For some eight thousand years tobacco has grown on earth. It is thought that it started growing in the Americas around 6,000 BC. However, it was not until around 1,000 years BC that people started to use the leaves of the tobacco plant for smoking and chewing.
The first users are thought to have been the Mayan civilisations of Central America. Tobacco leaves were used to care for wounds and as a means of reducing pain. Tobacco smoking performed an important part of their religious rites; ancient carvings show a priest smoking a tube pipe in one of their ruined temples. It is also believed that they rolled crude cigars from wild tobacco leaves. When the Mayan civilisations were broken up, the scattered tribes carried tobacco southwards into South America. Tobacco also found its way into the pipes and the religion of the Mississippi Indians in North America.
It was centuries later that the great explorers, when they set out from Europe in search of the Orient, discovered tobacco in the Americas. Most famously, in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed from Palos in Spain and landed at the island he named ‘San Salvador’. Columbus was greeted by fascinated native Arawaks who thought that he and his men were divine beings sent from the Gods.
The Arawaks presented Columbus and his men with gifts including wild fruits, wooden spears and dried leaves which, in his journal, Columbus described as giving off a distinct fragrance. Columbus and his men accepted the gifts and ate the fruits, but threw the dried leaves away. So, in 1492, Christopher Columbus is believed to have been the first person from outside the Americas to see, smell and touch tobacco leaves. Later in the same year Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis Torres landed on the Caribbean island of Cuba, en route to discover China. Jerez and Torres are believed to have been the first Europeans to observe smoking of tobacco, when they witnessed inhabitants wrapping tobacco leaves in palm or maize and lighting one end and drinking smoke from the other. Indeed, Jerez is thought to be the first smoker from outside the Americas.
On his return to Spain, Jerez frightened the local people who were amazed to see smoke coming from his mouth and nose. The holy inquisitors, who were influential in Spain at the time, are understood to have thought that Jerez was possessed by the devil and imprisoned him for seven years. Ironically, by the time he was released, smoking had become a custom in Spain The early 1500s saw the Atlantic criss-crossed by several fleets of ships, all crewed by brave men with an enthusiasm to discover what lay across more than 3,000 miles of ocean from southern Europe. In 1518 the discoverer Juan de Grijalva landed in Yucatan in Mexico and saw native people smoking tobacco leaves. A year later the famous explorer Cortez conquered the Aztec capital of Mexico and found the inhabitants smoking strong, scented tobacco. By the mid 1530s tobacco was being cultivated and grown by Europeans in the Caribbean. Ten years later tobacco was being grown in Brazil for commercial export. A further ten years or so after this, tobacco was introduced into France and was instantly described by the French as a ‘creature comfort’. In 1560 Jean Nicot de Villemain, the French ambassador to Portugal, commented on tobacco as a cure-all for a range of ailments. It was indeed Villemain who gave his name to the word nicotine.
Even though Sir Walter Raleigh is often credited with being the first Englishman to discover tobacco, Sir John Hawkins and his crew are thought to have smoked tobacco much earlier, in 1564. Over the next twenty years or so it is known that many English sailors smoked tobacco, including the crews of ships captained by Sir Francis Drake. In 1573 Drake returned from the Americas with what is thought to have been the first consignment of tobacco to enter the British Isles from English discoverers. Twelve years later, in 1585, it is rumoured that Drake introduced Raleigh to tobacco. A year later, in 1586, Raleigh sailed for the Americas and met Ralph Lane, the first Governor of Virginia, who is believed to have taught Raleigh to smoke a clay pipe.
In July, the following year, some of the Virginia colonists returned to England and introduced tobacco into English society. They were seen disembarking from their ship at Plymouth smoking from pipes. It did not take long for tobacco to play a major part in English life. By 1595 ‘Tabacco’, the first book in the English language about tobacco, was published. By the start of the seventeenth century tobacco production was well established in the New World. Despite a ban in the early 1600s from His Holiness Pope Clement VIII who threatened anyone who smoked in a holy place with excommunication, smoking was becoming increasingly popular with Europeans.
In 1600 Raleigh persuaded Elizabeth I to try smoking but her successor, James I, did not approve at all and famously wrote his ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’. On her death Elizabeth left England with a sophisticated tax structure and as the wealthiest country in Europe. Elizabeth taxed tobacco at 2d per lb; James, following his ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’, raised tobacco taxes to unprecedented levels as a repressive measure. In 1603, the first year for which reliable data exist, 25,000 pounds of tobacco were imported into Britain from Spanish colonies in the Americas. By the end of the seventeenth century this figure had increased to almost 38 million pounds.
It was during James’ reign that Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned, then later executed. Some have even speculated that this was because James held Raleigh responsible for introducing tobacco into Britain. In the first few years of the seventeenth century the commercial competitiveness of tobacco grew. In 1606 King Philip III of Spain decreed that tobacco could only be grown in certain Spanish colonies, including Cuba and Venezuela. King Philip also decreed that any tobacco production by foreigners would be punishable by death. But, at the same time, tobacco production was growing in North America, driven by English gentlemen tempted to the plantations of Virginia to make their wealth. Pipe smoking was well established by the early 1600s throughout Europe. In 1614, as commercial pressures increased, Philip III decreed that all tobacco produced in the Spanish New World should be shipped to Seville in Spain. This had the dual aim of controlling the supply of tobacco and developing Seville as the home of cigar production. Throughout Spain cigars soon became the de rigeur means of consuming tobacco.
