Tobacco: Western Man Meets A New Friend

Mark my words: tobacco is about to undergo a rebirth. Thanks to advanced 21st century technologies, a safe way to smoke is soon on its way, and when it arrives, we will be able to welcome one of Western man’s oldest and most cherished friends – tobacco – back into our lives. That makes this the perfect occasion to take a moment to look back on when we were introduced to tobacco for the first time; long ago at the point in history when the medieval era had faded away and the modern age had just begun. Tobacco was one of the treasures that the conquistadors brought back with them from the New World. To the Aztecs, tobacco was divine – a literal piece of heaven on Earth. They used it in religious ceremonies, sacrificing bales of it to their fierce and bloodthirsty gods. There was even a goddess by the name of Cihuacoahuatl, whose body the Aztecs believed to be made entirely of tobacco (A smokable deity! Just imagine!). Beyond its religious purposes, the natives of the Americas smoked tobacco during important social occasions as well. Important guests were presented with pipes at grand banquets that lasted all night long; treaties and other diplomatic agreements were sealed with a ceremonial smoke shared among the dignitaries who had gathered to finalize the deal (this is the basis of the “peace pipe” so common in the lore of the Wild West). It was there, far from home, among unfamiliar people whose customs seemed exotic and strange, that European men first learned the worth of tobacco. And upon their return, they would bring this bit of Mesoamerican divinity back to be shared with the people – great and common alike – of the home continent. For the first sixty years or so after the discovery of the New World, the use of tobacco in Europe remained a regional phenomenon, more or less restricted to the Iberian peninsula from whence the explorers had come. It was a single individual, the French ambassador to the royal court of Portugal, who was alone responsible for the introduction of tobacco to the rest of Europe. So important was this man in the history of tobacco that his very name – Jean Nicot – forms the basis of the word “nicotine”. He had been dispatched to Lisbon with an offer for the boy king of Portugal, Sebastian I, who was then five years old, of marriage to the six-year-old French princess Margaret of Valois. Negotiations failed when the young king personally rejected the offer on principle over French mistreatment of the Hughenots (it was just as well for Margaret; the brave but headstrong Sebastian would go on to die at 24 years of age at the Battle of Three Kings during one of the last of the Crusades). But the ambassador did not return to Paris completely empty-handed. He brought with him a supply of Portugese tobacco, the use of which spread quickly through the royal court and to all of Paris’s most fashionable aristocrats. It was Nicot who, during his long years of service representing his king in the royal capitals of Europe, first brought tobacco to the far corners of the continent, including England. This would be a momentous occasion for both England and for America, but it would also mark the first time that the Puritans and the spoilfuns would come out in force to oppose the spread of Europe’s newest source of pleasure and relaxation. There are many who might be under the impression that opposition to tobacco only started in earnest with 20th century studies on its health effects. Not so! In fact, criticism of smoking started almost as soon as tobacco arrived on English shores, and very little of it had to do with health. In fact, much of the criticism simply had to do with the fact that smoking is fun, which in those days made it something that many saw as an intolerable vice. Among them was King James VI of Scotland and England. This is the very same monarch whose most famous literary effort was the translation of holy scripture that came to bear his name: the King James Bible. But while everyone has heard of that, few have ever read the treatise that he published just before he embarked upon his great work of theological scholarship. In 1604 (the same year in which Shakeapeare first produced *Othello* and *All’s Well That Ends Well*) King James issued *A Counterblaste To Tobacco*, in which he pulled no punches in laying out his distaste for “this filthie noveltie, so basely grounded, so foolishly received… the custome thereof making your selves to be wondered at by all foreign civil nations, and by all strangers that come among you, to be scorned and condemned”. Yet even so harsh a critic as King James was forced to admit to tobacco’s positive qualities as well. Another passage of the *Counterblaste* read: “It makes a man sober that was drunke. It refreshes a weary man, and yet makes a man hungry. Being taken when they goe to bed, it makes one sleepe soundly, and yet being taken when a man is sleepie and drowsie, it will, as they say, awake his braine, and quicken his understanding”. No wonder then that even the disapproval of the king was not enough to stem the demand for tobacco among Englishmen. Meanwhile, across the vast sea, the first English colonists were beginning to tame the land in Virginia and the Carolinas, making farms of what had once been wilderness. It was here, under the warm southern sun, that vast amounts of land – from small family farms to vast plantations – would soon come to be planted with tobacco in order to meet that endless demand. The long and legendary history of tobacco in the American south is, however, a story for another day. I hope you will join me once again as we go forward in the story of tobacco, pressing our way eventually into the 21st century, in which the marvels of modern science are set to finally make smoking so safe and harmless that not even King James would be able to offer any further objections to it.

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