The History of Tobacco

Tobacco is a plant indigineous to the Americas. Columbus and others describe the Indians' habit of inhaling the smoke of burning rolled-up tobacco leaves. Soon Spaniards took up the habit and grew tobacco on plantations (since 1531 on Santo Domingo). It was soon realized that tobacco was addictive and a narcotic.
It was introduced to France in 1556, to Portugal in 1558, to Spain in 1559 and to England in 1565. Tobacco smoking soon became popular; France's ambassador to Portugal, JEAN NICOT (after him Nicotin is named), describes tobacco's medicinal properties. Market prices for tobacco surged.
The first English tobacco plantations were established in the colony of VIRGINIA (founded 1607). In 1624 English settlers landed on ST. KITTS, a Caribbean island neglected by the Spanish (who nevertheless claimed it). The settlers grew tobacco, the huge profits of which made colonization of small Caribbean islands lucrative. Within a few years the French, the Dutch, followed by the Danes and Courlanders, established their own island colonies, based on plantation economy, in the Caribbean.
A result of increased competition was a sharp fall in tobacco prices, which made many tobacco plantations unprofitable and resulted in them being switched to other products (sugar cane, coffee) or abandoned.

In the early years of tobacco plantations, merchant ships arrived offering African slaves, which soon formed the plantation workforce. Colonial companies established a trading triangle - tobacco grown in the Caribbean was used in Africa as payment for many of the African slaves which were to be imported to the Caribbean. The colonial power was to reap the profits of plantation economy and slave trade. In certain regions of Africa, tobacco even became a replacement currency (so in the Interior of Cameroun, until early in the 20th century).
Quality tobacco - Virginia, Havanna, Java - continued to hold a market share. Tobacco would be imported to Europe in stacks of dried leaves; once in Europe it would be processed in cigar factories into cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco.
Late in the 19th century a new invention (1880), the CIGARETTE, quickly gained popularity. For it, lower quality tobacco could be used. As a cheap product, it made smoking affordable; in World War I, cigarettes were often distributed to soldiers free of charge, even becoming the BLACK MARKET CURRENCY in post-war Germany (1945-1948).

People regarded tobacco an essential product; it's cultivation spread to countries like Turkey and Bulgaria. Even in Germany attempts to grow tobacco were undertaken (the country was twice cut off from overseas supplies, in World War I and II, and during those years quite a number of people tried to grow their own tobacco in flower pots and glasshouses).
In recent years the carcinerogenous effect of tobacco has been proven and campaigns to reduce tobacco consumption, to restrict tobacco advertising, have been conducted almost anywhere. This has affects on the tobacco growing industry.

Trade Products in Early Modern History, from James Ford Bell Library at Univ. of Minnesota, click tobacco
Timeline of Tobacco History, by Gene Borio /
DRY DRUNK: The Culture of Tobacco in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, from New York Public Library
DOCUMENTS Of the Tobaco and it's great vertues (1571), by Nicholas Monardes, from
Harrit describes tobacco in Virginia, 1588, from
Early 17th century complaints about the effects of tobacco consumption, from
A Counterblaste to Tobacco, 1604 pamphlet by James VI/I, from Early English Books Online
REFERENCES The Tobacco Colonies, in : T.O. Lloyd, The British Empire 1558-1995, pp.14-24 (relating to Virginia, St. Kitts, Barbados, the early 17th century tobacco boom)

This page is part of World History at KMLA
Last revised on February 15th 2002

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