California State University San Marcos - Research Competition 2011

After the Presentation - 5 minutes of Questions and Answers

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Treaty of Tilsit (1807): Russia, France, England and the Hemp Plant

Historical Misperceptions

Currently, there is a historic misperception regarding the hemp plant amongst the American public that hopefully we can clear up today. Hemp can only be used for industrial purposes, hemp cannot be used as a drug, and currently hemp has an estimated 50,000 uses. The hemp plant and the marijuana plant share the same family tree, which is cannabis sativa, but they are not the same thing (Smith-Heisters, 2008). The history and importance of industrial hemp has somehow strayed from historical text and speech, yet this plant has sustained and assisted in the growth of every nation in the world since the dawn of the agricultural revolution. Russia, France, and England have even gone so far as to fight over hemp. Russia has to this day never prohibited the hemp plants’ production, sale, or use and until recently I wondered why (Wang, 1999, Pp. 347). In the 18th century, the thriving Russian economy and steady hemp commerce between England and Russia was a powerful looming threat to France. The decision would be made in 1807 by Napoleon to shift control of international hemp trade and commerce, through the Treaty of Tilsit, into the hands of France and with disastrous results.

France and Russia

One of the reasons for Napoleon’s interest in Russia was due to their exportation of goods to England such as hemp. At that time, Russia was one of the international community’s main exporters of hemp and hemp was England’s most vital commodity (Murray, 1943, Pp. 302). Two commerce statistics charts rank Russia’s hemp production first internationally in 1716 and 1717 and demonstrates the economic importance of hemp to the international community (Murray, 1943, Pp. 297, 298).

Baltic Provinces - Trade Routes

Russia, through the Baltic Provinces, easily established a monopoly with the areas “naval stores” and soon Russia became “a threat not only to England's economic well-being but also to her naval security” (Murray, 1943, Pp. 298). The Baltic Provinces contained naval routes stretching from “the Gulf of Bothnia to Prussia” and these routes were known throughout Europe for the trade that navigated along those shores. This highly active trade route passed along areas that were documented at that time to have produced the majority of the hemp in the world. Whoever controlled this trade route would control hemp commerce which is why these trade routes were essential to England and Russia’s commerce-based relationship (Murray, 1943, Pp. 296).

England and Hemp

The most fascinating component to this story is when you take a closer look at the uses of hemp. The many different sizes and shapes that made up the majority of sailing vessels of the world at that time relied heavily upon the hemp plant, because the majority of sail masts, canvas, ropes, clothing of the sailors, oil to fuel the lanterns, and even some of the food on the sailing ships (hemp seeds) were derived from the hemp plant. The fact that Russia dominated international hemp trade and that England was the top international importer of hemp is what placed “England's hemp supply completely at the mercy of Russian traders” (Murray, 1943, Pp. 303). England’s naval forces were highly dependent upon this hemp trade, because again, the majority of sail masts, canvas, ropes, clothing, oil to fuel the lanterns, and some of the food on the ships, were derived from the hemp plant.

There is also evidence that England made a hefty profit from re-selling Russian hemp at double the price, which made the hemp trade and commerce between Russia and England that much more vital to maintain (Murray, 1943, Pp. 302). A consensus on the vital importance of hemp is written about in the article “Baltic Commerce and Power Politics in the Early Eighteenth Century” where an Englishman’s quote is as follows, “Hemp and flax are so useful in navigation and trade that we cannot possibly do without them.” Within the same article there is “anonymous work entitled The Memoire of a Person Interested in Baltic Commerce (1716)” and it discusses that “all of the hemp in the world and the best masts came from a region stretching from the Gulf of Bothnia to the coasts of Prussia,” which were trade routes Russia controlled (Murray, 1943, Pp. 297).

Treaty of Tilsit

In 1807, the Treaty of Tilsit was signed after Russia lost the battle at Friedland against French forces. The treaty forced an alliance between France and Russia and in-turn, soon forced Prussia to enter into the second Treaty of Tilsit, due to Russian and Prussian ties. The treaty created an alliance between Russia, France, Prussia, Denmark, and others forcing them to sever all ties, mainly trade and commerce, with England in an attempt to isolate England from Russia (Murray, 1943, Pp. 297; O’Rourke, 2006, Pp. 3, 27).

Balance of Power

One motivating factor for the creation of the Treaty of Tilsit was to disrupt the international trade system by shifting the balance of power, through trade and commerce, into French control. Instead, this attempted power-grab through the treaty by France would quickly create an imbalance of power in the international trade system and affect international commerce detrimentally. England was the international community’s dominant industrial power and was dependent upon hemp commerce for their naval forces. Napoleon strategized that by ceasing hemp commerce through the Treaty of Tilsit that it would isolate England and its navy would become crippled. Instead, Russia’s economy soon became strangled by the Treaty of Tilsit’s order that no trade and commerce would continue with England (Kulsrud, 1938, Pp. 25-28). The trade that was not commencing between England and Russia was commerce not going into any nation’s economy (Mathers, 1955, Pp.3). A black market to sell hemp arose in an attempt to ease Russia’s economic suffering so “smuggling and trade with neutrals” continued, which went against Napoleon’s plan of ceasing trade and commerce with England (Mathers, 1955, Pp. 59, 64).

