Huron Indian myth has it that in ancient times, when the land was barren and the people were starving, the Great Spirit sent forth a woman to save humanity. As she traveled over the world, everywhere her right hand touched the soil, there grew potatoes. And everywhere her left hand touched the soil, there grew corn. And when the world was rich and fertile, she lay down and rested. When she arose, there grew tobacco . . .
I often come across snippets of the history of tobacco use and pipe smoking but usually find these to be incomplete and sometimes contradictory. I thought it would be interesting therefore to try to outline over a number of articles the main points in history that have led us to our current use of pipe tobacco, and ultimately therefore chart in simple form the development of pipe smoking. I do not profess to be an expert and cannot guarantee that the information below is 100% accurate, as it is pieced together from a number of different sources (some no doubt less reliable than others!) but for the lay person or beginner pipe smoker it may make an interesting but brief glimpse of the evolution of our pastime…
So what do we know about the discovery and spread of tobacco as we know it? Small amounts of nicotine can be found in some Old World plants including Belladonna and Nicotiana Africana, and nicotine metabolites have been found in human remains and pipes in Africa and the Near East, but there is no indication of habitual tobacco use by humans in the Ancient world anywhere other than in the Americas. The main reason for this was availability – it is widely believed that the tobacco plant as we know it today began growing in the Americas around 6000BC (or BCE to use the politically correct term…). Experts believe that it is not until some 6000 years later that American inhabitants began finding ways to use tobacco, including smoking (in a number of variations that include via pipes) and chewing.
Between 470 and 630 AD (or CE) the Maya inhabitants of Central America, who were known tobacco users (and whose term for tobacco smoking was, interestingly, sik’ar) began to scatter, some moving as far north as the Mississippi Valley. Those who stayed behind subsequently passed on their tobacco smoking customs to the Toltecs, the intellectual and cultural predecessors of the mighty Aztec Empire. Two castes of smokers then emerged amongst the Aztecs – those in the Court of Montezuma, who mingled tobacco with the resin of other leaves and smoked tobacco pipes with great ceremony after their evening meal, and the lesser Indians who rolled tobacco leaves together to form a crude cigar. Meanwhile the Mayas who had settled in the Mississippi Valley continued to spread the custom to their new, neighbouring Algonquian tribes. These tribes later adapted tobacco smoking to their own spiritual beliefs – it was said that the almighty spirit Manitou revealed himself in the rising smoke. And, as with the civilisations still centred in Central America, a complex system of religious and political rites was developed with tobacco use at their core.
In 1492 Columbus ‘discovered’ tobacco, at least as far as the West was concerned. In the notes from his voyages he describes “Certain Dried Leaves” received as gifts from the indigenous Arawaks who possibly believed the strange visitors were deities of some kind. As each item seemed much-prized by the natives Columbus accepted the gifts and ordered them brought back to the ship. The fruit was eaten whilst the pungent “dried leaves” were thrown away. Elsewhere he unwittingly mentions tobacco once again… “We found a man in a canoe going from Santa Maria to Fernandia. He had with him some dried leaves which are in high value among them, for a quantity of it was brought to me at San Salvador.”
Later that year Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, in Cuba on their own voyage of discovery, are credited with being the first Europeans to observe tobacco smoking. They reported that the natives wrapped dried tobacco leaves in palm or maize “in the manner of a musket formed of paper.” After lighting one end, they commenced “drinking” the smoke through the other. Jerez became a confirmed tobacco smoker, and is thought to be the first outside of the Americas. He brought the habit back to Europe, but the smoke billowing from his mouth and nose so frightened his neighbours that he was imprisoned by the holy inquisitors for 7 years. By the time he was released, tobacco smoking was a Spanish craze and was well on its way to spreading throughout the whole of Europe…
“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 tobacco pipe by Ralph Lane, the 1st Governor of Virginia and the gentleman widely credited with the invention of said tobacco pipe. And by 1586 pipe 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 time of the tobacco pipe…