Europeans first encountered tobacco in October of 1492, when the local Arawak population of Hispaniola presented Christopher Columbus with a peace offering of dried leaves from a sacred plant, a plant we would later know as Nicotiana Tabacum, the species from which nearly all modern smoking tobacco originates. As Columbus continued his exploration of the Caribbean, he continued to find these same leaves in use by other indigenous tribes. After arriving in modern day Cuba, for example, Columbus observed the local population smoking the herb nasally through crude, Y-shaped pipes. While the herb was sacred and well-recognized by the natives for its medicinal and ceremonial uses, N. Tabacum was met with caution and wariness by the European explorers. As their exploration continued, however, they naturally developed a curiosity about the foreign plant and its revered status.
Over the next 50 years, as explorers continued to encounter tobacco in various locales, this curiosity began to expand with theories and general interest in the newly discovered herb, particularly its medicinal properties, and it rose in prominence among the European elite. It was Jean Nicot, however, who's widely credited with popularizing the consumption of tobacco for medicinal purposes in Europe. A French scholar and diplomat, Nicot's first interaction with tobacco was during his tenure as French ambassador to Portugal, where he observed N. Tabacum growing in Lisbon's royal gardens. Inspired by the indigenous population's reverence for the leaf, Nicot began experimenting with tobacco as well, using fresh leaves to treat wounds, pain, and skin ailments, and with surprisingly successful results. After returning to France in 1561, he reported his findings to Queen Catherine de' Medici and prescribed a crude snuff made from crushed, dried N. Tabacum leaves as a treatment for her severe migraines. Although it made her sneeze, it did ease the pain of her headaches. Naturally, the consumption of tobacco for medicinal purposes (primarily in snuff form) boomed throughout Europe, and Nicot's efforts were solidified in the annals of history and biology as his name was applied to the plant's taxonomical genus, Nicotiana.
The line between medicinal and recreational use quickly dissolved, however, and the demand for tobacco soared among European populations. By this time, the Spanish, who had led those first expeditions and discovered the native plant in the Caribbean, had already established a foothold in the market. In truth, it was a hard monopoly; by decree of Philip II of Spain, traders and merchants were forbidden to sell any form of tobacco (including seeds) without the monarchy's prior approval. Violators of the order, namely unauthorized sellers of the tobacco, were met with execution. Intense? Definitely, but these harsh measures solidified Spanish control of the tobacco market, requiring competing governments like England to import Spanish tobacco for their own medicinal and recreational use, which had become increasingly popular in English courts thanks to key figures like Sir Walter Raleigh.
Sir Walter Raleigh, after being granted a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth in 1584 to establish a foothold in the New World, sent a number of voyaging parties west, each intent on carving out their own, English piece of the Americas. The most famous of these parties was the Lost Colony of Roanoke. For the sake of brevity (not to mention the avoidance of historical conjecture), we won't be discussing "CROATOAN" or what may or may not have happened to these settlers. It's more important to note that the rescued settlers from these expeditions, after witnessing the local populations doing so, had taken up the habit of "drinking" the smoke of combusted tobacco.
By decree of Philip II of Spain, traders and merchants were forbidden to sell any form of tobacco (including seeds) without the monarchy's prior approval. Violators of the order, namely unauthorized sellers of the tobacco, were met with execution.
No one championed this new habit quite like Sir Walter Raleigh; he was an ardent smoker, and, while not the first to introduce tobacco to the English populus, he is often cited as the figure who popularized pipe smoking in court circles, which, in turn, catalyzed pipe smoking among the general public. Some accounts even suggest Sir Walter introduced the habit to Queen Elizabeth herself. Regardless, with young nobles blowing smoke rings in showmanship, the demand for tobacco in England continued to expand, all in a market where the supply was entirely controlled by the Spanish monarchy.
Sir Walter Raleigh
This context may shed light on the motivations behind King James I's infamous A Counterblaste Against Tobacco, released in 1604, the same year the English monarch instituted a 4,000 percent tax increase on tobacco. While King James's disdain for Sir Walter Raleigh (likely stemming from Sir Walter's influence on both the court and the Queen) is often pointed to as a probable motivator for such drastic measures, the Counterblaste and resulting taxation could just as easily have been a response to the English population's growing demand for tobacco and Spain's hard monopoly on the market. In this light, could these efforts have been a mechanism used to dampen the growing demand and thus stymy the Spanish export economy? The argument might be worth its weight in tobacco, especially considering just two years after publishing A Counterblaste, King James granted the Virginia Company of London a charter to establish a permanent settlement in the New World, one which would grant England its own piece of the tobacco market.
