The History of Tobacco and Its Growth Throughout the World

By Jason Young

Tobacco, one of the most important cash crops in American farming, is native to the North and South American continents. It first became known to the rest of the world when European explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries saw it being used as a medicine and as a hallucinogen by Native Americans. The explorers returned to Europe with the new-found plant and it quickly was adopted by rich and poor alike as a drug of choice. Banned at first by kings and popes, its economic effects and broad popularity forced acceptance among all cultures. It quickly spread throughout the civilized world and became a foundation for the growth of the American economy.

This paper will trace the history of tobacco from its use by Native Americans through the end of the 19th century when mechanization and mass marketing started to make tobacco production the major industry it has become.

"Tobacco" is a name used for plants of the genus Nicotiana of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family. The name is also used for the product manufactured from tobacco leaves and used in cigars, cigarettes, snuff, and pipe and chewing tobacco. Different species of the tobacco plant, with different characteristics associated with smoking (e.g. fast burning, slow burning, mild, strong), have become popular in different parts of the world. The primary active ingredient of tobacco is the alkaloid nicotine, which is responsible for its narcotic and soothing qualities. (The Columbia Encyclopedia)

There is little reliable information concerning the early uses of tobacco by Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans in 1492. Some Mayan and Incan drawings and carvings appear to show tobacco in use in ceremonies but little is known of the actual meaning of those representations. Much was written concerning its use at the time of the European explorations, however, and there is no reason to believe that the uses witnessed in the 15th and 16th centuries were recent developments.

In 1492, when the floodgates of European explorers opened on North and South America, the many different native cultures there already had long traditions of chewing, smoking, and snuffing tobacco, sometimes in conjunction with other psychotropic plants. Used regularly in ritual and social contexts, tobacco and its counterparts were appreciated precisely for their physiological and mind-altering effects, which, among other things, aided the Amerindians in their pursuit of the supernatural. (Elizabeth Wyckoff)

It appears that tobacco’s mind-altering effects made it universally of interest to Native Americans in their religious observances and in preparing for war.

Among the Mayans, it was regularly offered to the gods both as incense burned on the altars and as smoke from the mouths of the worshippers. One of the best preserved reliefs from their ancient temple at Palenque shows a priest smoking a cigarette. Among the Aztecs, it was a necessary accompaniment to the ceremonies at which thousands of captives were slain in sacrifice to the god Tezcatlipoca. The medicine men of the more primitive Tonoupinambaultiis tribe in Brazil would fill and light their pipes and puff the smoke into the faces of the assembled laity, the purpose of this being to transmit the heroic virtues. "The warriors, thus prepared, attacked their enemies with demoniac fury and almost inevitably were victorious". (Sean Gabb, p.22)

As is clear from the quoted passage, the use of tobacco in religious and public ceremonies was nearly universal throughout the Americas among the various tribes of Native Americans. Its use as a medicine was also universal. The European explorers reported back that tobacco, in its various forms was used to cure almost every ailment known to man.

Medicinally, N. attenuata had many uses among the desert tribes. The crushed leaves were made into poultices to soothe rheumatic and other swellings and to place on eczema and similar skin infections. The same material was placed along the gums as a cure for toothache. The chewed leaves could be applied to cuts or bound on rattlesnake bites after the poison had been sucked out.

Smoking was said by the desert Indians to be a cure for colds, especially if the tobacco was mixed with the leaves of the small Desert Sage, Salvia Dorrii , or the root of Indian Balsam or Cough Root, Leptotaenia multifida , the addition of which was thought to be particularly good for asthma and tuberculosis. The introduced Tree Tobacco, Nicotiana glauca , which is common in waste places below 3000 ft., is also said to have been used for smoking by both the Indians and whites. Medicinally the leaves were supposed to be good steamed and used as a poultice to relieve a swollen throat, and steamed into the body for those suffering from rheumatism. (Edward K. Balls, p.4)

Thus, tobacco seemed a true wonder drug, capable of inducing a relaxed and calm state before battle, of putting off hunger, and treating all manner of diseases. It is interesting that, as will be discussed below, the supposedly advanced Europeans happily accepted the Native American claims of health benefits and even extended those claims farther, as they came to believe that tobacco could be a cure even for the bubonic plague.

The first reactions to tobacco use in Europe were primarily focused on its narcotic effects.

