• Bruce Boyce


"Tobacco, that outlandish weed It spends the brain, and spoiles the seede It dulls the spirite, it dims the sight It robs a woman of her right."

-Dr. William Vaughn, 1617

When Christopher Columbus arrived on the shore of Cuba in November 1492, he discovered a custom that appeared alien to Europeans. Indigenous men carried hot coal embers to light a mixture of dried herbs. The men inhaled the smoke through Y-shaped tubes placed into their nostrils. One particular herb was noted for its hallucinogenic effects on those who smoked it. Men were described as numb, intoxicated, and feeling no fatigue upon smoking. The Spanish called the weed tabaco, though this might have been due to a misunderstanding, and that was the name of the tube used to smoke the plant.

Indigenous people throughout the Americas had been utilizing the native tobacco plants since the Ice Age. There are over seventy species of tobacco which is in the nightshade family. Different strains have been cultivated throughout history by both Native Americans and then Europeans. Tobacco, along with beans, squash, maize, potatoes, and tomatoes, was a significant crop. The two main varieties grown were Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum. N. rustica was favored in the north, while N. tabacum was widely known in the West Indies and Central and South America. Like other similar hallucinogens, tobacco was used to communicate with the spirit world. As such, its usage by Native Americans was often limited to religious and spiritual ceremonies or under strictly proscribed social occasions. Aztec chiefs were known to smoke tobacco after a feast. Tribes along the eastern coast of North America carried tobacco in pouches as a trade item, or they would smoke tobacco to seal a contract or agreement. It was believed that tobacco heightened the senses, increased awareness, and lessened fatigue. Hunters made use of it during a major hunt. Then there were the medicinal uses of tobacco. It was viewed as a cure-all for all types of ailments: pain, headaches, coughs, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, and many other conditions.

Within a few decades, the Spanish began cultivating N. tabacum plants throughout the West Indies. They developed a blend that provided a more mild smoke than N. Rustica. This strain of tobacco was a closely guarded secret, and the Spanish forbade sharing seeds or plants with non-Spaniards. This proved impossible, and travelers and merchants began dispersing this variety. The Portuguese soon followed by creating tobacco plantations in Brazil. It did not take long for it to become a profitable commodity. Despite this, it wouldn’t be until the latter half of the 16th century before tobacco appeared on the European continent. And it would be the Spanish and Portuguese who would introduce tobacco to Africa, India, China, and Japan.

The initial reaction of most Europeans to this new plant was a mixture of curiosity and disdain. The medicinal properties were of great interest to many, and by the 1560s, descriptions of the plant’s therapeutic use had crept into dozens of books by herbalists. As one herbalist stated, “anything that harms a man inwardly from his girdle upward might be removed by a moderate use of the herb.” Later on, English astronomer Thomas Hariot would lead the way in popularizing both the medicinal and recreational use of tobacco. On the other hand, many were suspicious of this newfound plant. They associated tobacco with Native Americans and believed its use was a heathen and savage practice.

In 1560, Jean Nicot, the French Ambassador to Portugal, purchased tobacco seeds in Lisbon from a Dutch trader who had recently arrived from the Americas. Nicot learned of tobacco’s presumed medical utility and sent them to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France, as a prescription for her migraines. In doing so, he initiated the cultivation of tobacco in France and the rest of Europe. The genus name and the active ingredient, nicotine, bear his name.

Traditionally, Sir Walter Raleigh is considered to be the person who introduced tobacco to England. Queen Elizabeth I had granted Raleigh a patent on any lands in the Americas he might discover. Raleigh discovered and named Virginia on his first voyage. On a second trip, he attempted to set up the ill-fated colony on Roanoke. Upon his return to Roanoke in 1586, he picked up the surviving colonists and returned to England with them and tobacco. During their time at Roanoke, the settlers had taken up the habit of tobacco smoking, called “drinking.” It is believed that Raleigh was the one who introduced pipe smoking to the English court. But there is evidence that Sir John Hawkins brought tobacco back to England as early as 1565. By the 1580s, pipe smoking had become fashionable among the English elite, and Queen Elizabeth was noted to be “as familiar with a tobacco pipe as with her sceptre.” Yet not everyone was taken with the new habit. When James I succeeded Elizabeth, he wrote an anti-tobacco polemic entitled “A Counterblaste to Tobacco.” In it, he derides tobacco as being “loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”

