Tobacco: How a False Medicine Reached Europe From America

Updated on April 26, 2017
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh

Tobacco Reaches Europe

From a European perspective, the chief culprit for its introduction is generally held to be Sir Walter Raleigh (c.1554-1618). Although this is only part of the story, given that tobacco was in use in Europe long before Raleigh was even born. However, Raleigh, who had explored the southern part of North America that would eventually form the Dominion of Virginia, became acquainted with the tobacco plant and the uses to which it was put by the Native Americans. He certainly popularised its use in England.

The leaves of plants of the Nicotiana genus (the name comes from the Frenchman Jean Nicot who introduced tobacco to France in 1560) are hallucinogenic when dried and smoked in very high concentrations, and it is thought that this is the use to which tobacco was originally put by the priestly class of early Native Americans. Once in a tobacco-induced trance, they believed that they could communicate with the spirits of ancestors or gods.

Mayans and Aztecs

The Mayans of Central America are known to have used tobacco for recreational purposes during the height of their civilization around 900 CE. Stone carvings on temple and palace buildings show high-ranking Mayans enjoying their “smoking tubes.” They also used a form of snuff (tobacco dust that is sniffed up the nose), and tobacco leaves were also chewed as well as smoked.

The Aztecs who dominated Central America during the centuries before the Spanish conquest used tobacco for both recreational and ceremonial purposes. The drug was assigned its own goddess, Cihuacoatl, whose priests wore gourds that contained tobacco during ceremonies in which human sacrifices were performed. Again, the assumption is that tobacco was used to send the priests into a trance-like state during which they would carry out their grisly rituals.

The first Spaniards to arrive in the region noted the widespread use of tobacco, which was not limited to the privileged classes. Aztec banquets would start with smoking tubes being passed to the guests, and these would be given at the end of the meal to the servants and poor people in the vicinity, so that any unused tobacco was not wasted.

It is commonly thought that the cigarette is a modern invention, but these smoking tubes were a half-way house between pipes and cigarettes, in that they often consisted of combustible materials such as reeds that might be partially burnt during use and thus be reusable on at least one other occasion, as mentioned above. Cigars, consisting wholly of tobacco leaves, were also in use in Central and South America.

However, in North America, these forms of smoking arrived much later. European settlers, on making contact with Native Americans, were often invited to smoke a “pipe of peace,” and it is in this form that the idea of tobacco smoking originally crossed the Atlantic.

A Mayan priest smoking
A Mayan priest smoking

Supposed Medical Benefits

It is not difficult to see how the idea arose that tobacco had medical benefits. If someone was put into a trance by smoking tobacco, they would be far more relaxed and thus less likely to feel pain. Any pleasurable experience makes one “feel better,” even if the symptoms of one’s disease or discomfort have not been tackled. When the symptoms return the obvious answer is to take more of the “medicine” that alleviates them. Visitors from the Old World who succumbed to a tropical disease might be persuaded to try tobacco and take a supply home with them so that they could continue with what they supposed was the cure.

Given the highly addictive nature of nicotine, which is the chief active ingredient in tobacco, it is clear that there would be another reason why a returned traveller would want to ensure a constant supply of the leaves, not only for himself but also for his friends and family who had also been induced to try the wonder drug from the New World. It is little wonder that, once discovered, tobacco use spread around the world with great rapidity, even before the aggressive marketing of tobacco companies got to work to force their poisonous wares on to unsuspecting millions of people in both the developed and developing world.

One of the great tragedies of the modern world, namely the massive toll of tobacco-related illnesses and deaths, was therefore imported under false pretences from people in the Americas who had as little idea of the harm they were causing themselves as would smokers across the world for centuries afterwards.

The Pipe of Peace shared between Massasoit and Governor John Carver in 1621
The Pipe of Peace shared between Massasoit and Governor John Carver in 1621

Questions & Answers

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      • CatherineGiordano profile image

        Catherine Giordano 13 months ago from Orlando Florida

        I have never smoked and I have always had negative views of tobacco use. I was unaware of the early history of tobacco. You have done a great job explaining these little known facts.

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