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A Brief History of Tobacco

April 20th, 2008 · No Comments ·

Tobacco: From Indigenous Ritual to World Culture


Ever since the beginning of its use, tobacco has been the center of a great amount of controversy.  Opinions have clashed as some have lauded its use as others vehemently condemn it.  Despite the passage of time and the increasing understanding of this plant and both its uses and abuses, this debate has yet to subside.


It is believed that the first experimentation with the use of tobacco came around 1 BCE by the early inhabitants of the Americas, where, at this point in time, it grew exclusively.  At this time, the treasure that was tobacco was not yet known to the word outside of America.  However, this would soon change with the age of the explorers and Columbus’ discovery of America.


In 1492, when Columbus arrived in America he was greeted by the natives who offered his crew gifts – one these being tobacco which, not knowing its exponential value at the time, he threw away.  A year later, however, Columbus and his crew learned of this weed and the uses that the natives had for it.  Of particular importance is one monk who had journeyed with Columbus – Ramon Pane.  Pane described in great detail this new plant and how the natives used it by inhaling its smoke, and is thought to have been the first person to give Europe an introduction to tobacco.  A few years later Pane put these descriptions in a report, which became the first of its kind in Europe.  About eighty years later, many books documenting the different ways to use tobacco leaves and the theorized effect this had would soon follow.


It was clear even as early as 1492 that the tobacco plant would be an object of controversy.  At first, people were skeptical and afraid of tobacco because they associated it with the “uncivilized” people native to America.  Some early descriptions of tobacco were of its use by American natives in various rituals, a fact many Europeans had a hard time separating from their concept of the plant.  An example of this initial skepticism can be seen in the reaction to the Spanish explorer Rodrigo de Jerez’s adopted use of tobacco.  De Jerez and Luis de Torres had discovered natives of Cuba smoking tobacco in 1942 where de Jerez soon picked up the habit.  Unfortunately, when de Jerez showed off this new habit to his fellow Spaniards, people became so scared that he was imprisoned for seven years.


However, despite the initial resistance of some people to this plant, a great number of others had embraced it.  As those who had experience with the plant described tobacco’s proposed properties in a voluminous amount of books, the theorized medicinal potential of tobacco became known, and soon it was considered to be a “panacea”.  Tobacco was recommended for all kinds of maladies, from small ailments like headaches and toothaches to more serious problems such as dysentery and cancer.  In the Spanish doctor Nicholas Monardes’ book “De Hierba Panacea”, the first to be written about tobacco, he presents 36 medicinal uses of tobacco.  For any illness a person contracted, chances are tobacco was thought to be able to cure it at one point.  But with this early appreciation for tobacco also came discomfort of its safety.


While many people were enjoying the use of tobacco, others were beginning to think that it might not be as healthful as had once been thought.  Although at this time people generally did not contest the medicinal value of tobacco, some began to suspect that tobacco produced negative effects as well.  Some physicians, such as Tobias Venner, took notice of the fact that people began to develop a habit of using tobacco and that it had the potential of being dangerous.  But it was not until a few hundred years later, during the 1900’s, when people would become aware of the incredible dangers that were involved in smoking tobacco.  Until then, they would not know that tobacco was far from a “panacea”, but rather actively contributed to deaths of its multitude of users worldwide.


Introduction to Nicotine | A Brief History of Tobacco | Chemical Properties | Addiction | Toxicity | Tobacco and America | Tobacco and the Cinema | References

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