Forests, prairies and deserts, rivers and lakes, hills, mountains and plains; herds of wild animals and proud, red-skinned men: this was how the first European settlers saw North America. However, there was an expanse of that vast continent beyond the trees which the Indians themselves avoided venturing into, amidst the moss and lichen of the stark tundra, as there they would never find material to build their canoes, arms, tools and tepees. Their relations with the Native Inuits and Yupiks, who persisted in staying on in such a hostile place, were as cold as the frost-moulded landscape. Thus, there was no exchange of pipes between the Native Indians and Inuis and Yupiks, although the latter discovered tobacco, nevertheless. At a certain point during the seventeenth century in the western area of upper Northern America pipes made their appearance, which were different from those crafted by the Indians, as they had smaller bowls made for a few puffs of strong tobacco. But who had brought them there? Ruling out the Native Indians, the only other possible tribes were the Chukchi people, who got along well with the Inuits and Yupiks and lived from fishing and reindeer herding on the Chukotka peninsula across the Bering Strait. The Chukchi crafted pipes with small bowls, and in order to trade with their American neighbours, crossed the frozen Strait on foot in winter, and in a leather canoe in summer. The Chukchi had discovered pipes through the Tunguse tribes who hunted in the forests north of the Amur river, who in turn had learnt the art of smoking from the Mongolians and Chinese. The Chinese had adopted the habit through the Europeans, and of course, we know the Europeans were influenced by the Native Indians. To come full circle we can add that whalers and European visitors brought the Inuits pipes with larger. However, the Yukon tribes learnt the art from the Inuits: the European invasion had brought these two different peoples closer together, both Native Americans.
By the mid-seventeenth century tobacco and smoking had become a world-wide habit. Just as they had developed and spread in Europe in various stages, so did they extend to the rest of the world in the same period, perhaps in a more complex manner. The Europeans had sown the seed outside Europe and the local inhabitants had done the rest in a series of actions driven by tobacco’s increasing success.
Indeed, from the early 1500s onwards tobacco and the accessories used to smoke it travelled on ships together with those seamen, traders, and adventurers who had discovered and appreciated this practice in America or in some European port or elsewhere. It is reasonable to believe that the strange spectacle of a man smoking a pipe, which aroused suspicion, alarm and curiosity, was not limited to Italian, Spanish, or French maritime cities when the whole of the Mediterranean was dotted with ports and busy trade, which despite sporadic wars continued, and some traders must have smoked, observed by people who then may have been tempted to try this new practice. Thus, tobacco and smoking swiftly spread.
Wondering whether it was a Venetian, Englishman or Turk who first tried tobacco in Istanbul, Tripoli or Famagusta is not really relevant. However, it was certainly the Portuguese who first spread the habit over half the globe. In fact, from the 1430s onwards under Henry of Portugal, known as the “Navigator”, the Portuguese had pursued a policy of exploration and expansion, sailing along the Western African coast, going south to unknown lands. By 1497 they had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope, by the turn of the century they had sailed to India and also accidentally discovered Brazil. In 1512 spice trading was set up with the Spice Islands (Moluccas), in 1543 they reached Japan, by 1557 they had a solid trade port on the Island of Macao, and in 1571 another trading port was set up in Nagasaki. For the record, the survivors of Roanoke reached Portsmouth only in 1586. Meanwhile, the Portuguese had colonized the Cape Verde Islands, and used them as a trading centre for African slaves sent to America. It is known that from the early 1500s tobacco was present in the settlements along the Indian trading route, and was also there on the ships. It is highly likely that in the ports along the routes there were people who were curious, took up smoking, were highly satisfied and then passed on the habit. However, as in Europe, the practice was nevertheless limited, and it would take time and the right conditions for the habit to spread. In Africa, however, the custom may have spread more quickly.
Ignoble but lucrative, the slave trade was run by the Portuguese who were the middle men between the slave hunters and ships that arrived ready to be loaded with human merchandise. The various African tribes were subject to this trafficking. Some of the slaves remained in Africa, along the coast with the slave hunters and the Portuguese themselves who used them on site for all strenuous work. Tobacco had been circulating since the early 1500s, but this gradually increased as cargoes from the Brazilian plantations arrived. The Portuguese smoked, as did the slave hunters who were often paid in tobacco, and the slaves themselves smoked, who often escaped, and thus brought home this new habit. In such a continent as Africa, where other substances had already been smoked, it is easy to believe that the aromatic plant spread there more quickly and earlier than in Europe, although, as in Europe the plant would be established only in the early 1600s as in other parts of the world.
