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  • Cannabis in the Commons: Colonial Networks, Missionary Politics and the Origins of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1893–4

In 1893 the Secretary of State for India revealed in the House of Commons that he had ordered the Government of India to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the issue of cannabis use in south Asian society.[1] In doing so he anticipated the establishment of the Royal Commission on Opium by three months, although the latter was to over-shadow the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (IHDC) both in the 1890s and to this day.[2] He did this despite the fact that cannabis was of little concern in Parliament or indeed in wider British society. It had enjoyed sporadic popularity as a medicine in British medical circles throughout the nineteenth century but had failed to establish itself either in the Victorian doctor’s bag or in the pharmacist’s range of patent medicines. Its popularity as an intoxicant had been noted by bohemians of the period but there is little evidence that it was used in any but the most limited of literary circles. In other words, cannabis entered the House of Commons in the last decade of the nineteenth century despite a lack of interest in Britain in the plant and its products.[3]

This article will consider the question of the origins of the IHDC and explain why individual MPs forced the issue of cannabis into the House of Commons in the early 1890s in the face of an ignorance of the subject among their fellow members. After a brief outline of the key characters and events in the campaign that resulted in the Secretary of State’s announcement, this article will consider where those characters found the information that drove their efforts. It has already been noted elsewhere that the small number of MPs that pursued the issue were part of the campaign against opium of the period and as such their agitation against cannabis can be understood as part of their wider attack on imperial government and drugs trading in India.[4] However, quite how they stumbled upon cannabis as an issue, and quite why they took a negative stance when they did, remains to be explained.

Cannabis in the Commons in the 1890s

On 2 March 1893 the Secretary of State for India declared in the House of Commons that the Government of India would establish a Commission to examine the issue of cannabis use among the communities of south Asia. Although preparations of the cannabis sativa plant were largely unknown in Britain in the 1890s they became the subject of a sustained campaign by individual MPs in the Commons after 1891 when Mark Stewart MP stood up in the House of Commons on 16 July “to ask the Under-Secretary of State for India whether his attention has been called to the statement in the Allahabad Pioneer of the 10th May last that ganja ‘which is grown, sold and excised under much the same conditions as opium’, is far more harmful than opium, and that ‘the lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers’”.[5] He pressed his point, asking further of the Under-Secretary “whether he is aware that the possession and sale of ganja has been prohibited for many years past in Lower Burma and that the exclusion of the drug was stated in the Excise Report of that province for 1881–82 to have been ‘of immense benefit to the people’”. The reason for his curiosity was that he wanted to know “whether he [the Under-Secretary of State] will call the attention of the Government of India to the desirability of extending the same prohibition to the other Provinces of India?”

Mark Stewart was an experienced temperance campaigner by the 1890s and a member of the vociferous anti-opium campaign that finally cornered the government on the issue in the last decade of the nineteenth century. He had been badgering the authorities about opium for almost twenty years and had urged the House of Commons to pass the motion that “the Imperial policy regulating the opium traffic between India and China should be carefully considered by Her Majesty’s Government with a view to gradual withdrawal of the Government of India from the cultivation and manufacture of Opium” as early as 1875.[6] This motion was not passed by the House but it was the first Parliamentary blast of the anti-opium campaigners’ horn that was to reach its crescendo in 1891. This was the year that Sir Joseph Pease successfully brought forward the motion in the Commons that “this House is of opinion that the system by which the Indian opium revenue is raised is morally indefensible, and would urge upon the Indian Government that it should cease to grant licenses for the cultivation of the poppy”.[7] Stewart remained at the forefront of the campaign in this period, speaking alongside Pease for example in the debates on the subject of May 3 1889 when he took on religious authority and pronounced that “the opinion of the Christian Churches in this country is that the Indian Government ought no longer to be the producers and manufacturers of this drug”.[8] This tone had been adopted by Pease who had argued that “this trade, demoralizing to so large a portion of mankind, stands in the way of the spread of the Christian faith that we all desire”. In fact, opium was not the only intoxicant to worry Stewart. Since the 1870s he had been a supporter of legislative measures on alcohol, standing to speak in support of the Intoxicating Liquors (Scotland) Bill in 1875 and announcing in the following year that in the case of intemperate use of spirits in Ireland “he would rather that moral suasion were used to remedy the evil complained of but that having failed it was high time to legislate on the subject”.[9]

Indeed, it seems that cannabis was of little real interest to Mark Stewart as an issue in itself and was rather seen as just another intoxicant and just another way of darkening the reputation of the Government of India in the House of Commons by emphasising its murky dealings in drugs. Stewart had raised the subject of ganja only once before in begging “to ask the Under Secretary of State if he can inform the House of the number of shops or houses in each province of British India licensed for the retail sale of opium, ganja and bhang respectively and in how many of these opium is allowed to be smoked or otherwise consumed on the premises”.[10] Evidently, the focus of this query was opium even though cannabis products were briefly mentioned. Indeed, he never bothered with the subject of cannabis preparations again after his question about the lunatic asylums of India in 1891 although he did continue to concentrate on the issue of opium, at one point confronting Gladstone on the subject and demanding to know “if it is the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to bring in a Bill, with a view to legislation, on the opium question this Session, in accordance with the Resolution passed by this House in 1891?”[11]

