The History of Tobacco

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The Huron Indians of North America have passed down a legend concerning the origin of tobacco. According to the legend, there was once a great famine, when all the lands were barren. The Great Spirit sent a naked girl to restore the land and save his people. Where she touched the ground with her right hand, potatoes grew and the earth was fertile. Where she touched the ground with her left hand, corn sprang forth, bringing green to the lands and filling all stomachs. Finally, the naked messenger of the Great Spirit sat down; and from her place of rest grew tobacco.

There are two interpretations of this tale. One is that tobacco was a gift like corn and potatoes and was meant to provide food for the mind of man. The second is that since tobacco was given by the seat of the messenger, it was intended as a message (or possibly a curse) that the gifts of food were not without their price.

Whichever interpretation is correct, the use of tobacco was firmly established among, North American Indians by the time Columbus arrived. The early explorers were amazed to discover the Indians putting little rolls of dried leaves into their mouths and then setting them afire. Some Indians carried pipes in which they burned the same leaves so they could “drink” the smoke. It was also apparent that tobacco was essential to many religious and social rituals and that it was a habit not given up easily.

Tobacco Takes Hold

In the 16th century two British sea captains persuaded three Indians to return with them to London. The Indians brought substantial supplies of tobacco to sustain them through their voyage and stay. That trip may have marked the birth of the Indians’ revenge against the white invaders of their land, for along the way some crew members tried inhaling the tobacco smoke. Many enjoyed it and soon found it hard to stop. To supply their own needs for tobacco, the explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries kept fields around the Horn of Africa, in Europe, and in the Americas. Magellan’s crew smoked tobacco and left seeds in the Philippines and other ports of call. The Dutch brought tobacco to the Hottentots. The Portuguese brought it to the Polynesians. Soon, wherever sailors went in Asia, Africa, even Australia tobacco was waiting.

By the beginning of the 17th century, tobacco Pipe tobacco brands cultivation previously only in small plots had been extended to plantations throughout the world. Wherever it was grown, the inhabitants also tried smoking it, thus expanding its use even further. Smoking spread almost like a contagious disease, from a few individuals to entire populations.

Early tobacco users quickly learned what the Indians had long known: once you started, you couldn’t stop without severe discomfort and a powerful urge to resume the habit. Furthermore, these needs could only be satisfied by tobacco, which had to be used in certain ways. It did not have to be smoked. It could he chewed or ground to powder and inhaled as “snuff”. Simply eating the raw plant, however, did not provide relief or pleasure, and no other substance seemed to be an adequate substitute.

Opposition in the use of Tobacco

As tobacco was introduced to one empire after another, similar pattern of response occurred. What happened in England, under the rule of King James I, near the turn of the16th century, was typical. King James greatly opposed the use of tobacco. He decried its use as unhealthy and immoral, and he urged its banishment. However, even among the royal court tobacco had its dedicated followers: men like Sir Walter Raleigh made tobacco use both fashionable and a mark of distinction.

Attempts to restrict supplies only increased the value of tobacco and soon it was worth its weight in silver. Finally, in one of the earliest recorded attempts at prohibition by economics, King James increased the tobacco duty tax by 4 000%. The only real consequence was to help stimulate a flourishing smuggling trade.

In the end, the economic issues conquered the rulers and not the plant. Seeing that the people would pay nearly any price for tobacco, monopolies were started so that the government could benefit from the desires of its people.

Taxation policies were more carefully implemented and the government itself was soon dependent on the trading of tobacco.

This general pattern of disapproval, failed attempts at prohibition, and economic gain by taxation was repeated in Italy, France, Russia, Prussia, and then the United States. As governments became convinced of the dangers of tobacco use, taxes were raised, providing the dual benefit that the conscience of the government was cleansed while it’s income was enhanced as people continued to smoke. In Britain in 1983 smokers spent a total of $6,200 million on tobacco, of which 60 per cent went to the government in tax. Similarly, in the United States today smokers spend about $16 billion per year As a “revenge of the Indians” the spread of tobacco makes the introduction of syphilis into the new world palely comparison when the enormous toll in death and diseases is considered. Tobacco addiction has shared with prohibition the fact that it was a consequence of a behavior never to be eliminated, either by law, taxation, or papal mandate. Perhaps the most dramatic description of the Indians’ revenge was given by “the tobacco fiend” at the court of Lucifer in an 18th century epic:

Thus do I take revenge in full upon the Spaniards for all their cruelty to the Indians; since by acquainting their conquerors with the use of tobacco I have done them greater injury than even the King of Spain through his agents ever did his victims; for it is both more honorable and more natural to die by a pike thrust or a cannonball than from the ignoble effects of poisonous tobacco.

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