Demand for tobacco throughout Europe had increased dramatically by the end of the 16th century. This demand meant more land was needed for tobacco cultivation. This meant more land was taken from indigenous people, and more natives were forced into economic servitude on tobacco plantations. In the Spanish West Indies and Portuguese Brazil, enslaved Africans were also a vital part of the labor force. Part of King James I’s issue with tobacco was financial. The Spanish had a virtual monopoly on the production and distribution of the plant. A decade after his pamphlet was published, the English found themselves a tobacco source. And this would impact the history of English settlement in the southern colonies.

King James chartered the Virginia Company of London in 1606. Besides claiming land for the crown and converting the Native Americans, the company was to generate a profit for the crown and its shareholders by any mean possible. Hopes rested with the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. After surviving some initial hardships, the settlers searched for a profitable enterprise. Gold was not available. Fishing, cutting timber, and fur trapping proved difficult. Other industries, such as glassblowing and silk production, required specialized skills that the early colonists didn’t possess. People were losing hope.

In the spring of 1610, a newly arrived John Rolfe observed the native Powhatans cultivating the N. rustica plants. Rolfe wasn’t impressed with the quality of this harsher, more wild variety. It was inferior to the tobacco being grown by the Spanish. But Rolfe decided that he would try and grow N. tabacum in Virginia. Somehow he managed to obtain tobacco seeds from Trinidad, and in 1612, he began growing his first crop in Virginian soil. Rolfe’s experiment was a success. So much so that by 1615, Jamestown was exporting over 2,000 pounds of tobacco back to England. Though it didn’t match the scale the Spanish were exporting, it was a promising start. Rolfe and his wife Pocahontas returned to London to meet with the king. Rolfe gladly reported that he felt that tobacco would be the principal commodity of the colony in the future.

Rolfe’s prediction indeed came true. Not only did tobacco cultivation ensure the survival of Jamestown, but it also ensured the continued presence of the English in the Chesapeake Bay region. Tobacco cultivation would grow into a significant part of the colonial economy. Indeed, by the American Revolution, the Chesapeake Bay area alone was exporting nearly 80,000 hogsheads a year of tobacco. A hogshead barrel filled with tobacco weighed almost 1,000 pounds. The growth of the tobacco industry and the growing demand for tobacco during the 17th century had a downside.

Initially, tobacco farms were small and were worked by indentured servants. Indentured servitude was a means for people to voyage to the Americas. People agreed to work for a master for seven years in exchange for passage and a land grant upon release. But the increase in demand and profits resulted in the expansion of many tobacco farms. These larger-scale operations required more labor. There were not enough indentured servants to meet this labor shortage. A solution appeared in the form of a Dutch trading vessel that arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in 1619. The Jamestown colonists purchased twenty enslaved Africans from the Dutch to work in the tobacco fields. The Dutch seized on this new market and returned with more enslaved people each year. It did not take long for the tobacco plantations to become dependent on this new source of labor. It is unclear whether these were enslaved people later on or, more closely, like the indentured servants. Either way, slavery, as we recognize it, would become institutionalized in the colonies by 1661.

King James I’s “noxious weed” had become an integral part of the economy and impacted society in many ways. Cigarette smoking became popular in the late 19th century by introducing automated cigarette rollers and safety matches. Smoking would become ingrained in popular culture well into the 20th century. From the beginning, some feared the detrimental effects of tobacco on public health. In the early 20th century, the diseases caused by smoking catapulted it ahead of tuberculosis as the number one killer in the United States. It took until the 1960s to raise public awareness of the dangers of smoking tobacco—cooperation among scientific researchers, government policymakers, and public activism to apply the needed stigma. Today, at least in the US, the number of people smoking and smoking-related deaths have significantly dropped.


Further Reading

Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced a Civilization: Iain Gately


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