It was one of Stewart’s colleagues in Parliament, William Sproston Caine, who instead took up the issue of cannabis use in India. On the face of it Caine and Stewart were unlikely colleagues. The latter was a member of the old world as he was from Scottish aristocracy as a member of the Stewart clan of Kircudbrightshire in the lowland borders.[12] The former on the other hand was very much new money and a product of the Victorian economy as his family had made its fortune in iron ore mining in Cheshire. What they did have in common was an interest in temperance reform. Caine was raised as a Baptist and he came to serve as president of such institutions as the Baptist Total Abstinence Society and the National Temperance Federation.[13] His commitment to issues of temperance was such that he resigned his seat in the House of Commons over the matter of compensation for public-house license holders and was appointed to the Royal Commission on liquor licensing laws that sat between 1896 and 1899.[14] It was this commitment that meant he was a also a determined member of the anti-opium campaign, writing at one point that “I have been in East-end gin palaces on Saturday nights, I have seen men in various stages of delirium tremens, I have visited many idiot and lunatic asylums but I have never seen such horrible destruction of God’s image in the face of man as I saw in the Government opium dens of Lucknow”.[15]

He stood up in the Commons on 14 February 1893 in order to “beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for India whether the Indian Government has yet forwarded to the India Office the further Despatch dealing with the case of ganja and other drugs, promised in paragraph 4 of its Despatch, dated 14th October 1891?” He evidently suspected the Government of India of dragging its feet but instead learnt from George Russell, who was now the Under Secretary of State for India, that it had indeed arrived accompanied by a range of papers and that it would be “laid upon the Table if my hon. Friend will move for them”.[16] Caine did indeed apply to see the report and it was sent for printing on 8 March. Before even seeing this response from the Government of India to Mark Stewart’s question he piped up again, this time to demand action. “I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for India if the Secretary of State for India will instruct the Government of India to create a Commission of Experts to inquire into, and report upon, the cultivation of and trade in all preparations of hemp drugs in Bengal, the effect of their consumption upon the social and moral condition of the people, and the desirability of prohibiting its growth and sale”. He also insisted that “the Commission shall be partly composed of non-official natives of India”.[17]

To what seems to have been his surprise, George Russell stood up and declared “the Secretary of State proposes to request the Viceroy to appoint a Commission to inquire into the cultivation and trade in hemp drugs and he will be glad if the result of their inquiry is to show that further restrictions can be placed upon the sale and consumption of these drugs”. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (IHDC) had been established, although Caine seems not to have expected this as he had a Resolution on the subject lined up on the Order Book that he had to arrange to be withdrawn.[18] He was dogged in ensuring that the matter was seen to as a matter of urgency, asking questions throughout June about who was going to be on the Commission and finally receiving his answer on 7 July. Cannabis had become a matter of concern in the House of Commons for the first time and William Caine had secured the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (IHDC) to examine the drugs and medicines prepared in India from the plant.[19] He had done this more or less single-handedly, as he had followed up Mark Stewart’s original question of 1891 and had persisted in returning to the subject throughout the early months of 1893 despite the fact that no-one else spoke in his support or in condemnation of cannabis in the Commons. The question remains, therefore, of why Caine had mounted this successful campaign.[20]

Explaining Caine: Thomas Evans and the Missionaries of India

There is no published record that suggests that William Caine ever demonstrated a knowledge of, or an interest in, cannabis products before his trip to India late in 1888 to promote the Anglo-Indian Temperance Association. He had formed this in that year with fellow temperance MP Samuel Smith and Caine took the post of Honorary Secretary, a position he held until the end of his life. On April 30 1889 they offered the following resolution which was put to the ballot in the House of Commons.

In opinion of this House, the fiscal system of the GOI leads to the establishment of spirit distilleries, liquor and opium shops in large numbers of places, where, till recently, they never existed, in defiance of native opinion and the protests of inhabitants and that such increased facilities for drinking produce a steadily increased consumption, and spread misery and ruin among the industrial classes of India calling for immediate action on the part of the GOI with a view to their abatement.[21]

The resolution was carried, and the result was that the Government of India was contacted and asked to defend its position by the Secretary of State for India, which it did in 1890 through an attack on the alleged misrepresentations that Caine had relied upon.[22]

However, Caine’s knowledge of temperance issues in India after his trip there in 1888/9 went beyond spirits and opium as he seems to have formed an opinion on all of the intoxicants used in the country. He was no simple across the board kill-joy and his biographer speaks of his approval of one beverage “Mr Caine frequently denounced the mistaken policy of taxing the toddy-palm. The toddy-palm yields a liquid which for ages has formed one of the staple articles of food of the poorer classes in India. Whilst fresh it is perfectly innocuous and wholesome. When fermentation takes place, the result is only a slightly intoxicating beverage”.[23]

There was no such treatment for cannabis which Caine denounced in 1890 as “the most horrible intoxicant the world has yet produced”.[24] In that year he published a guide book for those travelling to India in which he committed his first words on cannabis to paper. While describing things to do on a wander around Lucknow he inserted the following passage.

Here and there throughout the bazar are little shops whose entire stock consists of a small lump of greenish pudding, which is being retailed out in tiny cubes. This is another ‘Government monopoly’ and is majoon, a preparation of the deadly bhang or Indian hemp known in Turkey and Egypt as Haseesh, the most horrible intoxicant the world has yet produced. In Egypt, its importation and sale is absolutely forbidden and a costly preventive service is maintained to suppress smuggling of it by Greek adventurers; but a Christian Government is wiser in its generation and gets a comfortable income out of its sale. When an Indian wants to commit some horrible crime, such as murder or wife mutilation, he prepares himself for it with two anna’s worth of bhang from a government majoon shop. The little rooms, open to the street, of which the sole furniture is some matting and a few Hukas, are churras or Chandu shops, farmed out by the government of India to provide another form of Indian hemp intoxication which is smoked instead of eaten.

