Tobacco and Smoking

views updated

Tobacco and Smoking

During the late fifteenth century, scientific and technological advances in navigation and shipbuilding provided impetus for the Age of Exploration. Curiosity, adventurism, and a thirst for knowledge about unknown lands and people provided some rationale for sailing and exploring. However, the more pragmatic reasons included the search for gold and other precious metals, finding a shorter route to access spices, silk, and other luxury items in the East, and the acquisition of land for the monarchs of Europe. When Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), sailing under the Spanish flag, landed somewhere in the Bahamas in 1492, he was certain that he had found a new route to the East, so he called the indigenous people Indians. Columbus did not find any luxury items and only discovered a small amount of gold among the Taino people. He noted in his diary, somewhat casually, that the Taino smoked and chewed a strange plant, but he and his men simply considered it an unusual custom.

Spanish explorers were more successful in finding riches in the New World. Conquistadors invaded and conquered the great empires of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas and looted enormous stores of gold that enriched the coffers of Spain. They, like Columbus, observed the natives in these unfamiliar lands chewing plant leaves and smoking crushed leaves in pipes. The natives apparently smoked for ceremonial events, to improve their health, and for personal pleasure. The plant, nicotiana tabacum (tobacco), was indigenous to the New World, but unknown in Europe. Archaeologists have found figurines of Mayans smoking pipes that suggest smoking had been a common practice in their culture for 2,000 years. By the time Columbus observed the Taino smoking, the practice was widespread in North America and the Caribbean.

Once introduced by Spanish soldiers, it did not take long for smoking to become popular in the Old World, particularly among the middle class and the nobility; nor did it take long for people all over Europe to become addicted to the nicotine and other drugs in tobacco. Upper-class Europeans were also partial to a fermented, dried, and mulled tobacco product called snuff. The clergy was highly critical of those who smoked tobacco and in 1602 an anonymous physician authored a scandalous attack on smokers, titled Worke of Chimney Sweepers, in which he asserted that smoking was as bad for smokers as soot was for the chimney sweep. Even England's King James I (1566–1625) condemned smoking as vile and unhealthy in his Counterblaste to Tobacco. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, nonetheless, tobacco was a highly prized commodity not only in Europe, but in some parts of Africa and Asia as well. Therefore, tobacco was a potential source of substantial revenue for the Crown and investors in the various English joint-stock companies. In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618) organized an expedition to establish a colony on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina with the intent of having the colonists grow tobacco as a cash crop, but the venture failed. Nevertheless, the profit potential of tobacco farming made other attempts inevitable.

King James issued a royal charter to a group of investors in the Virginia Company to establish a colony in Virginia, which they did in 1607. They named the colony Jamestown in honor of the king. In 1612 one of the leaders of the colony, John Rolfe (1585–1622), who is more famous for marrying Pocahontas (1595–1617), the daughter of Algonquian Indian leader Powhatan (1550–1618), developed a hybrid tobacco plant that was less bitter than the local variety. Rolfe shipped samples of the tobacco to an English merchant in 1614, and within a short time the colonists were farming the hybrid tobacco productively and shipping it to England. Although Rolfe's tobacco saved the colony economically, it created as many problems as it solved. At the time, few could have imagined that within a relatively short period the cultivation of tobacco, which required large tracts of virgin land and was extremely labor intensive, would result in a host of baleful developments: the creation of a slavocracy; a rigid class system; wars with Indians over land; and a rebellion of poor, mainly landless whites. In time, the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia would become the most productive tobacco-growing area in the world, with the largest slave population in America. In the process, tobacco became perhaps the most abused drug in history.

At first, Irish and English indentured servants supplied the labor to cultivate tobacco. While the colonists would have preferred to use local Indian populations as sources of labor, native people frequently succumbed to European diseases. Furthermore, they were difficult to acculturate. In 1619 Africans were introduced into the colony as indentured servants and began working in the fields with white servants. Actually, some historians believe that a few Africans may have entered the colony earlier, but little is known about them. Captain John Smith (1580–1631)—who once lamented that most of the newcomers to the colony were gentlemen and that their servants "never did know what a day's work was" (Nash, et al., p. 33)—might have been expressing delight when he, like Rolfe, made special note of the Dutch warship that stopped at Jamestown and "sold us twenty negars" (Johnson, p. 36). While historians are unsure about the nature of the service the twenty Africans provided, there is ample documentation about the status of Anthony Johnson (d. 1669), an African who arrived at Jamestown in 1621. Johnson labored as a servant on Richard Bennett's plantation for twenty years and, after gaining his freedom, married an African woman named Mary, had a family, and acquired 250 acres of land and two black servants.

The end of Johnson's service and the beginning of his prosperity in the 1640s coincided with the declining social status of blacks in the colony, although by the early 1660s the black population of Virginia numbered only about 1,500. While there were some blacks in the colony whose status was closer to slave than servant, slavery had not yet achieved legal status. However, Virginia's legislative assembly, the House of Burgesses, passed a law in 1640 making it illegal for blacks to own guns and in 1660 made it illegal for white women to marry black servants. Statutory recognition of slavery occurred between 1661 and 1662, when a law was implemented declaring that the social condition of a newborn child was based on the status of the mother. Among the spate of laws passed in the 1660s was one that made it clear that the conversion to Christianity did not alter perpetual servitude. Maryland, the other powerful tobacco-producing colony on the Chesapeake Bay, initially passed slaves laws in the 1660s that were more stringent than those of Virginia, but soon changed them so that they were in line with those in its sister colony.