In the spring of 1607, the company arrived at Cape Henry and established Jamestown some 40 miles inland, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The first three years were challenging for the settlers, however, as droughts and other conditions left food and potable water in short supply. Initial efforts to establish footholds in various industries, such as glassblowing, mining, and weaving, likewise faltered.
In 1610, after a shipwreck in Bermuda separated him from the rest of the company, John Rolfe arrived at the now established colony of Jamestown. During his initial weeks in the settlement, Rolfe observed members of the indigenous Powhatan smoking what appeared to be tobacco. Given the company's ill fortune thus far, Rolfe initially thought to capitalize on this native leaf as an English disruptor in the highly regulated Spanish tobacco market. On closer inspection, however, Rolfe discovered that the plant lacked the characteristics of the popular Spanish tobacco. In fact, it appeared that the native leaf was not N. Tabacum but an entirely different strain of tobacco: Nicotiana Rustica.
A sister plant to the Nicotiana Tabacum the Spanish found in the Caribbean, Nicotiana Rustica is a historic species of tobacco native to the Americas. Though of the same genus, it produces thinner leaves and is much more potent, containing up to three times as much nicotine as comparable primings from N. Tabacum. The native Powhatan of Virginia used N. Rustica for both medicinal and ceremonial purposes, often as offerings to animist spirits or conduits for communing with local deities. When smoked, it is both deeper and earthier than N. Tabacum, which was prized for its sweet, fragrant leaves.
A sister plant to the Nicotiana Tabacum the Spanish found in the Caribbean, Nicotiana Rustica is a historic species of tobacco native to the Americas. Though of the same genus, it produces thinner leaves and is much more potent, containing up to three times as much nicotine as comparable primings from N. Tabacum.
Some of the settlers of Jamestown had taken to using the leaf, but most, likely comparing it to N. Tabacum, found it somewhat bitter and earthy of taste. When samples sent to England were met with disapproval, the popular opinion was reinforced. While N. Rustica was not the panacea Rolfe had hoped for, it nevertheless inspired his curiosity. If this plant, so similar to the strain grown and cultivated in the Caribbean, could grow in Virginia, could N. Tabacum also thrive in a more temperate climate?
In direct violation of King Philip II of Spain's regulations, John Rolfe acquired N. Tabacum seeds from Trinidad and began growing them in Virginian soil. The initial crops seemed promising; samples of Virginia-grown N. Tabacum, which Rolfe called "Orinoco Tobacco," were sent to England in 1613, where they were considered to be of extremely high quality, but not quite as marketable as Spanish tobacco. Determined, Rolfe continued to experiment with agriculture and processing, expanding the fields around Jamestown and honing curing methods. In 1617, 20,000 pounds of Virginia-grown N. Tabacum were sent to England, with double that amount following the next year.
Rolfe's success provided England with a comparable, if not superior, product with which to disrupt Spain's monopoly on tobacco trade, and Virginia-grown N. Tabacum eventually eclipsed Spanish tobacco as the European standard. The trade of "Orinoco Tobacco," operating outside the Spanish monopoly, transformed Virginia from a fledgling settlement into a bustling, wealthy colony with a robust economy based on agriculture, processing, and the export of N. Tabacum — an economy that's still running strong today.
In 1617, 20,000 pounds of Virginia-grown N. Tabacum were sent to England, with double that amount following the next year.
So what happened to Nicotiana Rustica? While it's not commonly used in pipe tobacco, cigarette, or cigar blending, N. Rustica is still a major player in the tobacco industry; its primary use is in Swedish snus and chew bags. We know of only one pipe tobacco blend that features N. Rustica as a primary component: Mac Baren's HH Rustica, which pays homage to the historic tobacco strain, elevating it with naturally sweet Dark Virginias and Burley. It's a singular and unique blend, one which taken all together, offers an intriguing vignette of the history of tobacco in America.
- Cotton, Lee Pelham. Tobacco: The Early History of a New World Crop (1998, February). The National Parks Service.
- Encyclopedia Virginia staff. Domesticated Plants in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
- Mac Baren staff. History of Tobacco. Mac Baren.
- Salmon, E. J., & Salmon, J. Tobacco in Colonial Virginia. In (2013, January 29) Encyclopedia Virginia.