Tuesday, December 24, 2013

1492: Columbus discovers tobacco

Effigy Pipe similar to what Columbus may have seen (4)
It's 1492 and Christopher sets off on a journey across the Atlantic seeking the Indies, China and gold to take back to the king.  He was promised a 10 percent profit, and fame.  While he obtained the fame, he did so by discovering tobacco for the Old World, not by finding any gold or other riches.  

He was introduced to dried leaves that he later learned were tobacco leaves.  And he later learned what the natives, of whom he referred to as the Indios because he believed he was in the Indonesian Islands, (2, page 4) were using the tobacco leaves.  When he and his men were first introduced to the leaves they had no idea what they were, nor what to do with them, and basically cast them away to the dismay of the American Natives  (1, page 16). 

A few months into his journey, now convinced he was in China, he set two of his men -- Luis De Torres and Rodrigo de Xerex -- off on a journey to meet the Great Khan.  They never found the Khan because they were not in China.  What the two men did find was later recounted by Spanish writer Bartoleme de las Casas: (2, page 16)  
"The two Christians met many men and women who were carrying glowing coals in their hands, as well as good smelling herbs. They were dried plants, like small muskets made of paper that children play with during the Easter festivities.  They set one end on fire and inhaled and drank the smoke in the other.  It is said that in this way they become sleepy and drunk, but also they got rid of their tiredness.  The people called these small muskets tobacco."
In this way, even while they weren't aware of it, Christopher Columbus introduced the Old World to tobacco, and the inhalation of tobacco.  Although in his journal the night Torres and Xerex returned from their journey, Columbus merely marked the events off as trivial, writing:  (2, page 18)
"My two people met many people crossing their path to reach their villages, men and women, carrying in their hand a burning brand and burning herbs which they use to produce fragrant smoke."
It's possible by writing "fragrant smoke," Columbus was referring to the use of smoke in Europe mainly as a means of producing good smells.  It's also possible the men explained the natives blowing the smoke in their faces, which may have been a showing of respect to the men of whom they believed were gods.  (2, page 18)

On many occasions Columbus mentions the natives standing around watching them and smoking the leaves of tobacco with their muskets.  Yet there is no mention of whether or not Columbus brought any of the stuff back with him to Spain.  But Rodrego de Xerex stuffed some tobacco into his pockets, made his own musket for smoking it, and became addicted.

As a side story here, Xerex was seen smoking by the Spaniards, who believed he was smoking because he came back cursed.  He was stripped of his riches and thrown into jail.  Yet it wouldn't be long after the death of Columbus that more Europeans would become addicted to tobacco

Others set sail to the New World.  Amerigo Vespucci is mainly known as the first person to describe American Natives chewing tobacco.  Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernandz de Oviedo y Valdes later described from Haiti:
"The caciques, or principle men, have hollow sticks about a span long less than the thickness of the smallest finger.  These tubes have two channels, merging into one.  And these they put into their nostrils and the other end in the smoke of the burning herb …. And they breathe in the smoke, once, twice, thrice, or as often as they can, until they lose their senses, and for a great space they lie stretched out on the ground without intelligence and stupefied as in a dream.  It is to this instrument with which they inhale the smoke that the Indians gave the name tobacco and not to the herb or the resulting stupor, as some have believed.” (3, 4)
Another method described of inhaling tobacco smoke was by inhaling it:  "The smoker would use a hollow, Y-shaped cane, similar in appearance to a slingshot but not as wide across the top.  He would pack the top ends into his nostril and place the bottom at the tip of his musket, breathing in the smoke through this device, working up a holy buzz."  (1, page 17)

Throughout the 16th century various native tribes in both South and North America were observed inhaling the smoke of tobacco via pipes.  Joseph C. Winter, in his book "Tobacco use by Native North Americans," explains that in 1518 tobacco seeds made their way back to Spain, and soon thereafter tobacco was "rapidly taken around the world." (5, page 3)

Winter explains that tobacco is among the genus Nicotiana, "which along with 95 other genera, belongs to the Solanaccaea family of plants.  This large and important family has given humanity dozens of useful plants in addition to tobacco, such as potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, eggplants, petunias, jimsonweed, henbane, mandrake, beladonna, and many other edible fruits, vegetables and tubers, as well as ornamentals, drugs, and medicinal plants." (5, page 3)

He also explains that tobacco is indiginous to both South and North America, and that it was "probably domesticated many thousands of years ago in South America, then slowly carried north from one Indian campsite to another through Central America and Mexico all the way to the eastern woodlands of North America, where it arrived by about A.D. 160.  It appears to have been introduced into the southwestern United States by A.D 720, if not earlier.  Seeds of what is probably this very important species have been discovered througout the eastern woodlands, as well as in the U.S., Southwest and Mexico.  It is mainly smoked in pipes and cornhusk cigarettes." (5, page 4)

By 1545 Iroquois tribes were observed smoking tobacco pipes.  (5, page 2)  Virgil J. Vogul notes that the "Menominees inhaled tobacco smoke to induce a narcotic state.  The blowing of tobacco smoke into the ear for earache was reported in this century among the Chickahominys, the Mohegans, and the Malecites... Louisiana Choctaws blew tobacco smoke on snakebites."  (2, page 380-385)

Various tribes throughout the Americas participated in smoking rituals, some of which involved in passing the pipe (carved out of either stone or wood) from warrior to warrior as a peace offering.  There is no knowledge as to when tobacco was first inhaled in the Americas, and therefore no proof that native Americans were the first to inhale smoke from an pipe, which, for all practical purposes, is an inhaler. (6, page (380-385)

Winter also notes that Jimsonweed and other relatives of the datura family of plants were also smoked by various tribes, producing a hallucinogenic effect, although tobacco continued to be the most common plant smoked in the Americas.  (3, page 31)  Some Americans recognized, as had the ancient Egyptians and natives of India, that these agents also have a mild bronchodilating effect, working well for people with breathing difficulties, such as asthma. 

Regardless, this was how the inhalation of smoke made its way from the Americas to Europe.  It wouldn't be until the 18th century that inhalation of medicinal smoke would be introduced from India to Europe and America.

  1. Burns, Eric, "The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco," 
  2. Davis, Kenneth C., "Don't Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition: Everything You Need To Know About American History But Never Learned," 2011, New York, Harper Collins
  3. Castiglioni, Arturo, Ciba Pharmaceutical Products, Inc., "Tobacco: Volume 4," 1943, 31 pages (need better reference), also this quote can be found on reference #4 below (jimmausartifacts.com)
  4. Maus, Jim, "An Extraordinary NC Raven Effigy Pipe," jimmausartifacts.com, http://www.jimmausartifacts.com/nc-raven-effigy-pipe/, accessed 9/22/12
  5. Winter, Joseph C., "Tobacco use by Native North Americans," Joseph C. Winter, editor, 2000, The University of Oklahoma Press
  6. Vogel, Virgil J., "American Indian Medicine," 1970, London, Oklahoma University Press

1 comment:

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