This description was, of course, closely followed by an account of drinking dens and opium parlours. Fast on the description of cannabis users, he creates the image of “the groups of noisy men seated on the floor [who] are drinking ardent spirits of the worst description, absolutely forbidden to the British soldier, but sold retail to natives at three farthings a gill, of which two farthings go to the exchequer’ who were sat nearby the “large native house … through a door of which streams in and out a swarm of customers. It is perhaps three o’clock in the afternoon. Entering with them, you will find yourself in a spacious but very dirty courtyard, round which are ranged fifteen or twenty small rooms. The stench is sickening, the swarm of flies intolerable, and there is something strange and weird in the faces of those coming in from the street. This is the establishment of another Government contractor, the opium farmer”. Caine’s ideas about cannabis were closely bound together with his fears about alcohol and opium in India and were caught up in his political opposition to the colonial government there.

If the date of these pronouncements on cannabis suggests that the trip to India in 1888/89 was significant in the formulation of his thinking on cannabis then it is the company that Caine shared while there that explains how he came to develop his opinions. Attention focuses here on the Reverend Thomas Evans, a man of whom it was said that Caine “always spoke in the highest terms”.[25] Evans was a Baptist missionary in India who had been there since 1855. Born in Trefdraeth, Newport, in Wales in 1826 he had been a lifelong opponent of intoxication as a result of his childhood experiences of his father’s drunken rages. He had become concerned about the Government of India’s income from taxes on alcohol in 1874 during a residence at Monghyr and later wrote “in India, the manufacture and sale of liquor is under Government control and as a loyal Briton, as well as a friend of the people of India and a Christian missionary, I could not support a policy which secured extra revenue at the cost of impoverishing and demoralising the people”.[26] By the 1880s he had taken to sending letters to the British newspapers and these drew him to the attention of MPs in the House of Commons for whom the issues of temperance, the opium trade and the government of India were all entwined. William Caine contacted Evans in the summer of 1888 and proposed that they travel together across India to stir up interest in temperance issues on a speaking tour.

Caine’s choice of Evans was a practical one. The latter had been in India for over thirty years and had extensive contacts across south Asia. Sent there as a member of the Baptist Missionary Society, he travelled widely and had at various times been based in Agra, Muttra, Delhi, Calcutta, Allahabad, Monghyr, Ootacamund and Rangoon. In his memoirs he detailed friendships and professional contacts with a host of British and American missionaries, evangelical laymen and chaplains of the cantonment churches. In other words, Evans would have seemed to be the ideal man to lead Caine and his Anglo-Indian Temperance Association to those likely to be attracted to its agenda.

The speaking tour with Caine began on November 11th 1888 in Bombay and by 1st January 1889 Caine and Evans had appeared in cities across Gujarat, the Punjab, Uddhar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. After a week in Calcutta the tour began in the south and by 8th March Caine and Evans could boast that they had “succeeded in addressing nearly one hundred public meetings and visiting almost every large centre of population throughout British India. Upwards of forty temperance societies were formed in consequence of these meetings and were affiliated to the Anglo-Indian Temperance Association. Many others were subsequently established and there were soon seventy affiliated branches”.[27] The biography of William Caine provides a similarly hectic version of the trip, “the second visit Mr Caine paid to India was as the representative of this Association. During his tour he addressed nearly one hundred public meetings, many of them of enormous proportions. He was accompanied throughout his journey by the Reverend Thomas Evans”.[28]

Evans’ views on cannabis are made clear in his written response to the IHDC. Evans wrote

It appears to me a superfluous labour to make an enquiry whether the use of hemp drugs are or are not deleterious in their effects upon those who indulge in them. That they are so is a fact well known throughout the world.[29]

He reported that “I have myself seen idiots wandering about in large towns in the North-West, especially in Patna, who had become so by indulgence in charas and ganja”[30] and he quoted lunatic asylums statistics from Lower Bengal to make his point about the relationship between mental health problems and use of cannabis, arguing that 53% of cases in the government’s hospitals were due to consumption of the plant’s preparations.[31] Evans was also concerned to place cannabis in a comparative context and he argued that “the indulgence in opium is bad enough, but not half as injurious as that of ganja, and about four times more ganja is consumed in Bengal than opium”.[32] All of this was a preamble to an attack on the government where he applied his broader arguments on all intoxicants in India to the specific issue of cannabis.

What I and others charge the Government with is the sad fact that by the cultivation of hemp drugs in Lower Bengal under Government sanction and control, and by the incentives given by the State to increase the production and the sales for revenue purposes, the Government itself becomes the producer and the monopolised merchant of the vile traffic through which thousands of its own subjects are ruined. This is a serious charge, but it is as true as it is regrettable, and it applies to opium and liquor as well as to hemp drugs.

In accordance with this attack he called for a radical change of policy on the part of the government. “Let the Government wash its guilty hands clean of the traffic as far as its own dealings with it are concerned … to my mind by far the best measure is prohibition”.[33]

Evans’ views of cannabis were evidently severe and elsewhere in the IHDC testimony suggests that these were convictions that had been held for some time. The Reverend Prem Chand reported that

I am a Baptist Missionary. I was once under Mr Evans and worked with him for 7 or 8 years in Monghyr. Thence I went to Calcutta for 4 years and from Calcutta I was transferred to Gaya. Mr Evans knew my views. I saw him in December last but we did not then talk over the hemp drugs. When Mr Evans and I worked together in Monghyr we often conversed about them, and had common experience about them. We worked together in the cause of temperance.[34]

It would appear therefore that William Caine had travelled across India with a man whose experience of the country spanned four decades and had allowed him to form damning opinions about cannabis based on his lifelong conviction about the evils of intoxicants. It is also clear that in Evans, Caine had found a companion who was given to discussing cannabis drugs and their evils.

