Commercial hemp cultivation in the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries
From the late middle ages
until the 19th century hemp was grown in the Netherlands for use in the fishing
industries. Further light has been shed on this interesting subject by a study
carried out at Wageningen Agricultural University with financial support from the
Historical Research Foundation, which is part of the Netherlands Organisation for
Scientific Research (NWO). By the end of this year, H. Hoogendoorn will publish the
results of this study in his PhD thesis.
The rise of commercial hemp cultivation was associated with an increasing demand for vegetable oils and for fibrous materials. In a sea-faring nation such as the Netherlands, there was a major demand for hemp fibre as the raw material for making ropes, sails and fishing nets. This demand was very large during the 17th century, which for the Dutch was their Golden Century. The herring fleet and the sailcloth industry gave preference to hemp produced in the Netherlands for the manufacture of nets, rigging and cordage, and sails. (The word canvas is, in fact, derived from the Latin word Cannabis.) The sail makers required a fine type of fibre and Dutch hemp producers introduced specific processes in order to meet this demand. This commercial chain from raw material to finished product provided a living for a large number of specialists such as hacklers (who combed the fibres), spinners, weavers and sail canvas manufacturers and represented a significant contribution to the contemporary economy. The Dutch model became an example for the other countries.
Commercial hemp cultivation was a specialty in the western part of the central Netherlands, and required a number of special facilities in the areas of agricultural engineering, hydraulic engineering and commercial management. The hemp farmers grew the crop on a small scale using advanced water-supply methods, and largely as a monoculture, therefore necessitating the intensive use of manure. Hemp cultivation was a labour-intensive activity, and the process of "retting", in which the crop was soaked in water in ditches to separate the fibres, led to a high level of environmental pollution.
After the 17th century, developments on both the supply and demand sides led to the gradual decline of hemp cultivation. Dutch maritime activity had passed its zenith, and other fibrous products such as flax, cotton, jute and even silk competed with hemp. Moreover, cheaper hemp was imported from eastern Europe. It became increasingly difficult for Dutch hemp farmers to produce at a profit, and they therefore gradually changed over from a combination of hemp growing and cattle rearing to dairy farming. Current overproduction in the foodstuffs sector means that agricultural interest is once again being shown in hemp, while new industrial applications for hemp fibres are also being studied.
Further information can be obtained from: Harmen Hoogendoorn (Wageningen Agricultural University), telephone +318370 82478, -82096, -23241, fax +318370 84763.