Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. Siff’s post elaborates on the research she presented at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference held April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Enjoy!
Recently, like so many others, I found myself searching on YouTube for reggae songs about cannabis. It did not take long to stumble across the age-restricted content of Marlon Asher’s “Ganja Farmer.” I feel I was able to understand this song much better because I participated in the recent conference Cannabis: Global Histories.
Sarah Brady Siff presents her work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images
Asher was raised Southern Baptist in Trinidad but converted to Rastafari, whose million-odd adherents smoke cannabis as a spiritual ritual. Originating in colonial Jamaica and said to be inspired by black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey, Rastafari is native to the Caribbean. The tropical climate there is ideal for the outdoor cultivation of cannabis, which Rastas call ganja. Thus the lyrics to “Ganja Farmer”’s refrain*:
Yes I’m a ganja planter Call me di ganja farmer Deep down inna di earth where me put di ganja Babylon come and light it up on fire
Babylon refers literally to the ancient Middle Eastern kingdom under which the Jews were said to have been taken captive and to have suffered. Rastas often use it as a metaphor for oppressive Western institutions. In the first verse of “Ganja Farmer,” a helicopter appears “spitting fire” from the sky, and the farmer points out that the eradicators have waited to strike until after his long labors watering and fertilizing the crop. He fantasizes about using a rocket launcher to “dispense the helicopter” in mid-air.
Virginia’s agricultural production, as well as its economy, was dominated by tobacco for over three centuries, ever since John Rolfe sent his first shipment of tobacco to England in 1614. Growth of the Virginia colony and extension into the interior meant more soil and larger crops of tobacco. Despite the continuous growth in production, the tobacco trade was plagued by falling prices and decreased quality. By the 1720s, tobacco exports included large quantities of inferior product that even included shipments of “trash” tobacco—shipments that diluted tobacco leaves with foreign substances such as household sweepings. Consequently the price of tobacco sank so low that many planters struggled to recover production costs.
Tobacco growing in the streets of Jamestown. From Robert K. Heimann, Tobacco and Americans (1960). Image courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.
In 1723 Virginia’s General Assembly passed the first of its Tobacco Acts that attempted to control the quantity and quality of tobacco grown in the colony because it was believed that “most of the ffrauds [sic] and mischiefs which have been complained of in the Tobacco Trade” had arisen from the “planting on land not proper for producing good Tobacco” and the production of “greater Crops than the persons employed therein are able duly to tend.” The 1723 act established limits on the number of plants that certain classes of persons could grow with slave owners being allowed fewer plants. Each vestry of every parish had to appoint two people every year to count the number of plants being grown and report the numbers to the clerk of court by the month of August. Any number of plants over the allowed number were to be destroyed by the planter or, if the planter would not, by the counters. The act of 1729 provided various adjustments to and elaborations on the 1723 act. (For full text of the acts see The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 20, pp. 158-178.)