Indeed, Evans would not simply have appeared as an isolated voice to Caine. Evans’ account of the speaking tour is interesting when cross-referenced with the witness lists of the IHDC. While travelling with Caine, Evans recounted visiting the Reverend S.J. Long in Coimbatore. When confronted by the IHDC Long had reported that “I also think that ganja calls for more restriction than alcohol at the hands of the Government” despite the fact that he readily confessed that he had no experience of the deleterious effects of cannabis.[35] Evans also recalled encountering W.H. Campbell while speaking in Cuddapah.[36] Campbell presented the IHDC with the unappetising information that cannabis “is put into curry, especially brain curry. This is common at funeral ceremonies amongst various sudra castes. It is pounded or pressed into meat, especially such pieces as the heart or liver, and the whole is roasted and eaten”.[37] Indeed, Evans also noted that while with Caine he had met with the Reverend Prem Chand mentioned above, who happily admitted to the IHDC that he was a long-time supporter of Evans’ stance on the drugs.[38]

Prem Chand’s evidence is particularly important as he confessed in his report to the IHDC that “Mr Evans sent me the paper of questions and I despatched my answers through him”.[39] In other words a glimpse is caught here of Evans actively contacting missionaries that he knew to have negative views of cannabis in order to orchestrate responses to the IHDC’s inquiries. Evans appears here not simply as someone with a dim view of cannabis products and not simply as someone known to discuss these views and to know others with similarly critical opinions. He appears to be a man ready to rally others to the cause of publicly damning cannabis intoxicants.

It is little wonder then that William Caine, after a tour of India in the company of Evans, went on to write such lurid and damning accounts of cannabis drugs. Indeed, having established the Anglo-Indian Temperance Association, Caine also founded its journal with the ironic title Abkari, after the local name for the excise system in India. This was used as a mouthpiece so that Evans could reach a wider audience still, and he wrote in 1892 for example to condemn “the State traffic in the noxious ganja poison”.[40]

It is tempting to wonder what Caine might have thought of cannabis had he not been accompanied by Thomas Evans. After all, even within the missionary presence in India there was no clear or unanimous view on cannabis. Indeed, the returns of the IHDC show that few missionaries had an opinion of any sort on the issue of cannabis drugs in India. The IHDC complained that “every effort was put forth by the Commission to obtain missionary opinion on the subject of their inquiries and it is a matter of some regret to them that their efforts have met with but little success”. Apparently it found that there was a dearth of knowledge of the issue of cannabis among Christian churches in India.

Not only was it announced through Local Governments that the Commission desired to receive communications from religious bodies of all denominations but the Commission themselves also communicated freely with persons of this class. But the large majority of them declined to come forward as witnesses and many, including Churchmen, Dissenters and Roman Catholics communicated letters either to Government or direct to the Commission excusing themselves on the ground of want of knowledge. As an example of the want of knowledge of the subject or lack of interest evinced by missionaries, it may be observed that in one instance (in the Madras Presidency) the Commission made over 70 copies of their questions to two sects of missionaries professing to represent one-fifth of the whole missionary enterprise of the Madras Presideny. Yet the total number of missionaries in this Presidency who sent in answers or statements to the Commission was only 15.[41]

Among those that did reply there were those that had obviously done so out of a sense of duty and who knew little. The Reverend Thomas of the London Missionary Society was perhaps the most honest in admitting that “I have given the matter of hemp drugs very little attention until I was asked the other day”.[42] Reverence I.C. Archibald in Chicacole in the Madras Presidency stated baldly that “although I have had some nine years of residence in this country, the bulk of the questions I am unable to answer”[43] and the Reverend G.A. Lefroy of the Cambridge Mission in Delhi confessed that “I know scarcely anything about the matters with which this commission deals”.[44]

Others had evidently gone to the effort of hastily gathering some information in order to provide some evidence to the IHDC. George Pittendrigh, a Free Church of Scotland missionary in Madras, candidly made it clear that “it was not till after I heard of the Commission that I made any special enquiry into the matter … noone seemed to know anything about it”.[45] The Reverend Ball of the Church Missionary Society in Karachi qualified his statements with an introduction that stated “I have completed thirteen years of service in Sind, but till within the past few weeks I have not taken advantage of any opportunities I might have had to inform myself regarding matters connected with hemp drugs, and the information I now give, such as it is, has been gathered by personal enquiry from natives”.[46] John Kerry, a missionary in Dacca, readily confessed that “my attention was not drawn to the use until I was asked in connection with this Commission … generally I have seen nothing of the effects of ganja or its use until I searched for them”.[47]

Among those that did have stories to tell and opinions to offer there were those who offered positive assessments of cannabis drugs. Reverend Dutt, a missionary in Khulna in the Bengal Presidency related the remarkable tale of a former colleague. He described him as “one man who had derived benefit from using ganja in moderation. He was a preacher of the Baptist Mission and lived to nearly 100 years old. He used to take one chillum daily before going to bed … this man was my friend for 14 or 15 years but I never knew that he smoked”.[48] J.P. Jones, stationed up in Assam, offered the observation that “men often work well when taking ganja”[49] and A. E. Ball serving in Sind noted the medical uses of cannabis preparations

I gather that Bhang is recommended in cases of venereal disease and that ground into powder it is useful for external application to piles. For the same disease a pinch of powdered bhang with an equal quantity of sugar is eaten by some in the morning. Tincture of charas and charas pills are said to be good for cough and asthma. When cattle refuse their food, bhang is often given to them to produce appetite. When a calf dies and the cow refuses to give milk when another calf is brought, bhang is given and the cow under the intoxicating influence of the drug gives milk and never refuses to do so afterwards. Bhang creates appetite, helps digestion and used moderately, may be beneficial.[50]

The Catholic missionary, the Very Reverend A. Chelvum in Vizagapatam, stated clearly that “the moderate use is beneficial”. He went on to confirm that he thought that “alcohol in moderation contributes to health by refreshing and relieving the mind and body … I should receive either a spirit drinker or ganja smoker into my congregation. If he were given to excess, I should inculcate moderation”.[51]

