The Birth of a State and Tobacco
London in 1609 was buzzing. Most of the population of around 230,000 inhabitants lived in the squalid medieval districts, while the privileged few led their social life in elegant homes. Trade was thriving and at the Globe Theatre Shakespeare’s plays were being performed. Church pulpits, pamphlets, court and Parliament speeches, town criers and street posters all issued the same message: Virginia was the place to invest in, the Promised Land overseas for those who wanted to change their lives.
Greatly strengthened following its victory in its war against Spain, the United Kingdom was ready to expand further in the New World, in North America. The Spanish and Portuguese were already firmly settled, whereas the British had had up till then failed to put down roots, from the first colony in Virginia on the island of Roanoke abandoned in 1586 on one of Francis Drake’s ships, to the second attempt in the same place (1587), which resulted in a second failure when the settlers vanished into thin air.
It was only in 1607 that around one hundred men finally settled in Virginia, but conditions were harsh, and further capital and men were needed to bolster the colony. These were sought by the Virginia Company, a private company chartered by the king.
Unlike the Spanish, whose colonial activities were directly supervised by the Crown, the London merchants and craftsmen preferred to pursue their missions in the spirit of entrepreneurship, and they were self-funded, so that any profits would then benefit the home country. They believed that the discovery of a passage through the American continent, to the true India, would have transformed the enterprise into an even greater lucrative enterprise.
Thus, with these goals in mind the Virginia Company was established in 1606. The area called “Virginia”, named after the deceased “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I, at that time included the whole of the whole of the east coast north of present-day Florida. Thanks to numerous subscriptions and enrollments, in early June,1609 a fleet of nine ships with around 600 people on board set sail for America. On board the flagship, called the Sea Venture, was a 24-year-old man called John Rolfe descended from an old Norfolk family and pipe-lover, and his pregnant wife.
After seven weeks of sailing on what was by now a common crossing, the ships were caught in a violent hurricane that lasted three days, and the Sea Venture was separated from the other ships. It eventually drove onto the reef of an unknown island and was destroyed. However, all 150 members aboard the ship were saved, including the crew. The island was delightful – lush vegetation, fish, fowl and wild boars were bountiful and the climate was splendid. This event would later inspire Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. However, the castaways did not stay long enough to enjoy these delights. In eight months, using the salvaged bits of the original ship and timber found on the Island, two smaller vessels were built, and the members set sail again, leaving behind some men to colonize the archipelago known as Bermuda.
They headed West for the American continent, and then tacked until they reached the estuary of a river later called James after King James I. They sailed up the river for 60 miles until they reached a woody peninsula surrounded by the river and marshland on three sides where the fortified village of Jamestown was situated. Although it had been an excellent choice for military reasons, especially concerning the threat of Spanish invasion, from the point of view of actually living in that place it had proved to be the worst choice imaginable. The area was humid, full of putrid water, insects, and unfertile land that was surrounded by 20,000 unfriendly Algonquian Indians.
As the crew was mooring the ship, they expected to be welcomed by a thriving colony, at least the 450 people who had left for Jamestown and arrived in August, 1609, as well as those from previous expeditions. Imagine their surprise when they encountered only 60 survivors, some of whom were dying. All the others had died of disease, accidents, drought, famine, terrible winters and skirmishes with the local Indians.
So when everyone realized that the already meager rations would not feed the locals, let alone another 150 mouths, several weeks later in June, 1610, it was time to leave the village and return back overseas. They had just sailed down the River James for about ten miles when they stopped, as another vessel was sailing upriver headed by Lord De La Warr on board carrying fresh supplies, as he was to be the new Governor of Virginia. Nevertheless, despite this timely relief mission, the colony was still a disaster, a bottomless pit as far as energy and resources were concerned, and it became increasingly clear that finding men and investors would be a challenge, despite all efforts to launch lucrative enterprises in agriculture, minerals or craftwork, whether with the local natives or home country. However, they all came to nothing, and another idea had to be found.
During the voyage John Rolfe had first lost his newborn daughter in the Bahamas and then his wife in Jamestown, and he had nothing left but his beloved pipe, and even here there was a problem with the tobacco. It is true the Indians grew tobacco, but the quality was rough, being a plant with small yellow flowers, short, thick leaves and a sharp, aroma that was unappealing, in other words, Nicotiana Rustica. The Spanish quality smoked in London was far finer, but it was impossible to find it in Jamestown, unless Rolfe cultivated it himself, and this is what he did, with the help of a sailor that sailed the Caribbean and Trinidad. Despite the severe laws governing the sale of tobacco seeds to non-Spaniards, he managed to acquire a bag of seeds. The whole area was subject to piracy and smuggling, anyway, and it was impossible for the Spanish to monitor every activity.
