Basque Country Pt.1
Hemp, the Basque Country and the Empire of Spain
Today, there is not a great deal of hemp grown in Spain’s Basque Country – a few fields here and there, and some plans to increase acreage in coming years. But during the historic days of the Spanish Empire, the area produced a great deal of hemp. Let’s take a look at just how important the crop was back in those days, and why.
The Early Modern period of European history began after the Middle Ages and lasted up until the Industrial Revolution (around the beginning of the 15th to the end of the 18th centuries). During this time, European powers were fighting extensively among themselves over territory – both in Europe and overseas, in Africa and the “New World.”
Warfare during this period depended greatly on a kingdom’s ability to build and maintain a seafaring navy, particularly when it came to battling it out over territories thousands of miles from Europe. The great empires that began to develop during this time – the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British in particular – developed around the kingdoms that were most invested in maintaining powerful navies.
In order to maintain a navy, a kingdom needed sufficient material resources to run a shipbuilding industry. That meant a great deal of timber, and it also meant a great deal of hemp, which for many centuries was Europe’s most important source of fiber for rope and sailcloth.
The case of Spain, a land of divided kingdoms and territories for centuries, is an interesting one. What would become the Spanish Empire started out as a union between the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, facilitated by the marriage of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1474.
The monarchs of this new, united kingdom then embarked on an aggressive campaign to expand its territory – and in 1492, they funded Christopher Columbus’ historic voyage to the Americas in search of new territories and resources.
A few decades later in 1564, Ferdinand and Isabella’s son Philip II decreed that hemp was to be grown throughout the Spanish Empire. In 1622, his grandson Philip IV issued a similar decree – and by 1810, Spanish California would produce up to 100,000 kg of hemp per year.
In their Iberian homeland, Ferdinand and Isabella annexed multiple territories including Granada in 1492 and the Canary Islands in 1492 – 1496. The kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were no strangers to expansionism – by the time of the union, they already controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula, and Castile had taken the Basque Kingdom of Biscay as early as the 11th or 12th century (history is a little vague).
The neighboring Basque Kingdom of Navarra, however, would remain independent up until 1512, when Ferdinand and Isabella eventually annexed it. Interestingly, Navarra was a significant producer of hemp, and supply and production of hemp was a critical issue for the emerging Spanish Empire.
By 1545, the Spanish conquistadors were experimenting with hemp cultivation in Chile. A few decades later in 1564, Ferdinand and Isabella’s son Philip II decreed that hemp was to be grown throughout the Spanish Empire. In 1622, his grandson Philip IV issued a similar decree – and by 1810, Spanish California would produce up to 100,000 kg of hemp per year.
As well as for sail and rope-making, hemp was also needed for the arms industry – “hemp match” is a type of slow-burning, heavily-tarred cordage that was crucial for igniting gunpowder in early guns and cannon! In 1626, failures to secure supplies of hemp match meant that Spanish ships were forced to stay at harbour.
As we see, the fledgling Spanish Empire was greatly interested in producing as much hemp as possible in order to pursue its expansionist policies. Throughout Europe, hemp was a vital commodity for all the great powers, and the struggle to produce enough of it was another key reason that cheaper, synthetic materials were so gladly welcomed by the time of the Industrial Revolution.