This is not to deny that many of those that reported to the IHDC did produce negative assessments. Dr H.M. Clark was a medical missonary at Amritsar who stated that he was “a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery of the University of Edinburgh”. He reported on his experiences of the Punjab and in particular of preparations of charas, the pure resin exuded by the female plant. From the outset he was keen to make clear that “I can find no other word to describe the effects of charas other than they are frightful” and his overall conclusion was that “as far as my experience goes the effects of hemp are always and altogether bad”.[52] A fellow medical missionary, the Reverend D. Morison who was working in Bengal, was broadly in agreement with these assessments although his particular study was of ganja, the dried flowering tops of cultivated female hemp plans which have become coated with resin. He noted that “it over stimulates the appetite, causing the smoker to gorge himself with food which he cannot digest, and thus leading to indigestion; it does not give staying power, but the reaction is severe. It demands the stimulant again or the smoker is quite helpless and useless; it is never used as a febrifuge, indeed if a ganja smoker has an attack of fever, he dare not indulge in his usual pipe as it aggravates his condition. The ganja-smoker is as liable to fever as others. It has no prophylactic power in malarious districts”. Taken as a whole he was convinced that “it impairs the physical organism, saps the muscular energy by over-stimulation and leads to loss of muscular vigour, producing emaciation”.[53]

Missionaries that lacked a medical training did not feel, however, that assessments of the health impact of cannabis drugs were beyond them. Reverend Phillips of the London Missionary Society, who served in Calcutta, was particularly interested in the psychological implications of use of the preparations. He stated that “I believe that this question of insanity from the use of ganja is a very serious one … It creates such horrible visions, intensifies so unnaturally all the powers of mind and body, exhausts physical and mental energy, and places its victim in the direct line for the mad house”.[54] Others preferred to venture their opinions on the moral and social effects of these drugs. Reverend Heinrichs, who worked in the Kistna District of the Madras Presidency, wrote “I may say that their use generally induces laziness on the part of the consumers. People who indulge in ganja smoking never like to work hard and appear to be physically weak in constitution. These drugs are never used as an aphrodisiac but on the other hand it is said that the use of the drug tends to produce impotence”.[55] Up in Karachi, the Reverend Ball contented himself with passing on the report that “the sweetmeat majum in which bhang is mixed is eaten by some as an aphrodisiac … I gather that prostitutes use it for this purpose [and] I should say that a large proportion of bad characters are excessive consumers of these drugs”.[56]

Explaining the Missionary position

William Caine championed the anti-cannabis cause in Parliament which ultimately succeeded in the establishment of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission because he fell in with a missionary in India, Thomas Evans, who was among the most powerful critics of the drug in the evangelical community of south Asia. It is not at all clear, however, that those critics made up a large proportion of that community or that Evans was representative of missionaries in general on the subject of cannabis products.[57] Neither is it clear that Caine was well-informed. A survey of the opinions expressed by those opposed to cannabis suggests that a number of prejudices shaped their position and that little by way of scientific or sociological rigour had troubled their thinking.

The most obvious of the prejudices was the abhorrence of intoxication typical of those committed to the temperance movement.[58] In some of the responses the temperance agenda of the missionary is implied rather than stated, so that Reverend Phillips in Calcutta, whose concern about the mental health implications of the drug was mentioned above, admitted that “I hardly care to distinguish between opium, alcohol and ganja. I regard them all as bad … I am prepared to prohibit all three intoxicants on account of the evil which I see done by them all”.[59] The Reverend Long of Coimbatore, who Thomas Evans encountered on his tour with William Caine, also acknowledged that he was “Secretary of a Temperance Association which takes note of intoxicating drugs as well as liquor”. Long confessed that he viewed intoxication in a negative manner as he reported that “I may say I have never seen a member of the Native church drunk, but I know some take liquor and we disaprove of this, whether in moderation or excess”. His recommendation was that “because I think the hemp drug more dangerous, the physical effects so injurious, and the habit so difficult to leave off, I also think that ganja calls for more restriction than alcohol at the hands of the Government”. This was his convictions rather than his experience talking however, as he also admitted that before the inquiry “I had no experience of the drugs or their effects. I had come on no cases of ill effects from the use of the drugs”.[60]

Indeed, such was the power of temperance convictions among the respondents that they impacted upon the practice of their religious duties. Reverend Thomas, a member of the London Mission working in Vizagapatam, provided the following account.

I am myself a total abstainer; but the London Mission does not make a point of total abstinence. Most of out Native Christians are total abstainers; but this is not made compulsory. I should myself not permit a member of the church to use hemp drugs. I should strictly forbid it. If he did not obey I should not permit him to remain a member. I should not take the same course in regard to alcohol (spirit) provided that no effect came to my notice, and that the use was not a confirmed habit but only occasional. I should treat the use of opium precisely as I should treat the use of ganja. The reason of the difference in my attitude towards alcohol is that I think the drugs seem to affect the man more directly.[61]

All this despite the fact that he admitted that “I have given the matter of hemp drugs very little attention until I was asked the other day”.

