A History Of Tobacco

Tobacco and tobacco-related products have a long history that stretches back to 6,000 BC. The plant today known as tobacco, or Nicotiana tabacum, is a member of the nicotiana genus, a close relative to the poisonous nightshade and could previously only be found in the Americas. It may surprise many to learn just how long tobacco has been known of here on Earth. Research shows that Native Americans first start cultivating the tobacco plant as far back as 6,000 BC. By around 1 BC, indigenous American tribes started smoking tobacco in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes. After that, little was known or at least recorded about tobacco, but archeological finds now indicate that humans in the Americas began using tobacco as far back as 12,300 years ago, thousands of years earlier than had previously been documented. It has been found that tobacco was first discovered by the native people of Mesoamerica and South America and later introduced to Europe and the rest of the world.

Christopher Columbus with native Americans. Artist unknown.

So in 1492, Columbus was warmly greeted by the Native American tribes he encountered when he first set foot on the new continent. They brought gifts of fruit, food, spears, and more and among those gifts were dried up leaves of the tobacco plant. As they were not edible and had a distinct smell to them, those leaves, which the Native Americans have been smoking for over two millennia for medicinal and religious purposes, were thrown overboard. However, Columbus soon realised that dried tobacco leaves were a prized possession among the natives, as they bartered with them and often bestowed them as a gift. That same year, the tobacco plant and smoking was introduced to Europeans but it was not until 1531 that Europeans started the cultivation of the tobacco plant in Central America. Then in 1558 the first attempt at tobacco cultivation in Europe began but failed. Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres are the first Europeans to observe smoking. This was on Cuba and Jerez becomes a staunch smoker, bringing the habit back with him to Spain. However, Jerez’s neighbours were so petrified of the smoke coming out of his mouth and nose that he was soon arrested by the Holy Inquisition and held in captivity for nearly 7 years. However, thanks to a lot of seafarers at the time, smoking became an entrenched habit in both Spain and Portugal before long. Soon Portuguese sailors were planting tobacco around nearly all of their trading outposts, enough for personal use and gifts. They started growing tobacco commercially in Brazil, where it was soon a sought-after commodity and traded across the ports in Europe and the Americas. By the end of the sixteenth century, tobacco plant and use of tobacco were both introduced to virtually every single country in Europe. Tobacco was snuffed or smoked, depending on the preference and doctors claimed that it had medicinal properties. Some, such as Nicolas Monardes in 1571, went as far as to write a book to outline 36 specific ailments that tobacco could supposedly cure, from toothache to lockjaw and cancer. So tobacco had already long been used in the Americas by the time European settlers arrived and took the practice to Europe, where it became popular. Eastern North American tribes have historically carried tobacco in pouches as a readily accepted trade item, as well as smoking it in pipe ceremonies, whether for sacred ceremonies or those to seal a treaty or agreement. In addition to its use in spiritual and religious ceremonies, tobacco has been used for medical treatment of physical conditions. As a pain killer it has been used for earache and toothache and occasionally as a poultice. Some indigenous peoples in California have used tobacco as one ingredient in smoking mixtures for treating colds, where it is usually mixed with the leaves of the small desert sage, or the root of Indian balsam, or cough root (the addition of which was thought to be particularly good for asthma and tuberculosis). In addition to its traditional medicinal uses, tobacco was also used as a form of currency between Native Americans and Colonists from the 1620s as it was considered a monetary standard that lasted twice as long as the gold standard. Tobacco also has ceremonial use and religious use of tobacco is still common among many indigenous peoples in America. For example amongst the Cree and Ojibwe of Canada and the north-central United States, it is offered to the Creator with prayers, and is used in pipe ceremonies as well as being presented as a gift. This is especially traditional when asking an Ojibwe elder a question of a spiritual nature.

The earliest image of a man smoking a pipe, from ‘Tabaco’ by Anthony Chute (1595).