As early as 1525, the smoking of tobacco was described as something that could "clarify the mind and give happy thoughts." In other words, tobacco was, from the start, perceived as having a calming effect on the senses, thereby allowing ample room for reverie — if not always the downright abandon and physical collapse suggestive of the outer-body experience seen in American Indian ritual. (Wyckoff, p.51)

In England, it was introduced to the country by Sir Walter Raleigh, a larger than life explorer and friend of the Queen. He was a shameless promoter of tobacco as a necessary recreation for all gentlemen. He smoked openly and constantly. Soon, smoking was seen as the height of fashion, well before it was generally adopted by the general population. Men’s clubs and hunting parties were soon seen to be enveloped in thick clouds of smoke from the pipes of the gentlemen. Smoking (sometimes referred to as "drinking" smoke) was also closely associated with drinking alcohol, an association that made it more attractive to some and an article of shame to others. (Wycoff,p.35)

Smoking was doubtless a familiar practice in the ports of England before the frequently quoted incident of Drake's return from Virginia with a number of colonists in 1586. These men brought with them pipes, tobacco seeds, and plants, and their example of what was at first called "drinking" tobacco smoke (inhaling and apparently swallowing it) is known to have caused considerable excitement and interest. From that time, at any rate, smoking developed from the private pleasure of a few "tobacconists"--as the first smokers were called--into a social practice.

Yet, in spite of satire that was bound to make sport of a habit which was taking society by storm, by 1600 smoking ranked in the life of a fashionable man with dancing, riding, hunting, and card playing. (Alfred H. Dunhill, p.3)

However, tobacco was not universally accepted by Europeans when it was first brought back by the explorers. Many found the breathing in of smoke to be peculiar at best and possibly dangerous. Others objected to being exposed to smoke created by the tobacco user. King James I of England issued a strongly-worded description of his disdain for tobacco and smokers, the Counterblast to Tobacco published in 1604. It concludes by saying that smoking is "a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmefull to the braine, daungerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse." (Dunhill, p.3)

Other royalty throughout Europe and into Asia likewise attempted to ban the use of tobacco. Ammurath the Fourth, ruler of Turkey, had smokers dragged from their homes and strangled in the street. In Russia, the punishment for pipe-smoking was to have the stem of the pipe jammed through the cartilage of one’s nose. The Pope, Urban VII issued a proclamation against smoking. The Calvinists declared it was barred by the Ten Commandments. (Bill Drake, p.21)

Nevertheless, as the popularity of tobacco grew, and as it became important to European economies, the objections to its use became weaker. One factor that led to its acceptance was its continued use as a medicine.

As discussed above, Native Americans used tobacco as a medicine for all manner of ills. The European observers reported back miraculous results. The Spanish physician Monardes of Seville included tobacco in his new world herbal, a description of herbs and medicines from the Americas published in 1571, ascribing to it the power to cure many ills.

This Herb Tobacco has particular virtue to heal griefs of the head, and in especially coming of cold causes, and so it cures the headache when it comes of a cold humor, or of a windy cause, the Leaves must be put hot to it upon the grief, and multiplying them the time that is needful, until the grief be taken away. Some there be that do anoint them with the Oil of Oranges, and it does a very good work.

In any manner of grief that is in the body or any part thereof it helps, being of a cold cause, and applied hereunto it takes it away, not without great admiration. In griefs of the breast it does make a marvelous effect, and in especially in those that do cast out matter and rottenness at the mouth, and in them that are short breathed. And any other old evils making of the herb a seething and with Sugar made a Syrup, and being taken in little quantity, it does cause to expel the Matters, and rottenness of the breast marvelously, and the smoke being taken at the mouth, does cause that the matter be put out of the breast, of them that do. In the grief of the stomach, caused of cold causes, or wince, the leaves being put very hot, it does take it away, and dissolves it by multiplying of them, until it be taken away. (Nicholas Monardes, p.3)

Monardes was not alone in his belief that all manner of ills could be cured by tobacco. Anthony Chute, a 16th century British physician wrote in his book, Tabaco. The distinct and Severall opinions of the late and best Phisitions that have written of the divers natures and qualities thereof, that tobacco, when consumed for health reasons could relieve just about any ailment related to excess fluids in the body:

I thinke that there is nothing that harmes a man inwardly from his girdle upward, but may be taken away with a moderate use of Tabacco, and in those parts consist the chief reasons of our health, for the stomacke and head being cleare and void of evill humors, commonly the whole body is the better. (Wyckoff, p.17)

In fact, many believed that tobacco was a useful preventative against the bubonic plague. (Gabb, p.16)

Thus, against the wishes of many European monarchs, tobacco usage continued to grow, fueled by a belief in its curative powers, encouraged by its general social acceptance among the upper classes, and helped by its importance to the American and European economies.

