Tobacco Cultivation and Trade

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Tobacco Cultivation and Trade

Tobacco (any of the species of plants belonging to the genus Nicotiana, especially Nicotiana tabacum) is native to the Americas. The tobacco plant had been domesticated by Native American peoples thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans.

Native Americans smoked tobacco for a variety of social and religious reasons, and its use was widespread throughout the Americas. The first recorded European sight of tobacco smoking came from the first voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in 1492, when Columbus's men recorded the Indians' use of "certain herbs which they inhale," evidently for pleasure. Tobacco was not only used by the native peoples of the Caribbean islands, but it was also consumed in many other regions of the Americas. Archaeologists in Mexico City have unearthed decorative pipes in Indian burial mounds. Some tribes participated in the ceremonial smoking of tobacco in rituals such as baptism. In Peru, tobacco served as medicine and was taken in the form of snuff. In the 1530s, members of Jacques Cartier's (1491–1557) expedition to Canada saw Iroquois Indians smoking pipes in their homes close to what is now Montreal. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the English visitors to Roanoke smoked tobacco with the natives before relations between the two groups turned sour.

It was not long before the European settlers began cultivating tobacco themselves. The Spanish pioneered its commercial production. They cultivated it for export to Europe on the island of Hispaniola in the 1530s, and commercial cultivation subsequently spread to other regions in and on the fringes of the Caribbean, especially Trinidad and Venezuela. From the mid-sixteenth century, the taste for tobacco began to spread in Europe, encouraging further growth in its cultivation and sale.

In 1559 the French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot (1530–1600), after whom the plant was named, took to Lisbon some tobacco seeds that a sailor returning from Florida had given him. From this beginning, the desire for tobacco grew throughout the Mediterranean among people of all levels of society. In response, the Portuguese started growing tobacco in Brazil from early in the seventeenth century and subsequently made it Brazil's most important export crop after sugar. Portuguese traders took tobacco to their Asian trading ports and to West Africa, where it became a key item in the trade for slaves on the Guinea coast. Tobacco thus became part of the infamous triangular trade that saw millions of Africans taken to the Americas to work on plantations growing tobacco, sugar, and later cotton.

The first detailed description of tobacco in English was in Thomas Hacket's 1568 version of Andre Thevet's narrative of his travels in Brazil, although more influential was the book by Nicolas Monardes, a physician from Seville who in 1571 suggested to the English that tobacco smoking was a panacea. This opinion did not go unchallenged, however. The most famous author to write of the evils of smoking tobacco was King James I (1566–1625) in 1604. He referred to himself as the doctor of the body politic, and in his A Counterblaste to Tobacco he condemned smoking as a "custome lothesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless" (James I 1604, p. 5).

England had, however, entered the tobacco trade thanks to Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1543–1596), who introduced pipe smoking into Britain, and Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1554–1618), the most significant supporter of tobacco smoking in the Elizabethan court. Indeed, Raleigh is said to have smoked throughout his imprisonment in the Tower of London and to have smoked a final pipe just before his execution.

The English trade relied at first on tobacco grown in the Spanish colonies, but the British soon sought to develop their own production of the commodity. Tobacco was indeed to play a key role in promoting English settlement in the Americas. When English settlers in Virginia were searching for a way to finance their colony, they turned to tobacco for a solution. In 1612 John Rolfe (1585–1622), influenced by native cultivation and curing techniques, began experimenting with a tobacco crop to rival that of the Spanish, who marketed their South American-grown tobacco to the whole of Europe.

In the 1620s tobacco cultivation also underpinned English settlement and trade in the Caribbean, where, after failing to establish tobacco-growing colonies in Guiana, English adventurers set up colonies based on tobacco cultivation in Barbados and other islands of the Lesser Antilles. The advantage of tobacco cultivation was that a small amount of seed could produce a large number of plants; the disadvantage was that the soil was soon exhausted. For this reason, tobacco cultivation soon proved less suitable for the English Caribbean islands than for Virginia, where land was in seemingly boundless supply and where tobacco quickly became the mainstay of the Chesapeake economy.

