces one of the strongest natural fibres that were used to make things like rope, textile and paper. Also the seed of the hemp-plant contains high-grade food oil that was also used for lamp oil, the production of paint and (green!) soap.

The Dutch Golden Age was also the golden age of Dutch hemp in Holland. Without hemp there would not have been too much golden age in the first place. A seafaring nation with ships going around the globe is a nice thing to be; however, to be able to build such ships, many tons of hemp was needed. Next to wood, hemp was the main component used to build a ship in those times. The replica of the famous 17th century Dutch ship ‘Batavia’ contains about 21 kilometres of rope. The sails are made of hemp and hemp-fibres were also used as part of a caulking that made the hull watertight.

Only after Czar Peter the Great learned about shipbuilding in the Dutch ‘zaanstreek’ (an area in the north of Amsterdam where a lot of ships used were build) — and as it seems also about hemp production — did Russian hemp start to compete with the Dutch. This was the beginning of a slow decline for hemp, a decline that continued into the 20th century when modern machines and artificial fibres finally conquered the market. The farmers, especially in the middle of Holland and along the big rivers, lost their winter-time work (peeling the fibres from the stalks) and started to make their own cheese. The hemp-market in places like Gouda became a cheese-market and Holland became a cheese-country.

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