Many of the potheads who couldn’t join the banned “Marcha da Maconha” (Marijuana march) probably ignore the plant’s remarkable history in Brazil. Cannabis Sativa landed in Brazil brought by Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500, before it spread throughout the whole country and firmly resisted several prohibition efforts. Therefore, friendly pothead, release the cry that has been chocking you for a long time, “The grass is ours!”
But don’t think that Cabral commanded his fleet with yellow fingers and red eyes. Marijuana was one of the ingredients in the ships’ ropes and sails, made of hemp fibers, Cannabis sativa’s more elegant name. It is estimated that the fleet carried approximately 80 tons of Marijuana in its ropes and sails.
Cannabis reached Europe around the first century of the Christian era. The plant is originally form central Asia and the earliest knowledge of its existence dates 6 thousand years back in traces of hemp fibers in ropes found in China. The Chinese have been aware of the plant’s medicinal and psychoactive properties for over 2 thousand years. Medicine books from that period recommend Marijuana tea for the treatment of rheumatism and constipation.
Cannabis then spread out through India, the Middle East and North Africa. From there it spread south to sub-Saharan Africa and north to Europe via Turkey. The cold weather in Europe seems to have prevented the herb from being smoked in that continent. The plant’s active ingredient, THC, thrives best in environments that are hot and sunny most of the year. Smoking marijuana then didn’t make sense for the Europeans because it didn’t give them any sort of high.
Slaves brought hidden seeds
It is highly probable that the Portuguese, adventurous navigators, had contact with oriental and African societies in which cannabis was consumed recreationally, the same way as you, pothead reader, consume it today. Therefore, it may have been usual for Portuguese sailors to smoke the herb.
The Portuguese, however, were not the only people who brought cannabis to Brazil. A handful of sailors who enjoyed more than a bottle of rum and half a dozen hemp fiber producers in southern Brazil would not be enough to establish the social importance the plant has today. Around 1560 the Quicongo and Quimbundo slaves brought cannabis seeds hidden in their loincloths and in rag dolls. Those Africa peoples have been using the herb, one can say, for recreational purposes. Most of the Brazilian popular names for the plant are originally Quimbunda – diamba, liamba, maquía, and even maconha, a variation of maconía. Not to mention the herb’s most common name at the end of the nineteenth century, “Angolan tobacco.”
Brazil was, therefore, the stage where the European and African varieties of cannabis sativa converged. The arrival of large numbers of slaves helped disseminating the habit of smoking diamba. In O Nordeste, Gilberto Freyre states that the senhores de engenho allowed the slaves to plant marijuana for personal consumption in between the aisles of sugarcanes in the plantations in Pernambuco, “suggesting something more than mere tolerance.” The sociologist attributes the custom to the labor regimen in cultivating sugarcane, which was interrupted for a few months during the year. During that period the landlords lit their cigars to kill time and the slaves smoked marijuana in bamboo bongs or bottle gourds.
In the São Francisco River valley and where today is known as the marijuana polygon, in Pernambuco, small farmers used to smoke the herb before work seeking extra vigor for the job. They were known as “maconhistas.” In Recife, the poor dwellers of the city would gather at the ‘assemblies’ to chat and sing songs about the herb.
The cigarillo trend
Rio de Janeiro, with one of the country’s largest Negro populations, is the place where marijuana became more popular, mostly among poor Negroes and mulattos. The consumption of the herb became so commonplace that it prompted municipal decrees forbidding the sale and public consumption of “poisonous substances.” Controlling marijuana was heavily associated to controlling cultural expressions of the Negroes and the poor. It was no coincidence that the agency controlling marijuana was the same agency in charge of prohibiting Umbanda, the Inspectorate for Narcotics, Drugs and Mystification.
Grimault cigarillos are the undeniable proof that the authorities were not targeting marijuana but instead the marginalized populations who smoked it. Sold freely in the crazy 20’s, the “Indian cigarettes” were nothing but industrialized joints, consumed for medical reasons by those who could afford them. “Respiratory problems, snoring, flatulence, and squealing inhaling will stop almost at once; abundant expectoration occurs almost immediately, making breathing easier, calming the cough, allowing a reinvigorating sleep that end all the tormenting symptoms,” promised the ad for cannabis indica cigarettes, as potent as cannabis sativa.
Until the 1930’s and despite being controlled, marijuana consumption was pretty much tolerated in Brazil, mostly due to the inexistence of a national agency for controlling drugs. The creation of a national drug agency in 1936 prompted an anti-marijuana campaign strongly supported by the press. The prohibitionist trend that originated in the United States was spreading to South America and joined the social and racial prejudice that marked the repression of cannabis in Brazil. Those were bad times for the “diamba clubs,” pothead fraternities that gathered at Rio de Janeiro slums and were constantly censured by the press. That policy prevailed – the consumption of the herb and cultural expressions related to it were restricted to ghettos.
A few decades later the psychedelic and psychotropic trend of the 60’s and 70’s cast marijuana into a new golden era, the herb now associated to youth and global rebelliousness. The herb’s historic roots in Brazil now lie in the past. In future rallies for the legalization of the plant, the activists should think about replacing the Jamaican motifs and the recurrent Bob Marley with Cabral’s pothead sailors and the ‘maconhistas’ of northeastern Brazil, and swap Cheech and Chong for the diamba club members of our Old Republic.