The effect of tobacco on the economy of North America was profound. Most European immigrants to American lived in relative poverty. The first shipments of tobacco from America to Europe started in the early 17th century but was not well received, primarily because a variety of tobacco grown by then in Spain was superior. (Gabb, p.37) However, the colonists soon learned their lesson and started to grow and sell their own superior product to meet the growing demand in Europe.

In 1616-7, Virginia sent 2,300 pounds to London, compared with 58,300 Spanish pounds. Within two years, Virginia was sending more than 20,000 pounds. In 1620, 40,000 pounds were imported. As the trade increased, the colonists made both mercantile and political allies in England; and effort was soon diverted from the suppression of all tobacco to the promotion of Virginian tobacco at the expense of foreign. (Gabb, p.37)

Exporters from America had their counterparts who acted as importers in Europe. As the importers became more successful and wealthy, they were able to increase their political and social influence and push aside the critics of tobacco.

Laws and sermons - tobacco triumphed over them all. While Royal Jamie ranted, Sir Walter Raleigh founded a veritable smoking club of the wits and sages of the age, who smoked their pipes and discursed at the Mermaid Tavern. Around Sir Walter's social board assembled more genius and talent than the world had ever witnessed before. Among the constant members were Selden, Beaumont, Fletcher, Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare. The mystery is that tobacco is never once mentioned in all of the Great Bard's works. On one of their meetings, Ben Jonson, curling an extra whiff of smoke around his jolly shining face, exclaimed "Tobacco, I do assert, and will affirm it before any prince in Europe, to be the most sovereign and precious weed that ever the earth tendered to the use of mans. (Drake, p.21)

The best example of the effect of English encouragement of the tobacco industry in America was Jamestown, Virginia. Through some very meager times, the English company that founded Jamestown kept it going with food and supplies as the colonists worked on the development of useful and marketable exports. Then, in 1612, John Rolfe, an Englishman and the future husband of Pocahontas, planted seeds of a West Indian variety of tobacco that flourished and produced tobacco stronger and sweeter than the short, tough variety previously grown in the area. Small amounts were sent to London and a tremendous demand grew for the new Jamestown product. By 1617, production had begun in earnest.

In 1617, Capt. John Smith . . . wrote that the colony's new governor arrived to find "but five or six houses, the Church downe, the palisades broken, the Bridge in pieces, the Well of fresh water spoiled" but, in a sign of success, "the market-place, and streets, , and all other spare places planted with Tobacco."

Exports steadily increased and demand from England increased more quickly. Jamestown had found its cash crop and the colonies had begun to guarantee their future.

"The discovery that tobacco could be successfully grown and profitably sold was the most momentous single fact in the first century of settlement on the Chesapeake Bay," Joseph C. Robert wrote in his history, The Story of Tobacco in America. "Tobacco had guaranteed that the Jamestown experiment would not fail." (Susan DeFord, p.5-6)

In fact, tobacco was so important to the colonists that it became the legal currency in Maryland and Virginia. Local men could use tobacco to buy their groceries and, for a period of time, to purchase rights to the English women who were imported by the company, looking for husbands in the colonies. (DeFord, p.6)

Tobacco farming and curing is labor intensive. As a result, the increase in the value of tobacco and its resultant popularity as a farm crop, also led to an increase in the slave trade. At first the trade ran to poor English immigrants who were indentured for a fixed period of time in return for their fare to the New World. Later years saw the trade turn to Africans with no guarantees of eventual freedom. Slavery first became legal in Virginia and Maryland in 1660. (Drake) The lure of free labor quickly increased the trade in slaves from Africa. African slaves became the support for the new tobacco trade.

Slaves served as the backbone of the tobacco economy. Without them there would have been no one to till the ground, plant the seeds, raise the plants, harvest, and cure the tobacco. In some areas slave populations grew from 7% to 35% of the Chesapeake regions' population between 1690-1750. (Economic Aspects…)

Thus, by the end of the 17th century, the seeds of two of our most difficult social problems were firmly rooted in American soil. The use of tobacco products would continue to grow steadily from those humble beginnings, through the mass marketing of cigarettes in the twentieth century until its growth was somewhat abated by the realization of the health risks inherent in tobacco consumption. And growing beside the tobacco plants, almost from the beginning, was slavery which has lead to another of this countries seemingly unsolvable problems.