“All along the sea routes … wherever they had trading posts, the Portuguese began the limited planting of tobacco. Before the end of the sixteenth century they had developed these small farms to a point where they could be assured of enough tobacco to meet their personal needs, for gifts, and for barter. By the beginning of the seventeenth century these farms had, in many places, become plantations, often under native control.”
The advent first of exploration, and subsequently trade, via sea routes provided the perfect method for the widespread global circulation of tobacco. This broad distribution was then aided by fans or ‘ambassadors’ within each country, who wittingly or unwittingly spread the plant and its associated habits more deeply, both geographically and culturally, within their societies. It was noted, for example, that Dutch and Portuguese trading vessels called at ports in Nagasaki and Kagoshima in Japan and first introduced tobacco. It was then spread through the country over the ensuing decades, often by Buddhist monks, who used tobacco seeds to pay for lodging along the routes of their pilgrimages.
The timeline of key events in the spread of tobacco makes interesting reading, particularly regarding the continent of Europe with its myriad cultures. Early on during the 16th century the awareness of tobacco was developing rapidly even if its use was not yet widespread – as each tobacco discovery was made in the New World, particularly by the Spanish in Central and South America, the story would be exported back to the ‘old country’ and onwards from there to other nations throughout the continent. This created an expectation and appetite for the plant that was soon to be sated. For example, in 1518 cigarette smoking was first observed in Mexico, and after Cortez conquered the Aztec capital he found Mexican natives smoking perfumed reed cigarettes. Not long after, the precursor to the cigar known as a ‘roll of tobacco’ for obvious reasons, became popular amongst the lower classes in Spain.
It was around about 1531 that the first European cultivation of tobacco began, and a differentiation was made between wild tobacco and the sweet, broadleaved Nicotiana tabacum that we know today. The Portugese cultivated the plant in places such as Brazil, whilst the Spanish had numerous areas in which to cultivate, and also transplanted the plant from Central America to Cuba. Meanwhile further exploration uncovered tobacco use in many other places throughout the American continent, not least what is now Canada. Jacques Cartier encountered natives on the island of Montreal using tobacco, and wrote:
“In Hochelaga, at the head of the river in Canada, grows a certain herb which is stocked in large quantities by the natives during the summer season, and on which they set great value. Men alone use it, and after drying it in the sun they carry it around their neck wrapped up in the skin of a small animal, like a sac, with a hollow piece of stone or wood. When the spirit moves them, they pulverize this herb and place it at one end, lighting it with a fire brand, and draw on the other end so long that they fill their bodies with smoke until it comes out of their mouth and nostrils as from a chimney. They claim it keeps them warm and in good health. They never travel without this herb.”
By the mid to late 1550s France, Spain and Portugal were all familiar with tobacco, with descriptions of its use ranging from ‘creature comfort’ to ‘medicinal’ and it being a ‘panacea’ for all kinds of ills. Soon after, snuff was used to cure the migraine headaches of a member of France’s Royal Family, leading to it being named Herba Regina. As was often the case during these times, a sense of hysteria developed and, as ‘the new plant on the block’, tobacco was subsequently held in great estime for its apparent varied medicinal uses, being said to treat anything from colic to hernias, dysentery to lockjaw.
Finally, around 1564 Sir John Hawkins and his sailor crew introduced tobacco to England but being mostly used by sailors (including those of Sir Francis Drake) it was largely ignored by the rest of the population. It was therefore not until some 20 years later, when Sir Francis Drake introduced smoking to a certain Sir Walter Raleigh, that people in the upper classes in England really sat up and took note. Having being assigned the task of setting up a colony in the Americas by Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh was shortly thereafter taught to smoke the long-stemmed clay pipe by Ralph Lane, the 1st Governor of Virginia and the gentleman widely credited with the invention of said pipe. And by 1586 tobacco could be said to have truly arrived in English Society, when some of the Virginia colonists returned to England and disembarked at Plymouth smoking tobacco from pipes, causing a great sensation and with it a new fashion…
From this point, into the 17th century and beyond, tobacco was to become a hugely influential resource, becoming known as a ‘cash crop’ and used as a trading currency. The high value of the plant, along with its elevated status amongst western societies, lead to a long standing association with wealth and power still in existence to this day. Enter the pipe…