Greek and Roman accounts exist of smoking hemp seeds, and a Spanish poem c.1276 mentions the energetic effects of lavender smoke, but tobacco was completely unfamiliar to Europeans before the discovery of the New World. Bartolomé de las Casas described how the first scouts sent by Christopher Columbus into the interior of Cuba found “men with half-burned wood in their hands and certain herbs to take their smokes, which are some dry herbs put in a certain leaf, also dry, like those the boys make on the day of the Passover of the Holy Ghost; and having lighted one part of it, by the other they suck, absorb, or receive that smoke inside with the breath, by which they become benumbed and almost drunk, and so it is said they do not feel fatigue. These, muskets as we will call them, they call ‘tabacos’. I knew Spaniards on this island of Española who were accustomed to take it, and being reprimanded for it, by telling them it was a vice, they replied they were unable to cease using it. I do not know what relish or benefit they found in it.” Following the arrival of Europeans, tobacco became one of the primary products fuelling colonisation, and also became a driving factor in the introduction of African slave labour. The Spanish introduced tobacco to Europeans in about 1528, and by 1533, Diego Columbus mentioned a tobacco merchant of Lisbon in his will, showing how quickly the traffic had sprung up. The French, Spanish, and Portuguese initially referred to the plant as the “sacred herb” because of its valuable medicinal properties. Meanwhile the Japanese were introduced to tobacco by Portuguese sailors from 1542, and tobacco first arrived in the Ottoman Empire a few years later, where it attracted the attention of doctors and became a commonly prescribed medicine for many ailments. Although tobacco was initially prescribed as medicine, further study led to claims that smoking caused dizziness, fatigue, dulling of the senses and a foul taste/odour in the mouth. Then a French ambassador in Lisbon named Jean Nicot sent samples to Paris in 1559. Nicot sent leaves and seeds to Francis II and the King’s mother, Catherine of Medici, with instructions to use tobacco as snuff. The king’s recurring headaches (perhaps sinus trouble) were reportedly “marvellously cured” by snuff. However, Francis II nevertheless died at seventeen years of age on 5 December 1560, after a reign of less than two years. French cultivation of ‘herbe de la Reine’ (the queen’s herb) began in 1560. By 1570 botanists referred to tobacco as Nicotiana. In 1563, the Swiss doctor Conrad Gesner reported that chewing or smoking a tobacco leaf “has a wonderful power of producing a kind of peaceful drunkenness”. In 1571, Spanish doctor Nicolas Monardes wrote a book about the history of medicinal plants of the new world. In this he claimed that tobacco could cure thirty-six health problems and reported that the plant was first brought to Spain for its flowers, but “Now we use it to a greater extent for the sake of its virtues than for its beauty”.

“Raleigh’s First Pipe in England”, included in Frederick William Fairholt’s ‘Tobacco, its History and Associations’.

Sir Walter Raleigh introduced Virginia tobacco into England, and a naval commander by the name of John Hawkins was the first to bring tobacco seeds to England. William Harrison ’s ‘English Chronology’ mentions tobacco smoking in the country as of 1573, before Sir Walter Raleigh brought the first “Virginia” tobacco to Europe from the Roanoke Colony, referring to it as ‘tobah’ as early as 1578. In 1595 Anthony Chute published ‘Tabaco’, which repeated earlier arguments about the benefits of the plant and emphasised the health-giving properties of pipe-smoking. A popular song of the early 1600s by Tobias Hume proclaimed that “Tobacco is Like Love”. But the importation of tobacco into England was not without resistance and controversy. King James I wrote a famous polemic entitled ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ in 1604, in which the king denounced tobacco use as “a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible smoke of theStigian pit that is bottomelesse.” That year, an English statute was enacted that placed a heavy protective tariff on tobacco imports. The duty rose from 2p per pound to 6s 10p, a 40-fold increase, but English demand remained strong despite the high price and Barnabee Rych reported that 7,000 stores in London sold tobacco and calculated that at least 319,375 pounds sterling were spent on tobacco annually. Because the Virginia and Bermuda colonies’ economies were affected by the high duty, in 1624 King James I instead created a royal monopoly. No tobacco could be imported except from Virginia, and a royal license that cost 15 pounds per year was required to sell it. To help the colonies, King Charles II banned tobacco cultivation in England, but allowed herb gardens for medicinal purposes. Meanwhile, it seems that tobacco was introduced elsewhere in continental Europe more easily. Iberia exported “ropes” of dry leaves in baskets to the Netherlands and southern Germany; for a while tobacco was in Spanish called ‘canaster’ after the word for basket (‘canastro), and influenced the German ‘Knaster. In Italy, Prospero Santacroce in 1561 and Nicolo Torbabuoni in 1570 introduced it to gardens after seeing the plant whilst on diplomatic missions. Cardinal Crescenzio introduced smoking to the country in about 1610, after learning about it in England. The Roman Catholic Church did not condemn tobacco as James I did, but Pope Urban VIII threatened excommunication for smoking in a church. In Russia, tobacco use was banned in 1634 except for foreigners in Moscow. Peter the Great, who in England had learned of smoking and the royal monopoly, became the monarch in 1689 and revoking all bans, he licensed the Muscovy Company to import 1.5 million pounds of tobacco per year, with the Russian Crown receiving 28,000 pounds sterling annually. It was in 1633 when Sultan Murad IV banned smoking in the Ottoman Empire. When the ban was lifted by his successor, Ibrahim the Mad, it was instead taxed. In 1682, Damascene jurist Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi declared: “Tobacco has now become extremely famous in all the countries of Islam … People of all kinds have used it and devoted themselves to it … I have even seen young children of about five years applying themselves to it.” There are many events too numerous to detail here on tobacco, so here are just a notable few, with occasional explanations. 1624 saw the Popes ban use of tobacco in holy places, considering sneezing (snuff) too close to sexual pleasures. In 1633, Turkey introduced a death penalty for smoking but it didn’t stay in effect for long and was lifted in 1647. In 1650, tobacco arrived in Africa as the European settlers grew it and used it as a currency. Then in 1700 the African slaves were first forced to work on tobacco plantations, years before they became a workforce in the cotton fields. 1730 saw the first American tobacco companies open their doors in Virginia and in 1750, a Damascene townsmen observed “a number of women greater than the men, sitting along the bank of the Barada River. They were eating and drinking, and drinking coffee and smoking tobacco just as the men were doing”. In 1753 a Tobacco genus was named by a Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, ‘nicotiana rustica’ and ‘nicotiana tabacum’ named for the first time. Then in 1791, British doctors found that snuff leads to an increased risk of nose cancer. There was the first American tobacco tax in 1794 and in 1826 the alkaloid Nicotine was isolated for the first time. A few years later, in 1847, Philip Morris opened their first shop in Great Britain, selling hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes. Around 1861 the first American cigarette factory produced 20 million cigarettes and in 1880 the first cigarette-rolling machine was developed. Then in 1890, the American Tobacco Company opened its doors. In 1912 there is the first reported connection between smoking and lung cancer, but by 1918 an entire generation of young men returned from war, addicted to cigarettes. This meant that in 1924 over 70 billion cigarettes were sold in the United States. But by 1950 it seems that 50% of a cigarettes included a filter tip. Things were changing, as in 1967 there was a definitive link between smoking to lung cancer and evidence was presented that it was causing heart problems. In 1970 the tobacco manufacturers became legally obliged to print a warning on the labels that smoking is a health hazard and between 1970 and 1990 the same companies were faced with a series of lawsuits. Courts then limited their advertising and marketing, which had an effect on certain sports, like motor racing where advertising was no longer allowed. Then in 1992 the Nicotine patch was introduced and in the following years more cessation products were starting to be developed. In 1996, researchers found conclusive evidence that tobacco damages a cancer-suppressor gene. Then in 1997, tobacco companies were hit with major lawsuits, ordering them to spend large amounts of money on anti-smoking campaigns over the next 25 years which was predominantly focused on educating the young on dangers of smoking. Also from 1990, bans on public smoking came into effect in most states in America, as well as in other countries in the world.

