James Ford Bell Library

The European Tobacco Trade from the 15th to the 17th Centuries

by Mike Davey


When Sir Francis Drake returned to England from the New World he had with him two plants never before seen in Europe, namely the potato and tobacco. England’s reaction to the plants was echoed all through out Europe. The potato was seen as poisonous while tobacco was seen with wonder and amazement.1 In this essay, I will give the brief history of the development of the tobacco trade during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries and explain what steps Europeans took to control that trade from interlopers.

Tobacco was first introduced to Europeans in 1492 when Columbus landed in the Americas. Columbus wrote in his diary, on October 15th, 1492, that he observed an Indian sailing in a canoe with water, food, and tobacco leaves.2 Use of tobacco spread rapidly among the Spanish colonists and in 1531 its cultivation began in Santo Domingo. In 1526 Gonzalo Ferdandez de Oveido y Valdez noted that his fellow Spaniards were turned into drunks by tobacco. Bartolome de las Casas observed the following year that the colonists were developing a strong dependence on it and that it was hard to give up.3

During the 16th century, tobacco use spread throughout all of Europe. It arrived in France in 1556, in Portugal in 1558, in Spain in 1559, and in England in 1565. By 1571 it had spread to nearly all parts of Europe.4 Not only did its usage spread quickly but also it quickly came to be seen as a cure for many major illnesses.5 In 1595, Anthony Chute published Tobacco in which he argued that physicians were keeping tobacco’s use a secret because they feared it would put them out of business.6

The 17th century saw the organization of the tobacco trade and the implementation of new laws regulating the sale of tobacco. In 1614 Spain proclaimed Seville the tobacco capital of the world. All tobacco produced for sale in New Spain had to first go through Seville before moving on to the rest of Europe. France and England passed analogous laws. King James I of England was the first to tax tobacco while King Louis XIV was the first to make its distribution and sale a state run monopoly. Laws restricting the cultivation of tobacco to the Americas were passed during the second half of the 1600’s in an effort to insure a steady high quality supply. During this time period the Tionontati, an Indian tribe located in what is today south-eastern Canada, produced tobacco for sale in Europe and were known by the French as the tobacco people.7

Efforts at limiting the consumption of tobacco for medicinal purposes during the 17th century failed all over Europe. In Turkey one could be beheaded for smoking in public. In Russia and Austria one could be fined, jailed, or tortured and in England King James I (the same king who realized that taxing tobacco made lots of money for the government) wrote about tobacco’s horribly addictive properties and the terrible black soot that it left in one’s lungs. The Catholic Church even tried its hand at limiting the use of tobacco by proclaiming its everyday use to be sinful. Few people listened, as there were no biblical passages that talked about the evils of smoking or sniffing tobacco.8

Notwithstanding efforts designed to curb the use of tobacco, its use rose tremendously during the 17th century. In 1614 Jamestown colony sent its first shipment of tobacco to England. It was rather modest in size. 1624 saw 200,000 pounds sold to England while 1638 saw 3,000,000 pounds sold. During the 1680’s Jamestown was producing over 25,000,000 pounds of tobacco per year for sale in Europe.9


Notes

1. From an online essay by Bill Drake, 1996. Bill Drake is a graduate of Dikenson College and has a degree in Anthropology. Bill has written cross-cultural research instruments for firms in Washington D.C. and currently works for an online BBS called Smoke and Illusion. His essay can be found at http://rampages.onramp.net/~bdrake/europe.html#Europeanx.
2. From the Tobacco BBS by Gene Borio, 1995 http://www.tobacco.org/Resources/culture.html
3. Bill Drake
4. From Viable Herbal Solutions, 1996 http://www.viable-herbal.com/
5. Ibid.
6. Tobacco BBS
7. From Larry Breed, 1995 http://www.tobacco.org/Resources/lbguide.html
8. Bill Drake
9. From The American People by Gary Nash et. al., 1998 pp. 32, 40-44, 47

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at ragn0001@umn.edu.

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