In England, the first consignments of Virginia tobacco for pipe smoking had arrived and some 7,000 shops in London sold tobacco by 1615. By 1618 the Thirty Years War contributed to the popularity of smoking, and in 1619, the first Africans were taken to Virginia. In the same year tobacco started to be used as currency in Virginia and remained in circulation for the next 200 years. Despite the growing popularity of tobacco, it remained a controversial product in some parts of the world. The Chinese banned the production or consumption of tobacco in 1612. In 1624, Pope Urban VIII pronounced on tobacco by banning snuff, a product derived from tobacco, which he believed took users too close to sexual ecstasy. In Persia, four years later, two merchants were punished for selling tobacco and had hot lead poured down their throats. In 1660 the English Royal Family returned from exile in Paris and brought with them the popular use of snuff. Cigars, however, were still not popular in England, despite their growing popularity throughout other parts of the world. At this time it was illegal to grow tobacco in England for commercial sale as the King wanted to protect the plantations of Virginia and their aristocratic owners. By 1665, when the great plague hit the British Isles, tobacco was thought to have a positive effect against infection.
Tobacco was the original exotic commodity, becoming established in Europe well before drinks such as tea and coffee and even before sugar and chocolate In 1693 smoking was banned in the chamber of the English Parliament and at its committee tables. Five years later, in Russia, Peter the Great established a trade monopoly with the English on tobacco against the wishes of the Russian church. Snuff retained its well-established popularity throughout the 1700s, the wife of King George III even being known as ‘Snuffy Charlotte’. Napoleon is said to have used 7lb of snuff every month.
The commercialisation of tobacco production increased through the 18th century with more and more protectionist barriers established. Many laws were passed throughout Virginia, Maryland and what is now the eastern United States, with the aim of protecting English interests and by 1776 the American Revolution was underway, as growers became more and more disaffected with the huge debts they owed to British merchants.
Across the Atlantic the French embraced the Cigarito during the French Revolution (1789-93). The Cigarito was seen as the form of tobacco most unlike the snuff used by the French aristocracy and was adopted as a social statement by the populace. Whilst Spain established its cigar production in the seventeenth century, it was only in the nineteenth century that cigars took off throughout England and the rest of the world. In 1826 England was importing 26 pounds of cigars per year; just four years later this had increased to half a million pounds of cigars per year.
Such was their growing international popularity that, in 1830, the Prussian Government passed a law stating that all cigars smoked in public should be smoked inside a wire mesh frame to prevent ladies’ clothes from catching fire. It is widely believed that the first paper rolled cigarettes were made by Egyptian soldiers fighting the Turkish-Egyptian war in 1832. Pipe tobacco was rolled in gunpowder papers and smoked.
Other historians suggest that Russians and Turks learned about cigarettes from the French, who in turn may have learned about smoking from the Spanish. Indeed, it is thought that paupers in Seville were making a form of cigarette, known as a ‘papalette’, from the butts of discarded cigars and papers as early as the seventeenth century. We will never know for sure who did invent the cigarette, on that we can all agree. The Mexican war in 1846-48 led to a huge increase in the popularity of cigars, as American soldiers developed a liking for the darker tobaccos from the south.
Later, in the nineteenth century the Crimean War introduced many British soldiers to the cigarettes used by their Turkish allies. The cigarettes, known as ‘Papirossi’, were brought back to England in large numbers and were popular with veterans of the war. In 1856, the first cigarette factory was opened at Walworth in England by Robert Golag, a veteran of the Crimean war. Towards the end of the nineteenth century calls for the prohibition of smoking came from certain parts of America, later the home of alcohol prohibition and the speakeasy culture. The prohibition of the use of tobacco existed in 14 states during the 1890s; and a further 23 states had apparently considered prohibiting the use of tobacco. There were also calls at that time to label tobacco products with the words ‘poison’.
By the start of the twentieth century the cigarette was part of life in Britain. A number of manufacturers were making cigarettes for the British market and on the outbreak of World War I cigarette rations were introduced. Smoking was hugely popular with soldiers in the battlefields of northern Europe and cigarettes became known as ‘soldier’s smoke’. At the start of World War II, as part of the war effort, Roosevelt made tobacco a protected crop. Some years earlier his wife Eleanor was dubbed ‘the first lady to smoke in public’. As cigarettes were sent to the troops there were shortages at home in Britain and America.
The origins of the tobacco plant will probably never be known. Five hundred years ago tobacco had never been seen, touched or even thought of by those outside the Americas. Tobacco is now grown in 120 countries throughout the world and there is not a single country where smoking is not part of everyday life. The history of tobacco is dramatic by any standards. It is especially fascinating considering that a single tobacco seed is all but invisible. Indeed, one million seeds would weigh barely three to four ounces. Over one thousand million people smoke throughout the world. Among the tobacco businesses delivering products to these smokers are some of the world’s largest companies. There are also many regionally strong companies. Some are owned by governments; others are owned privately; and others, like Gallaher, are owned by their shareholders.