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U.S. Navy

The Birth of the U.S. Navy: How Ganja and the USS Ganges Played A Pivotal Role

By now, most people are aware that cannabis played a few key roles in the establishment of the United States. It was used to make both the paper the Declaration of Independence was written on, and the fabric the first U.S. flag was made from. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it, as did many other early leaders of the country, including five other presidents.

What is less known is the role it played in the foundation of the U.S. Navy.

Recently I wrote about Holi and its association with cannabis, and the river Ganges. Ganges is the modern Hindi pronunciation of the Sanskrit word originally pronounced Ganja. The name would not only be given to the plant, the river, and the goddess, but would also find its way into Star Trek Deep Space Nine.

In this fictional universe, the class of ship known as the Danube class would end up being given the names of rivers, and the USS Ganges would appear in eight episodes. Here, the USS stands for first United Space Ship (and later United Star Ship), but it was not the first USS Ganges.

The First USS Ganges: Pride of the U.S. Navy

Back on earth in the year 1794, shipyards in Philadelphia produced an unassuming trade ship named Ganges. This merchant ship was intended to conduct trade with both Calcutta in India and Canton in China, a trip it made several times. The U.S. at this time did not have a navy, having dismantled it after the successful conclusion of the American Revolution.

France had supported this war, and in return, the U.S. was to provide protection to French colonies under the 1778 Commercial Treaty. The same year the Ganges was built, the U.S. signed the France Neutrality Act, removing the military obligations under the previous Treaty, but still favourable to French shipping interests. The very same year however, they also signed the Jay Treaty with England, essentially violating the previous agreement with France.

Unhappy, France began seizing U.S. merchant ships that were trading with the British, and in a single year had captured 316 ships, resulting in a loss of between $12 and $15 million. The Americans would then respond by stopping repayments of loans the French had given to support their revolution.

U.S. Navy
Hemp played an important role in the U.S. Navy, as it was used to make sails. The Declaration of Independence was also written on paper made from hemp, and the first American flag was made from hemp fabric.

With all attempts at a diplomatic solutions stymied, U.S. Congress finally voted to create a navy, starting with the construction of six frigates, and approved the use of force against French ships in U.S. waters. Unable to wait for the completion of construction, Congress also authorized funds to purchase and outfit ships in the meantime.

In 1798, the Ganges would be the first ship acquired by the newly reformed U.S. Navy. With a displacement of 504 tons, a crew of 220, 24 nine-pounder cannons and two six-pounder cannons, it would be the very first ship to carry the moniker USS (here meaning United States Ship). The USS Ganges would sail out of Philadelphia that year with orders to seize any French ships in U.S. waters.

In 1799, it would be redeployed to the Caribbean, and uncover illicit trade being conducted with France via the islands. It would also be boarded by the British, and while they attempted to recapture any Englishmen among the crew, the captain would make a firm stand, and the British would leave empty-handed.

By the end of the year, it would capture five French ships, recapture three American ships, and seize an illegal American trading ship as well. Ordered back during hurricane season, its captain said that no other ship in the U.S. Navy could weather the storms as well as the USS Ganges, and that it had ‘out-sailed every ship and vessel of the United States.’

In 1880, another successful cruise would see four more ships captured by the USS Ganges, including two illegal American slave ships carrying 135 African slaves. Returning to Philadelphia specifically due to the crew’s strong anti-slavery sentiments, the slaves would be left in the care of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. They would be given the surname Ganges, and be released as free persons.

The Secret To The Ganges Success: Russian Hemp

The next year, severely damaged by a storm and with the U.S. Navy divesting itself of all but 13 ships, the USS Ganges would be sold. Returning to the name Ganges, the ship would return to civil service, and fall out of the history books.

The secret of the Ganges’ success wasn’t American ingenuity or know-how, nor did it originate in America at all. The U.S. Navy would follow the British lead of using Russian hemp exclusively to outfit its ships with ropes and sails.

As early as 1763, John Quincy Adams was extorting the need not only for Americans to grow their own hemp, but to study and learn how to improve it. Though much was in fact produced locally at this time, the imports of Russian hemp struck many Americans as a weakness they could solve themselves.

Of the six ships ordered built by Congress while the Ganges was pressed into service, the USS Constellation would survive for fifty years. In 1827, with the U.S. Congress pressing the navy for its preference of Russian hemp over homegrown American hemp, the USS Constellation would be used in a unique experiment. 

U.S. Navy
The USS Constellation, pictured here in 2019.

With one side of the ship outfitted in American hemp and the other outfitted with Russian hemp, after one year the results appeared somewhat inconclusive. While acknowledging the Russian hemp performed better, the difference was seen as not worth the foreign trade imbalance. A year later however, a different story emerged, with the Russian hemp significantly less worn than its American counter-part. 

The difference was pinpointed to not the type of hemp being grown, but the production methods employed. American hemp farmers preferred their quicker retting methods that provided a perfectly workable hemp fibre, and resisted the pressure to adopt Russian methods. Thus, just as the British before them, the U.S. Navy relied almost exclusively on Russian hemp until the end of the Age of Sail.

This story is yet another in the long list of tales that pick apart the deep-seated yet misinformed nationalism plaguing America: where you can be so proud of the navy that you forget it began with a ship named after an Indian goddess, flying sails made of a Russian weed.