Those seeds were only the beginning. The question was how to cultivate them and when, which plants were the most appropriate and how to plant them, which soil was best, how to treat the plants once they were growing and how to dry the leaves once they were ready. Rolfe was a businessman, not a farmer, and indeed early seventeenth century Europeans knew little more than the ancient Romans. Nevertheless, Rolfe was ingenious and determined. As early as 1612 he gave samples of his tobacco to his friends, who found it sweeter and stronger. He sent the rest to England where it was found to be of high quality (although not yet attaining Spanish standards) and was paid accordingly. However, the first real export occurred in 1614.
Matoaka was the daughter of Powhatan, supreme chief of all the local tribes. Relations with the English had been troubled from the very beginning but Matoaka, curious and unruly, had always found the intruders interesting and had even helped them on occasion. When she became a young woman she had even been kidnapped by the settlers during conflict with the leader, but she was treated well. It was during this time that she met John Rolfe and they fell in love, overcoming all obstacles and prejudice that such a relationship entailed. Matoaka, converted to Christianity and baptized as Rebecca, married John in 1614. It was a union based on mutual love and affection, but it also had practical diplomatic aspects. It was a bridge between two populations which meant eight years of peace. In 1616 Rolfe sailed to London with his wife, who was warmly welcomed, but unfortunately fell ill a few months later. She died on the way back to America. Rolfe had a boy by her and the memory of a woman who was “curious and unruly”, “Pocahontas” in Algonquin, which had been her nickname since she was a child. Rolfe died in 1622, probably during a massacre of the settlers, as the truce had ended with the death of Pocahontas. He had continued with his experiments in perfecting the tobacco, aided by the valuable Indian techniques that Matoaka had taught him.
Yet, things had already been changing for some years. When Captain Samuel Argall arrived in Jamestown in 1617 as the new Governor, he found the settlement semi-abandoned and in ruins, the streets and every available space growing tobacco, and the settlers spread out over the land, all cultivating tobacco. Rolfe had found the solution and everyone became involved and the colony could finally be self-sustaining. The challenging phases were certainly not over, but no-one thought of abandoning Virginia any longer. That year 20,000 pounds (around 10 tons) of tobacco were exported to England, and the following year double that amount, and twelve years on a million and a half pounds were exported. Selling a successful product meant acquiring tools, food, basic supplies and even cheap labour. Indeed, the first African slaves arrived in 1619, paid for directly in tobacco. The same “currency” was used to pay for women who were willing to marry a settler, adding to the increasingly frequent number of people seeking the promised land. The increasing wealth and growing number of settlements meant that society was becoming more complex and so started to introduce its own laws and representatives. When the Virginia Company was dissolved in 1624 and Virginia became a royal colony, the name no longer referred to a long and unspecified strip of coast, but to a precise, expanding region.
Tobacco crops required extensive land. Without fertilizers its cultivation used up all the essential nutritional elements in the soil. Already from the early 1600s people realized that it was necessary to add new settlements along the river in Jamestown. Even John Rolfe himself, in 1612 created a plantation thirty miles further up the river. As the tobacco crops gradually expanded and ate up the land, and the Indian threat diminished, the search was on to find other land, first along the coast and then in the hinterland, and finally even beyond the border of present-day Virginia. In only a few years tobacco had gone from an initially token activity of a small peninsula on a river to the flourishing crops and the stable ownership of vast areas of land.
The ever expanding crops resulted in different types of products, depending on the place and type of soil. Moreover, agricultural and processing techniques multiplied in a continuing search for improvement that produced and established a whole wealth of secrets and experience that not even John Rolfe could have imagined. However, the continuing rise of supplies meant that prices dropped radically, and many tried to reduce the quality as a result. Thus, controls were necessary, and from 1630 tobacco was stored in large depots, with two interesting consequences. The first was that any tobacco of inferior quality brought to the depot was destroyed, whereas if the quality was high the grower received a receipt that attested to its quantity and quality. These tobacco notes eventually became universal currency. The second was that the large tobacco depots that were spread out strategically throughout the region attracted a lot of settlers, thus growing into the villages and towns seen today in Virginia. On the other hand, Jamestown declined rapidly once the capital was transferred to Williamsburg in 1698, and a few years later it was already in ruins. Today its archaeological site can be visited.
Alongside tobacco cultivation and processing was developed a network of services: from quality control to transport to the ships and the numerous activities connected to this trade. In the long term it was the backbone of Virginia. The most powerful families were the plantation owners or traders. Many of these descended from Rolfe and Pocahontas, or else were indirectly related. For a long time tobacco was the main source of revenue for the state. The duties imposed on imports by Great Britain also guaranteed an important resource for the home country. However, at a certain point Britain had to do without. The duties, as well as the restrictions on exporting to other countries, became intolerable for the colonies, and as with tea, tobacco became another point of contention in the American revolution.
Still today, Virginia can include tobacco amongst its many resources. However, Virginia tobacco is no longer restricted geographically, being grown in different parts of the world, and it has become one of the most appealing types of tobacco, and not only for pipes.