Initially, yeoman farmers grew tobacco on small plantations, but because of soil exhaustion, large-scale planters quickly dominated the trade, and large plantations soon spread along the banks of the James River. By 1620 the crop was well established, and growers were receiving high prices for the commodity on the European market. By 1624 Virginia's crop was secure enough for Edward Bennett, a merchant of Virginia, to propose to the British House of Commons that the importing of Spanish tobacco into England should be banned. Tobacco growing in England itself was also forbidden by James I, who, despite his personal dislike of tobacco, wanted to protect the new Virginia trade in which he now had a strong personal interest following the collapse of the Virginia Company and the region's emergence as a royal colony.

Much of the tobacco grown in Virginia arrived in Europe via Amsterdam, which became extremely wealthy on the profits from the curing and processing trades. Many of the leading merchants were Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal during the reconquista of the late fifteenth century. The English also realized how lucrative the trade could be, importing far more tobacco than they consumed.

Elizabeth I (1533–1603) saw the tax potential of tobacco imports, too, and placed a duty of two pence per pound on tobacco, infuriating small-scale importers on Britain's south coast. But this was nothing compared to the duty raised by James I in October 1604 when he pushed up the duty to six shillings and eight pence per pound of tobacco. Although James disliked smoking, he was sufficiently pragmatic to turn it to his financial advantage: his was the first government to tax tobacco heavily.

Although tobacco was much less lucrative for Spain than the trade in precious metals, the profitability of the tobacco trade encouraged government taxation and regulation. The Spanish Crown established an estanco (royal monopoly) on the sale and distribution of tobacco within Spain as early as 1636; Portugal followed in 1659. In the eighteenth century, Virginia and Maryland were still the largest growers of tobacco in the New World, but several other colonies produced it on a smaller scale. French settlers grew it in Louisiana and Canada, but it was never their main source of income.

In the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of Central and South America, tobacco was invariably produced for local consumption, but for some colonies it was an important export crop. Venezuelan tobacco was particularly highly prized and was such an attraction to foreigners that the Spanish government was willing to suppress tobacco growing there in order to stop illicit trade with the Dutch, whose contraband in Venezuelan tobacco threatened Spanish dominance of European tobacco markets. During the eighteenth century, Cuba became the most notable of the Spanish tobacco-exporting colonies, although from 1764 the imposition of a government monopoly restricted sales of Cuban tobacco and drove many traders toward cheaper Virginian tobacco.

During the eighteenth century, the Spanish Crown gradually extended estanco regulations throughout its colonies, and in the second half of the century turned tobacco sales into a major source of state revenues. At their peak, these revenues were second in value only to taxes on gold and silver, which remained the major exports of the Spanish colonies.

State controls on tobacco cultivation and sales did not pass without protest: indeed, it triggered resistance ranging from tax evasion through illegal sales to violent riots and rebellions. The most important of these was the 1781 comunero rebellion in the viceroyalty of New Granada, where resistance by small farmers to restrictions on tobacco cultivation played a part in an uprising that forced the Spanish government temporarily to suspend its program of fiscal and administrative reforms. On the international market, Cuban tobacco remained an important commodity because of the perception of the world's smokers that it made the best cigars. By the early 1820s, hand-rolled "Havanas" had become famous among English smokers and were to remain so, though in the later nineteenth century Cuba was to export more unprocessed tobacco leaf than finished cigars.

After independence, tobacco continued to figure strongly in American exports, not only from the traditional export regions of the American South, Brazil, and Cuba, but also from some of the new Spanish American republics, where free trade encouraged export, and governments continued to find the tobacco trade a convenient source of revenue, sometimes even reviving the estancos. Colombia briefly became a major tobacco exporter around the mid-nineteenth century, mainly to Germany, while most Spanish American countries produced tobacco for their own consumption or for neighboring markets.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, another phase in the history of the tobacco trade opened when foreign companies from Europe and the United States extended their search for sources of tobacco production and their influence on consumer markets. By the early years of the twenty-first century, tobacco was produced for local markets and consumed widely in Asia and Africa, while its use had become less fashionable in Europe and America.

see also British American Tobacco Company; Native Americans and Europeans; Plantations, the Americas; Virginia Company.


Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of the Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Deans-Smith, Susan. Bureaucrats, Planters, and Workers: The Making of the Tobacco Monopoly in Bourbon Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Gateley, Iain. Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

James I [King of England]. A Counterblaste to Tobacco. London: [Unknown binding], 1604.

McFarlane, Anthony. Colombia before Independence: Economy, Society, and Politics under Bourbon Rule. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.