Other issues, however, suggest themselves as at the root of the missionaries’ attitudes towards cannabis preparations. The Christian priests associated these substances with their local rivals in the struggle for the religious affections of Indian communities. In Bengal, Reverend Dutt pointed out that “whenever Fakirs and Kartabhajas assemble together for religious purposes they, as a rule, take ganja. The taking of ganja is considered by them essential, and it generally becomes excessive and consequently injurous to health”.[62] The Canadian Baptist, Reverend H.F. Laflamme, argued that “the mats or peculiar home of the religious mendicants, sanyasis or, as they are termed in these parts, bairagalu, have usually quite a garden plot attached in which the hemp plant is cultivated, but only to supply the need of the monks and their disciples. Such monasteries exist, I am informed, at large places like Samalkota, Chicacole, Berhampur, etc.”[63]

Laflamme’s testimony was interesting as it showed that he had noticed that his audience was not necessarily there to see him when he went out teaching in the villages, “before making the enquiries for the Commission I had frequently met bairagis in the course of my evening preaching at the temples in the villages … there would be many disciples and poor people smoking with the bairagis on these occasions”.[64] That the association between these drugs and the local priests was a negative one, and that the reason for that negativity was the rivalry between the Christian and the Hindu religious practitioner is best summed up by the testimony by the Reverend Goffin in the Madras Presidency. In reporting to the Commission he scribbled that “the religious mendicants who use it largely do so probably 1. because they are a lazy, bad class of men; 2. because it helps them to bear the hardships of their peculiar kind of life; 3. because the half-crazy, imbecile demeanour it produces is not unfavourably regarded by the people”.[65] The Christian missionary’s view of his competitors in India’s religious market, and the Orientalizing impulses of those convinced of the inferiority of Asian cultural systems, combined to produce a condemnation of cannabis use.[66]

Other prejudices are evident. The Reverend Morison, a Medical Missionary in Rampur Boalia, was concerned about sex and the use of cannabis substances and feared that it “utterly demoralises a young lad. The sexual desires are so stimulated that, if he can afford it, he will spend his days and nights with prostitutes. Laziness follows the over-stimulation of muscular and sexual functions”.[67] This narrative is a disapproval of promiscuity and prostitution rather than an assessment of a plant substance.[68] However, the broader conclusion is clear. The missionaries who took a dim view of cannabis did so because it fell foul of their own convictions and prejudices and not because any of them had conducted extensive or informed study of the plant, its products and their uses. In falling in with those who held such negative opinions on cannabis William Caine found himself influenced by facts and information that had rather shaky foundations.


The IHDC was ordered by the Secretary of State for India as the result of agitation by a group of anti-opium campaigners in the House of Commons. Mark Stewart’s questions on the issue suggest that he was simply using it as an additional stick with which to beat the Government on the broader issue of opium revenues to which he devoted much of his political career. William Caine’s dogged pursuit of the subject, however, shows that he had additional motivation.

His trip to India in 1888/9 seems to lie at the heart of his zeal for attacking cannabis and it was his missionary contacts while there that explain his energy on the subject. The missionary testimony in the IHDC shows that there was no unanimous or agreed stance on cannabis drugs among Christian evangelists in imperial India. As such it was not axiomatic that William Caine would leave India with a dim view of cannabis, even if he had only passed his time in the company of missionaries while there. It was the presence of Thomas Evans as his constant companion on the speaking tour that explains why Caine left India determined to pursue cannabis through Parliament.[69] Evans was one of a small number of missionaries who held strong views on cannabis and he knew fellow critics and met up with some of them on his speaking tour of India with Caine. The latter was morally and politically committed to the issue of temperance and indeed was in India to promote the subject, and as such would have been open to the ideas of those with similar feelings.[70]

Caine returned to the UK, reproduced the distrust of cannabis intoxicants in print that he had encountered while in India, and pursued the subject through the House of Commons to the point where the Secretary of State for India decided to establish the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission.[71] However, it has been argued that the first journey of cannabis through the House of Commons had foundations that lie squarely in the prejudices of the period. The opinion of those missionaries that did condemn cannabis in India was not broadly representative of missionaries as a whole and it was not based on extended investigation of the subject. Missionaries damned cannabis using value judgements that drew on the morality of the temperance movement, on the Orientalism of the Christian zealot in a non-Christian country, and on other preconceptions besides, such as the one noted above that reflects the suspicion of sexual activity of the Victorian prude. Their ideas drove a parliamentary campaign not because they were rationally established, or even particularly well marshalled or vociferous. They had the impact that they did because of the links between temperance campaigners in the UK and the empire that are represented in this story by the travelling companions William Caine and Thomas Evans. In short, the IHDC was the result of a range of knowledge and convictions that tell the historian little about cannabis and more about the mindset and relationships of certain colonial missionaries and metropolitan moralists in the British empire of the late nineteenth century.[72]

The IHDC opted not to accept negative opinions of cannabis in deciding that the majority of the testimony that they had heard on the subject “show[s] most clearly how little injury society has hitherto sustained from hemp drugs”.[73] This decision was barely criticized at the time and has since been represented as the sound judgment of disinterested Victorian administrators on the cannabis issue that can be relied upon even now; one author described it recently as “specifically unpartisan and objective [and] to this day the most thorough official study of cannabis ever conducted”.[74] Indeed, the IHDC has consistently been relied upon as such by pro-cannabis campaigners in more recent times[75] and even those who should know better have stated that the IHDC represents “a more scientific evaluation of the evidence” than other nineteenth century considerations of cannabis.[76]

I have argued elsewhere that this is a myth and that the report and the appendices of the IHDC cannot be used in such a naïve way as they do not represent an “unpartisan and objective” view of cannabis. Much of the evidence was produced by those loyal to or employed by the Government of India which stood to lose large revenues if it was forced to prohibit cannabis. In short, the evidence and report are products of the power relations of the period and reflect the interests of specific groups and agendas.[77] This article has taken this assessment of the IHDC further. It can now be argued that the origins as well as the outcomes of the IHDC are mired in the prejudices and politics of the late nineteenth century British empire.

James H. Mills
Strathclyde University


1. A confusing array of products and product names are used in the various documents referred to in this article. This article will not concern itself with the differences between them here and will use the terms “cannabis” and “cannabis products” to cover the whole range of substances in the text except where direct quotation from a source requires use of a product name like “ganja” or “charas”. For a note on the various products see J. Mills, Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition, 1800–1928, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) x–xi.

