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Home News Kultcha Cannabis: SA's hidden history

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Cannabis: SA's hidden history

There was a time when dagga was as traditional to South Africa as biltong, boerebeskuit and witblits. It fascinated Jan van Riebeeck, missionaries extolled its virtues and it remained a favourite "sundowner" until the first quarter of the last century.

A fascinated audience learnt this at a recent talk in the Grahamstown Friends of the Library's regular Monday evening lecture series. Hazel Crampton, author of the The Sunburnt Queen - the story of a shipwrecked child and her descendants, traced through contemporary oral histories and reports from the Eastern Cape - shared her discoveries about the cannabis sativa plant's past in South Africa - information she encountered while researching ancient trade routes.

"BOERE REMEDY... Before dagga (cannabis sativa) was made illegal in South Africa in 1928, it had been an ingredient for a number of old boere remedies to alleviate high blood pressure, treat open wounds and even poisonous bites. The plant originates in central Asia but is thought to have been brought to South Africa by Indian and Islamic traders along the ancient sea trade routes.

"Colloquially known as dagga, the plant has been smoked or consumed to produce a kind of high for probably thousands of years, but it is now an illegal substance in most countries.

Dagga is not indigenous to South Africa, but to central Asia, and its spread across continents is thought to be linked to the spread of Islam. Arabic and Indian traders brought the plant along the trade routes, and once here, it was thought that tribes spread it further across the country.

There were references to dagga-smoking in the histories of the Khoi, San, Sotho, Tswana "and everything in between", said Crampton.

The first written account pertaining to dagga in South Africa was in the journal of Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck, in 1658, when he wrote about a southern Xhoi group smoking "dacha" and the effects it had on them.

Crampton also came across recipes for old boere remedies that required dagga. Tea was made from the leaves to alleviate high blood pressure, and the smoke was used to treat open wounds and poisonous bites.

Apparently many missionaries on the African continent often indulged in smoking dagga, which was documented in their journals, and Crampton said the plant was still being used as a "sundowner" until the first World War.

There was even a time when dagga was "as traditional to South Africa as biltong, boerebeskuit and witblits", she said, but cannabis culture changed in 1928, when the plant was made illegal.

From the 1930s to the 1950s there was a flourish of reprints of the writings of missionaries and explorers to avoid embarrassment, and their accounts were edited to make it appear as if they had been using leonitis leonorus, which is dagga's legal cousin, wild hemp.

During question-time after the talk, members of the audience that filled every seat in the room behind the Hill Street Library, seemed to be more concerned with questions relating to dagga itself than how it came to be in our country.

The next Friends of the Library lecture at the Hill Street Library Hall will be tonight at 5.30 and is entitled 'You've come a long way, baby: heroines of popular romances 1911-2011', presented by Mary-Louise Peires.

Peires is a retired linguistics lecturer who now writes text books and is involved in training English teachers.

By : Caroline King

Date: 10 June 2011

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