What was the cause of this delay? Like a virus, tobacco use required a long period of incubation. Through trial and error, the first curious users that gradually adopted the habit experimented with various techniques and rituals, in order to convince the more diffident people, who were suspicious of any new, strange practices coming from a completely different culture, that the practice was normal. Thus, if the English considered the inhabitants of the New World to be “savages”, who represented “transgression and unbridled freedom”, the subjects of the Sublime Porte, of the Sultan, the Shah, the Maharaja, the Celestial Empire and the Shogun considered Europeans to be “barbarians”, who threatened to contaminate their world. The Moslems called them “Ahl al-Kitab”, People of the Book, while the Japanese used the term “Namban", Southern Barbarians. The only way to introduce tobacco into ancient, proud civilizations was to slowly spread it in limited circles, such as ports, where traders, merchants and seamen mingled together, breaking down social barriers; or else between traders and influential people who could grant them contracts, permits and monopolies. The introduction of tobacco into the upper echelons of society was the most effective means to legitimize tobacco use and make it socially acceptable. The new product’s integration was also promoted through public debate between experts and eminent people. Sometimes the issue caused much heated debate, thus drawing attention to tobacco and arousing even more curiosity in the process. However, in order to spread tobacco, one essential thing was needed: tobacco itself. At a local level a network of traders was needed in order to provide this magnificent weed and the accessories to smoke it, while in the countries of production the plantations had to be expanded in order to satisfy increasing demand. At the same time, increase in supply meant further market expansion through local agents, who would seek fresh clients. Thus, a chain reaction that was initially slow and hardly visible.
Turning to the Pacific Ocean, in around 1570 the Spanish settled on an archipelago in Southeast Asia which they called the Philippines, in honour of King Philip II of Spain. Ten years later, taking advantage of the Portuguese succession crisis of 1580 to assert his claim to the Portuguese throne, King Philip II invaded the Philippines and added them to the Spanish empire, thus throwing the balance of power into chaos. Portugal’s vast trading empire and in particular its monopoly of the Indian trading routes rapidly declined, as its colonies were subject to invasion by the Dutch, English, Spanish and other countries. Indeed, the first Dutch ship rounded the Caper of Good Hope in 1595, and subsequently the powerful Dutch East India Company was set up in 1602, following the establishment of the English East India Company in 1600. Thus, in a few decades what had been a fairly balanced situation rapidly turned into a climate of intense competition between the European countries in order to secure important trade routes and posts, and the Mediterranean was one of the areas of conflict. It was at this time that the tobacco trade accelerated in Europe, Asia and Africa. America had already been doing business for some time, and Australia was yet to be discovered.
The seventeenth century proved to be a major turning point for tobacco consumption, as revealed by various events. For example, in 1595 the Portuguese carried cargoes of tobacco from Macao to India, to Java in 1600 and Japan in 1605. During that time tobacco farming was present in India, Java, the Philippines, Japan, China, and East Africa. Pipes and tobacco were observed in China, Japan, Persia and India. In 1601 the Ottoman Empire had tobacco, which was probably introduced by the English, as in Persia, but the Portuguese and Arabs were also trading there, crossing the Persian Gulf. Similarly, in the same period tobacco consumption increased in Africa, as well as in China, India, Japan, the Japanese then exporting tobacco to Korea. It is suggested that the first tobacco in China was not introduced by the Portuguese or Spanish, but by the Chinese themselves, as intrepid seamen from Fujian had been sailing to the Philippines for centuries, especially the Island of Luzon. During Spanish rule there the Chinese took advantage of the tobacco trade and brought home tobacco leaves and seeds. The Chinese were also responsible for spreading tobacco along the coast on junks, or in caravans heading for Mongolia, Turkistan, Tibet and Siberia. We could go on, but it is best to stop here as it is impossible to provide a complete picture of all the routes that were taken in this complex, sensational, peaceful invasion. One date is important, however: 1614, when the first cargoes of tobacco arrived in London from Virginia.
Thus, tobacco had spread everywhere. In Africa its use extended to social events such as weddings and religious rites. In Japan it was included in the traditional tea ceremony. In Turkey it took hold to the extent that it gave rise to the saying “he smokes like a Turk”. Tobacco, the seductive weed that managed to make social barriers fall, conquered everyone. or almost everyone. It was cause for alarm and was subject to drastic banns as it was thought to challenge social order and authority. But despite all these attempts to halt the spread of the “vile weed”, tobacco still spread swiftly.
In a short time all the cultures that had been initially adverse to the substance soon had to incorporate it in their traditions and customs. In some areas, as medicinal herbs and other substances had previously been used the magic plant seemed to be the perfect substitute. The accessories to smoke it also gradually changed, taking on various forms according to the taste, materials, traditions and technologies of the different contexts, to the extent that sometimes they were so different as to be barely recognized by Europeans.