2. For the recent revival of interest in the Royal Opium Commission see J. F. Richards, “Opium and the British Indian empire: The Royal Commission of 1895” in Modern Asian Studies, 36, 2, (2002); C. Winther, Anglo-Indian Science and the Rhetoric of Empire: Malaria, Opium and British rule in India, 1756–1895 (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2003); F. Dikotter, L. Laaman and Z. Xun, Narcotic Culture: A history of drugs in China, (London: Hurst 2005) 101–104; K. McMahon, The Fall of the God of Money: opium smoking in nineteenth century China, (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002) 87–90.

3. For more on experiences of cannabis in the UK before 1900 see Mills, Cannabis Britannica, 17–46 and 140–151; V. Berridge, Opium and the People: opiate use and drug control policy in nineteenth and early twentieth century England, (London: Free Association Books, 1999) 209–215.

4. See Mills, Cannabis Britannica, 99–105.

5. “Papers relating to the consumption of ganja and other drugs in India” in British Parliamentary Papers, volume 66, (London: Hansard, 1891) 3.

6. Hansard, 225 (3rd Series), 571, 25 June 1875.

7. J. Rowntree, The Opium Habit in the East: a study of the evidence given to the Royal Commission on Opium 1893/4, (London: King, 1895) 4.

8. Hansard, 335 (3rd Series), 1174, 3 May 1889.

9. Hansard, 230 (3rd Series), 1351, 12 July 1876.

10. Hansard, 342 (3rd Series), 713, 13 March 1890.

11. Hansard, 9 (4th Series), 1454, 9 March 1893.

12. M. Stenton and S. Lees, Who’s Who of British Members of Parliament, vol. ii (Brighton: Harvester, 1978) 237.

13. See D. Fahey “Caine, William Sproston” in J.S. Blocker, D.M. Fahey, and I. R. Tyrrell (eds), Alcohol and temperance in modern history: an international encyclopedia, (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2003), vol. 1, 128.

14. G. S. Woods, “Caine, William Sproston (1842–1903)”, rev. H. C. G. Matthew, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): accessed 29 Oct 2004:

15. Hansard, 335 (3rd Series), 1160, 3 May 1889. For more on Caine and his anti-opium activities see Mills, Cannabis Britannica, 99–105.

16. Hansard, 8 (4th Series), 1360, 14 February 1893. The accompanying papers included Hem Chunder Kerr’s report on the manufacture of cannabis substances for the Indian market. This is discussed in more detail in J. Mills, “Cannabis in Colonial India: Production, state intervention and resistance in the late nineteenth-century Bengali landscape” in M. Steinberg, J. Hobbs and K. Mathewson (eds), Dangerous Harvest: Drug plants and the transformation of indigenous landscapes, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 221–231.

17. Hansard, 9 (4th Series), 822, 2 March 1893.

18. This motion moved that “In the opinion of this House the growth, cultivation and sale of bhang, ganja, charas and other preparations of hemp by the Provincial Governments of India produce much misery, poverty, insanity and moral deterioration among the people of India; and whereas similar reults in Turkey, Egypt and Greece have led to the absolute prohibition in those countries of the manufacture and common sale of hemp drugs, it is desirable that the Secretary of State for India should order a commission of experts to enquire into and report upon the cultivation of and trade in all preparations of hemp drugs in Bengal, the effect of their consumption upon the people of that presidency and the desirability of the prohibition of their sale; not less than one half of such commission to be composed of non-official natives of India” in Abkari (14 July 1893): 111.

19. This was not the first time that Caine had forced the Government of India to conduct a survey of its policy on intoxicants. As a result of his endeavours in 1889 it conducted a “ponderous inquiry” into liquor that resulted in it raising taxes in order to reduce consumption. See I. Tyrrell, “India” in Blocker, Fahey, and Tyrrell, Alcohol and temperance, 309. For a detailed study of relations between various British and local groups in India on the issue of “liquor” see D. Hardiman, “From Custom to Crime: The politics of drinking in colonial south Gujarat” in R. Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies IV, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985).

20. Caine was so successful despite being an isolated voice on cannabis as the Government of India and the British government were seeking to obfuscate the opium issue. For more on the reasons that Gladstone’s administration had for its approach to cannabis and opium see Mills, Cannabis Britannica, 100–105.

21. J. Newton, WS Caine MP: a biography, (London: Nisbet, 1907) 237.

22. See I. Tyrrell, “India” in Blocker, Fahey, and Tyrrell, Alcohol and temperance, 309.

23. Newton, WS Caine, 241.

24. W.S. Caine, Picturesque India, A Handbook for European Travellers, (London: Routledge, 1890) 292.

25. Newton, WS Caine, 236. The details of Caine’s career are all taken from this volume.

26. T. Evans (edited by D. Hooper), A Welshman in India, (London: James Clarke, 1908) 172. All details of Evans’ life and career are taken from this volume. He is not mentioned in Blocker, Fahey, and Tyrrell, Alcohol and temperance or in B. Harrison, Dictionary of British Temperance Biography, (Sheffield: Society for the Study of Labour History, 1973).

27. Ibid., 176.

28. Newton, WS Caine, 236. For more on this speaking tour and its outcomes see L. Carroll, “The Temperance Movement in India: Politics and Social Reform” Modern Asian Studies, 10, 3, (1976): 417–447.

29. Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1893/4 (Simla, 1894), v. 5, 304. Hereafter IHDC.

30. Ibid.

31. For an analysis of asylum statistics and colonial knowledge about cannabis see J. Mills, Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism: The “native-only” lunatic asylums of British India, 1857–1900, (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000) 43–65.