In the late 1630s, even though the export of tobacco had increased dramatically from about 200,000 pounds in 1624 to about 3 million pounds, there still appeared to be sufficient white servant labor to cultivate tobacco. In reality, however, disease, a high infant mortality rate, and a high male-to-female ratio prevented a significant natural increase in the white population. This created a demand for an alternate source of labor. In addition, other events conspired to steer the colony toward the use of slave labor. The immigration of indentured servants decreased as economic conditions improved in England, and worldwide commercial competition between European powers expanded the slave trade, making slaves plentiful and cheap. Finally, the landless, ex-servant, white males that participated in Nathaniel Bacon's rebellion in 1676 presented a danger to royal authority. Simply put, the free colonists decided that slaves would be easier to control.

At the time of Bacon's rebellion, the slave population of the Chesapeake colonies numbered only approximately 4,000, but it began to grow rapidly. By the early 1770s, the slave population in Maryland and Virginia was almost 200,000, most of them native-born. In fact, slaves in the Chesapeake became the first slave population on the Atlantic rim to increase naturally. Several factors probably accounted for this, including: the acquisition of immunity to some diseases; a decrease in deaths from disease and warfare as a result of a decline in the Native American population; a better male-to-female ratio; a decline in the infant mortality rate; and a more stable family life, even within the confines of slavery. In addition, planters encouraged slave women to have as many children as possible. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) expressed the attitude of the planters when he confided, "I consider the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man" (Roark, et al. p. 121). Although slaves in the Chesapeake colonies were able to replicate the black population, slavery there was nonetheless a brutal, dehumanizing caste system based on race.

The growth of the slave population became essential to the planters after soil depletion caused the center of tobacco cultivation to shift inland from coastal regions in the Chesapeake and Tidewater areas to Piedmont. Institutional slavery in America conjures up images of large plantations with great manorial houses where hundreds of black slaves toiled long hours so that the master and his family could enjoy the fruits of slave labor. This is only a partially true portrait of slavery. In fact, a large percentage of Chesapeake slaves, like slaves elsewhere in the South, worked on small farms beside whites who only owned one or two slaves. Each work situation had its advantages and disadvantages, but either way slaves worked long, hard hours. The daily lives of slaves who cultivated tobacco in the Chesapeake Bay area consisted of a range of strenuous activities: clearing large tracts of land; planting and replanting seedlings; topping mature plants; cutting the stalks; and preparing the plants for curing in tobacco houses. In addition, during June and July when the rains came, slaves had to pick tobacco worms off plants by hand and kill them. Many times the manager or overseer would assign the task of worming tobacco plants to young children.

The tedious, painstaking labor, from sunup to sundown, left slaves emotionally and physically exhausted. In addition, masters and overseers often whipped, branded, and abused slaves, many times for minor infractions of the numerous plantation rules and regulations that governed their behavior. The Works Progress Administration's exslave interviews, diaries of eyewitnesses who traveled through the South, slave narratives, and newspaper accounts all document how slave owners brutalized their slaves. For example, one slave noted that he had been whipped so hard he could not sit down. One slave owner, Bennet H. Barrow, recorded that during a three-month period in late 1840 and early 1841, he administered 160 whippings. While it is difficult to conclude that Barrow's "quick-with-the-whip" attitude was typical, the evidence confirms that corporal punishment was widespread on plantations and small farms. Many female slaves were victims of sexual abuse on an almost daily basis, and diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823–1886) observed sarcastically that the (white) ladies on the plantations often gossiped about who fathered the mulatto children in every household except their own.

On large plantations, masters, overseers, and managers closely supervised slaves while they worked. Paternalism justified the master's involvement in just about every aspect of the slave's life, but after work, the slave quarters were usually far enough away from the master's house that slaves could fashion some semblance of a normal life free of constant surveillance. This allowed slaves to share intimate, private moments with love ones; to practice religious beliefs; to cook and eat together; and to sing and dance and play xylophones, banjos, and other string instruments of West African origin—though rarely drums, which many masters did not permit slaves to have, for fear they might be used to signal uprisings. This communal life helped slaves survive the harsh realities of a dehumanizing system.

When John Rolfe developed a hybrid tobacco as an export crop for the struggling colonists in Jamestown in the early seventeenth century, he had no idea that the cultivation of the tobacco plant would literally change the course of history in what would become the United States. One might speculate that American history would have been vastly different if the cultivation of tobacco had not resulted in the creation of a slave-owning Republic. Most historians would probably disagree with that assessment, however. Given the widespread existence of slavery in the Atlantic world since the sixteenth century, the cultivation of some other plant—such as corn, sugar, cotton, or indigo—would most likely ultimately have resulted in the enslavement of blacks in America.


Billings, Warren, ed. The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606–1689. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Johnson, Charles and Patricia Smith. Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998.

Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Nash, Gary, et al. The American People: A History of the United States. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2003.

Osofsky, Gilbert, ed. Putting' On Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown and Solomon Northrup. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

Roark, James, et al. The American Promise: A History of the United States. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002.

Yetman, Norman R., ed. Voices From Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984.

                                            Donald Roe