A tobacco plantation in Queensland, Australia in 1933.

Meanwhile, cigarettes were gaining in popularity. In fact, they came to the height of their popularity during the First and Second World Wars. Tobacco companies sent millions of packs of cigarettes to soldiers on the front lines, creating hundreds of thousands of faithful and addicted consumers in the process. Cigarettes were even included into soldiers’ C-rations – which contained mostly food and supplements, along with cigarettes. The 1920s were also the period when tobacco companies started marketing heavily to women, creating brands such as ‘Mild as May’ to try to feminize the habit and make it more appealing to women. The number of female smokers in the United States tripled by 1935. Then in the mid-twentieth century, medical research demonstrated the severe negative health effects of tobacco smoking, including lung and throat cancer, which has led to a sharp decline in tobacco use. In addition, tobacco and tobacco products are more regulated today. Companies have lost countless lawsuits and are now forced to clearly label their products as having a detrimental effect on the health of a person. Also, tobacco advertising is severely limited and regulated. Still, tobacco companies make a great deal of money every year, destroying the health of others and it is estimated that there are around one billion tobacco users in the world today. The damage caused by this addiction amounts to massive health expenses and environmental damages and more effort has still to be made to educate people, especially teenagers and young adults, about the dangers of smoking. There is help and alternatives to smoking, for example various Nicotine replacement therapies such as skin patches. When I was in my twenties I tried smoking a pipe just once but was ill, so never did that again. I was also a keen singer as well as playing a trumpet in a local brass band, so wouldn’t smoke just to be the same as a couple of my friends! Still, I developed asthma which may not have been helped as my father smoked. In fact we are sure it was that which brought about his death just a few months before his seventieth birthday. My mother, who did smoke on rare occasions when she was younger, survived until she was ninety-five. I think that says it all.

This week…
There was an engineer who regularly made house calls to help fix computer problems for people. Afterwards, he had to write a report on what the problem had been and sometimes he would simply put ‘PICNIC’. One day he was asked what was meant by this, and he explained: “Problem In Chair, Not In Computer”…

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