32. IHDC, v. 5, 304.

33. IHDC, v. 5, 305.

34. IHDC, v. 4, 436.

35. Evans, A Welshman, 204.

36. Ibid., 200.

37. IHDC, v. 6. 361.

38. Evans, A Welshman, 209.

39. IHDC, v. 4, 436.

40. T. Evans, “The Cultivation of “Ganga” by the Indian Government” in Abkari 3, (1892): 14–17.

41. IHDC v. 1, 4.

42. IHDC, v. 6, 385.

43. IHDC, v. 6. 383.

44. IHDC, v. 5. 487.

45. IHDC, v. 6, 385.

46. IHDC, v. 7, 294.

47. IHDC, v. 445.

48. IHDC, v. 4, 444.

49. IHDC, v. 4, 583.

50. IHDC, v. 7, 295.

51. IHDC v. 6, 387.

52. IHDC, v. 5, 452.

53. IHDC, v. 4, 336.

54. IHDC v. 4, 438.

55. IHDC v. 6, 382.

56. IHDC v. 7, 296.

57. Indeed, the conflicting positions of the missionaries reflect the wider division of opinion on cannabis among the British in India, and also among scientists and doctors back in the UK, throughout the nineteenth century. See Mills, Cannabis Britannica, 34–46, 69–92.

58. There is a wealth of studies on the temperance movement in the UK in the nineteenth century. The best place to start for understanding the relationship between religious groups and temperance is M. McKean and G. W. Olsen, “Evangelical Temperance (United Kingdom)” in Blocker, Fahey, and Tyrrell, Alcohol and temperance, 225–227. The broader context for understanding Christian campaigns can be found in L.L. Shiman, Crusade against drink in Victorian England (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988) and a useful introduction to the relationship between temperance movements and imperialism is R. Room’s, “Drink, Popular Protest and Government Regulation in Colonial Empires” The Drinking and Drug Practices Survey 23, (1990): 3–6.

59. IHDC v. 4, 440.

60. IDHC v. 6, 368–369.

61. IHDC v. 6, 385.

62. IHDC v. 4, 443.

63. IHDC v.6, 372.

64. IHDC v.6, 378.

65. IHDC v. 6, 356.

66. See E. Said, Orientalism, (London: Routledge and Kegan, 1978) and J. MacKenzie, Orientalism: history, theory and the arts, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

67. IHDC v. 4, 336.

68. See R. Pearsall, The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality, (Sutton Publishing, 2003) for a broad survey of attitudes in this period; for an amusing taste of Victorian sexual conservatism see G. MacDonald, Once a Week Is Ample: Or, the Moderately Sensual Victorian”s Guide to Restraint of the Passions, (London: HarperCollins, 1997).

69. This article follows other studies that show how missionary knowledge generated in Asia could impact upon debates in metropolitan circles; see, for example, K. Lodwick, Crusaders against opium: Protestant missionaries in China 1874–1917, (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996) and M. Chowla Singh, Gender, Religion and “Heathen Lands”: American missionary women in south Asia, 1860s–1940s, (New York: Garland, 2000).

70. It is worth emphasising that Caine did not simply share a Baptist background with Evans and a commitment to temperance issues with the missionaries that he encountered in India. Between 1884 and 1903 he was, like them, a preacher as he served as a lay pastor at a mission church known as the Wheatsheaf in south London (see Wood, Caine).

71. Quite why the Secretary of State yielded to Caine’s requests is another matter. See J. Mills, Cannabis Britannica, 104–105.

72. Ronen Shamir and Daphna Hacker have similarly identified William Caine as a “moral entrepreneur” in pursuing the cannabis issue but imply that his agenda was driven by contacts with Indian elites (460) rather than Christian missionaries. He was certainly asked to take up the issue of “Temperance” by Indian groups and he seems to have responded to this by focusing on “the drink traffic” (Carroll, Temperance movement in India: 417). Shamir and Hacker provide no direct evidence of an approach by these Indian groups to Caine on the subject of cannabis. See R. Shamir and D. Hacker, “Colonialism’s Civilizing Mission: The case of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission” Law and Social Inquiry 26, 2, (2001): 435–461.

73. IHDC v. 1, 264. That the colonial authorities rejected critical missionary opinion in this period is no surprise as relations between imperial and evangelical groups by the end of the nineteenth century were darkening. See A. Porter, Religion versus Empire? British Protestant missionaries and overseas expansion, 1700–1914, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).

74. M. Booth, Cannabis: A history, (London: Transworld, 2003) 115.

75. The Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was reprinted in 1969 by John Kaplan, a Professor of Law at Stanford University who commended its “no-nonsense methods” (vi) and who argued that “had this amazing document been made available and appreciated earlier it is likely that countless personal tragedies- and perhaps the whole outlook of a generation- might have been different” (Marijuana: Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1893–1894, (Maryland: Thos. Jefferson, 1969), xv). On the centenary of the IHDC Tod Mikuriya published excerpts from it with the observation that “review of the IHDC Report is important for perspective in assessing the legitimacy and direction of contemporary Government drug policy in a democratic society” (5) and the insistence that “this monumental study exposes the overriding and pervasive powers of collective denial and moral failure underpinning contemporary policies of cannabis prohibition” (Excerpts from the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report (San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1994) 4). He continues to advocate the uncritical use of the IHDC’s conclusions on the Internet where reference to the Commission is popular with pro-cannabis groups. Among the more amusing references to the IHDC’s conclusions on the Internet, given the subject matter of this article, is the severely chopped version on the ‘Christians for Cannabis’ website; “the commission has come to the conclusion that the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all ... moderate use of hemp ... appears to cause no appreciable physical injury of any kind ... no injurious effects on the mind... [and] no moral injury whatever”. (

76. Berridge, Opium, 213.

77. See Mills, Cannabis Britannica, 121–123.

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