In an attempt to find a way out of the Treaty of Tilsit, Russia’s leader, Tsar Alexander I, attempted to persuade Austria to join their forces against France by promising a fairer charter than the charter Napoleon currently had forced upon the Austrian populous. Tsar Alexander I also promised that “Commerce would be revived, misery abolished and taxes reduced,” which is another example of the international mood in relation to trade, commerce and the economic woes after the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit (Morley 1947, Pp. 417). Tsar Alexander I also sought an alliance with Poland and in a perfect example of being careful what you write down, the letter that Tsar Alexander I sent to the Polish leader was not only rejected by the Polish leader, but also “revealed Alexander’s designs to Napoleon” (Morley 1947, Pp. 417). The fact that Russia wanted out of the Treaty of Tilsit and was attempting to raise armies to do it was no longer a secret. Russia and the rest of the international community were forced to re-establish trade with England in hopes of maintaining economic stability, despite the fact that they were going against Napoleon and violating the Treaty of Tilsit (O’Rourke, 2006, Pp. 125).

The Treaty of Tilsit was the catalyst to the explosive conclusion of our story as Napoleon makes the incremental decision to invade Russia once again, despite advice by advisors not to. Napoleon had many motivations for invading Russia all of which seemed to stem from the Treaty of Tilsit. After the interference of hemp commerce in 1807 the Russian economy never recovered. A pie chart titled “World Market Share: Hemp Fibre and Tow Production (1997)” ranks Russia at 9% of the total hemp yield in 1997, placing Russia third in the world for total hemp production. However, back in the 17th and 18th century, before the Treaty of Tilsit was signed, Russia ranked number one with international hemp exports (Vantreese, 1998, Pp. 9, 31 and Murray, 1943, Pp. 297). ). Since 1807, Russia has yet to retain the title of top international hemp exporter.

A scholar might ponder if the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807 had never been signed, “Where would Russia rank in total hemp production today?” In addition, “Would Napoleon still have invaded Russia?” and to take it a thought further, “Would France have fared better against England in the wars of the Napoleonic Era?”


The central cause of The Treaty of Tilsit was the international trade system’s balance of power, which was operating in favor of all international players, except France. After the manipulation and takeover of international hemp trade and commerce through the treaty, an imbalance of power rippled through the international community. By denying the international community trade with England, the dominant industrial power, it denied each international economy the commerce that resulted from that trade. The treaty was created to economically benefit France and to cripple England’s economy and naval forces through the absence of hemp naval supplies. Instead, the Treaty of Tilsit became England’s greatest ally and France’s worst enemy.

This historic strategic misperception fills me with a sudden sense of Déjà vu. Napoleon’s strategic misperception of interference in international hemp trade and commerce mirrors the strategy that American businessmen took part in the early 1900’s that criminalized hemp. This interference with American hemp trade and commerce by defining the hemp plant as a drug continues to this day, hence denying America that international commerce. The only question that remains to be answered is, “Why do we, as a nation, allow the continuance of restriction upon the hemp plant’s 50,000 estimated uses just like the Treaty of Tilsit did to the international community in 1807?” Why deny ourselves these possibilities?!


Kulsrud, Carl J. “The Seizure of the Danish Fleet, 1807: The Background” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 32, No. 2 (April 1938), pp. 280-311.

Mathers, William Lloyd. “The Influence of Napoleon’s Continental System on Russian Economy, 1807-1811.” (1955) The Ohio State University.

Morley, Charles. “Alexander I and Czartoryski: The Polish Question from 1801 to 1813.” The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 25, No. 65 (Apr., 1947), pp. 405-426.

Murray, John T. “Baltic Commerce and Power Politics in the Early Eighteenth Century.” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (May, 1943), pp. 293-312.

O’Rourke, Kevin H.”The Worldwide Economic Impact of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815.” (2006) Journal of Global History,. London School of Economic and Political Science 2006. pp.123-24.

Smith-Heisters, Skaidra. “Illegally Green: Environmental Costs of Hemp Prohibition.” Mar 2008, 44 pages. PAIS International. Reason Foundation.

Vantreese, V.L. “Industrial Hemp: Global Operations, Local implications.” (1998) Department of Economics, University of Kentucky.

Wang, Qingbin and Guanming Shi. “Industrial Hemp: China’s Experience and Global Implications.” Review of Agricultural Economics, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn – Winter, 1999), pp. 344-357.