Sansevieria, or devil’s tongue, is an ugly plant. It is green for sure, but that’s about it. Spiders, and other nasty little creepy crawlers love to make their home in it. They are attracted to its thick leaves. Stand the Sansevieria beside a blossoming bougainvillea, or a willowy hibiscus tree, it just doesn’t stand a chance. Wherever the Sansevieria is is planted, it doesn’t die. Try to dig it up to make way for more aesthetically pleasing greenery, only sees this hardy, hard leafed plant stubbornly rising up out of the ground a few weeks later.
The thing is though, in 1943, the British government gave the Bahamian government a lot of money to grow the Sansevieria.
The British gave £50,000, the equivalent of £2.2 million pounds in today’s money (or US$2.8 million dollars) to grow this hardy but ugly plant.
The question is why? The other questions are of course, who got the money, and did the Bahamas ever grow a single plant for the war effort?
HIGH GRADE HEMP IN SHORT SUPPLY. HANGMEN ORDERED TO USE CHEAPER HEMP ROPE FOR EXECUTIONS
By 1943, efforts to maintain a continuous flow of necessary supplies, to fight the enemy armies of World War II, was causing problems for the allies. Both Britain and America were falling short of one particularly important item.
That item was HEMP! Hemp was made into the essential war time commodity – ROPE!
Some three years into the war, the supply of Manila hemp and fibre, from the Philippines, had been essentially cut off.
Both America and Britain needed to find new sources or a near substitutes quickly.
Manila hemp was so valuable that the American War Production Board prohibited the use of the valuable high grade hemp for executions. States that carried out the death penalty had to use cheaper agave hemp rope to hang people.
(The Indianapolis Star, Saturday 08 April 1944)
For America hemp was put on the war crop priority list. 46,000 acres in Iowa alone was going to be devoted solely to growing hemp.
(The Des Moines Register Sunday 04 April 1943)
BRITISH COLONIES DRAFTED FOR THE HEMP EFFORT
Sansevieria was not native to the Bahamas. It comes from Africa, Madagascar and Southern Asia. It was introduced to the Bahamas for a very important reason.
The Bahamas had been growing sisal and hemp for commercial use since the early 1930s. The industry had been dying away as competition from other countries, like Mexico and the Philippines made a more superior and stronger product. Growing plants for rope production was revived in a big way by World War II.
This time however, the British wanted the Sansevieria plant grown for its hemp.
£50,000 was sent in 1943 for the Bahamas to start cultivating this plant to help the war effort and to give thousands of unemployed negroes in the islands something to do. Sansevieria, the British reckoned, could be the only substitute for high grade Manila hemp. If the Bahamas could successfully grow the plant in massive quantities, commercial agriculture, could become a big industry, once again.
(The Atlanta Constitution, Wednesday February 24, 1943)
Hemp from the Sansevieria is cut when the male plant is still in bloom. Valuable hemp fibres are in the inner part, around the central area of the stalks. The hemp must be allowed to partially rot so that the fibres are easily separated. The fibres can be made into rope, thread, as well as twine.
(The Palm Beach Post Wednesday February 23, 1943)
Did the Bahamas Ever Grow Sansevieria For Commercial or War Use?
In backyards and bushes across New Providence, you can probably spy a Sanseverinia growing tall and proud like it owns the place. Are these plants the great, great, great grandchildren of the original seeds and stalks brought to the Bahamas from the 1940s? Or are they just a rehoused house plant? Who knows!
Did the £50,000 from the British ever go to local farmers to cultivate the plant? Who knows!
One thing is sure, the next time you cast your eye on this hardy plant, in your backyard or garden, just know that it’s history in the Bahamas began around 1943. It was a weed that once, almost, became famous in the islands as competition for Manila hemp.