Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Introduction of Tobacco to England

By Jordan Baker

Europe Meets Tobacco
Tobacco had been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. By the time Columbus stumbled into the New World, cultures from Canada to the Carribean and Mesoamerica grew and used tobacco in various aspects of life. Indeed, on his first voyage to the Carribean Columbus noted how the people used “burning coals in order to make fire with which to burn certain performed herbs that they had with them.” [1]

As the Spanish and Portuguese became the dominant European forces in the early stages of American colonization, their colonists quickly learned to love tobacco. Convinced that it had benefits for their health, Europeans began cultivating tobacco at home and across the Atlantic in their new colonies. As Europeans got hooked, tobacco began appearing in ports in France, Spain, and Portugal in the 1550s.

Image credit HERE

Tobacco Comes to England
England was the late comer to the game. Tobacco didn’t arrive on the island until 1565. And while many have attributed Sir Walter Raleigh and his Roanoke colonies with introducing the brown leaf to England, it's more likely that the infamous pirate/privateer, Sir Francis Drake, was the first to bring tobacco to Elizabeth’s realm. [2]

As Spanish ships made their way from Mexico and the Carribean to the main port at Seville, which, in 1614, Spain proclaimed the tobacco capital of the world, English privateers happily relieved them of their load. [3]

English sailors also participated in an illicit trade centered out of the Carribean. Spanish colonists grew their own personal crops on several different islands in the region and proved more than willing to trade with sailors from other kingdoms. In 1607, the Spanish governor of the island of Cumaná wrote King Philip III himself, warning his monarch about the tobacco trade on nearby Trindad. “English and Dutch ships are never lacking there,” he said; in a time when empires commonly sought monopolies over the trade with their colonies, this must have been unwelcome news. [4]

No matter how tobacco made it to England, it quickly became a hit. One reason is that it was widely considered good for one’s health. One English writer named William Barclay extolled the virtues of tobacco, claiming it to be “one of the best & surest remedies in the world against Paralisie, epilepsie or apoplexie, that is, that falling ill, & Vertigo Idiopathica, the passion of dizzines in the head by wind, that ever was found out.” Which, to Barlcay’s mind, made tobacco the cure for “foure of the most incurable diseases that besiege the braine of man.” [5]

A Counterblaste from King James I
Not everyone fell in love with tobacco, however. Perhaps the most notable nay-sayer was the king of England himself, James I. Denouncing tobacco as a “noxious weed” James penned an anti-tobacco treatise called “A Counterblaste to Tobacco.” [6] Written in 1604, the Counterblaste leveled two basic arguments against the use of tobacco: it originated among Native American cultures and was thus “barbarous”; and it was not, in fact, good for one’s health.

James I & VI - Image credit HERE

James’s first argument was based in the imperial mindset of Europeans at the time. Across the continent, people felt superior to the cultures they had found when they entered the New World. Whether or not James actually thought this way about the Indigenous nations of the Americas, he attempted to use this mindset to his advantage. In the Counterblaste, James asked his kingdom, “shall wee… that have bene so long civil and wealthy in peace, famous and invincible in Warre, fortunate in both, we that have bene ever able to aide any of our neighbors (but never deafed any of their eares with any of our supplications for assistance) shall we, I say, without blushing abase our selves so farre, as to imitate these beastly Indians, slaves of the Spaniards, refuse to the world....” [7]

In essence, James wanted his subjects to think of England as the epitome of culture, and the Indigenous nations of the New World as the epitome of uncultured. And thus, anything that came from these Indigenous nations as uncultured and barbarous - including tobacco.

The crux of James’s next series of arguments, though based in what has borne out to be incorrect science, was actually, in essence, true. Unlike many, James saw smoking tobacco as an unhealthy habit. The cutting edge science of the time stated that “because the braines are colde and moist… things that are hote and drie are best for them…” such as breathing in the warm smoke created by burning tobacco. [8] To counter this, James essentially stated that if brains are cold and moist, that’s the way they’re meant to be. The warm smoke of tobacco, then, would have a harmful effect.

James also sought to dispel the notion that “by the taking of Tobacco divers and very many doe finde themselves cured of divers diseases…” For James, if people recovered from an illness after smoking tobacco it was mere coincidence. In fact, he insisted that tobacco was more likely to kill you than to make you better. To prove his point, he compared tobacco to a more well known substance, alcohol. “If a man smokes himself to death with [tobacco] (and many have done) O then some other disease must beare the blame for that fault... And so doe olde drunkards thinke they prolong their dayes, by their swinelike diet, but never remember howe many die drowned in drinke before they be halfe olde.” [9]

In this near 5,000 word essay, James continued to lambast tobacco and its users. And even though he attempted to back up his rhetoric with action by instituting a high tax rate on tobacco, the popularity of the “noxious weed” continued to grow.

Tobacco’s Staying Power
Eventually James I gave up his anti-tobacco stance and embraced the new crop. Tobacco had become too popular, even by 1604, to be done in by words and taxes. Every level of the English social hierarchy enjoyed it for both leisure and medicinal use. Even James’s predecessor, Elizabeth I, had tried smoking a pipe at the behest of her favorite courtier, Sir Walter Raleigh. [10]

Cultivation of tobacco at Jamestown - Image credit HERE

Another huge reason for tobacco’s staying power in England was the sheer economic benefit the crop brought the burgeoning empire. In 1609, Jamestown reaped its first successful tobacco harvest; by 1614 it was sending its first shipment of tobacco to England. Tobacco quickly became a gold mine, earning the crop the nickname ‘brown gold.’ Indeed, the English hoped a tobacco exporting colony would do for them what the mines of Peru and Mexico had done for Spain. By 1638, Virginia was sending 3,000,000 pounds of tobacco a year back home to England. [11]

As the amount of tobacco Virginia produced and exported continued to climb throughout the seventeenth-century, England’s wealth increased and tobacco’s popularity continued to grow, cementing the crop’s place in English society.


1. Peter C. Mancall, “Tales Tobacco Told in Sixteenth-Century Europe,” Environmental History, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Oct., 2004): 651. Accessed via
2. Mike Davey, “Trade from the 15th to the 17th Centuries,”
3. Ibid
4. Melissa N. Morris, “Spanish and Indigenous Influences on Virginian Tobacco Cultivation,” Atlantic Environments and the American South ed. Thomas Blake Earl and D. Andrew Johnson Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020), 163-164. Accessed via Google Books.
5. Mancall, “Tales Tobacco Told in Sixteenth-Century Europe,” 660.
6. “King James I, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, 1604,”
7. King James I of England, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, accessed via
8. Ibid
9. Ibid
10. “King James I, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, 1604,”
11. Ben Johnson, “Introduction to Tobacco in England,”


Jordan Baker received his BA and MA in History from North Carolina State University. A lover of all things historical, he concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World. He also blogs about history at

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