Gateway to the Classics: Field, Forest, and Farm by Jean Henri Fabre
Field, Forest, and Farm by  Jean Henri Fabre

The History of Tobacco

Before taking the form of the powder which the user of snuff pushes up into his nose to tickle his nostrils and promote sneezing, before being rolled into the cigar or reduced to that crisp, moss-like substance which the smoker stuffs into his pipe, tobacco has had a previous existence as a plant bearing this same name. A stalk about one meter in height, large, clammy leaves of a strong odor, bright red flowers each shaped like a narrow funnel and expanding into the five points of a star at the orifice, dry capsules filled with innumerable little seeds—there you have the tobacco plant.


Tobacco Plant

"Only the leaves are used, and these only after undergoing certain processes that intensify their natural properties and cause them to lose their green color. Rolled into compact little cylinders, they become cigars; cut very fine, they take the form of smoking tobacco. Reduced to powder, they furnish what is known as snuff.

"America, the same land to which we owe the potato, also gave us tobacco. When, almost four centuries ago, Christopher Columbus discovered the new world, one of the first landings he made was on the large island of Cuba. Apprehensive of danger in the forests from the savage tribes on every side, Columbus sent scouts ahead to reconnoitre the country.

"The sailors forming this party encountered on the way, to their extreme surprise, numerous Indians, both men and women, holding each a sort of lighted fire-brand between the teeth and inhaling the smoke. These fire-brands, called 'tabagos,' were made of a plant rolled up in a dry leaf. There, then, were the first smokers and the first cigars recorded in history.

"The natives of Cuba and the neighboring islands had, we infer, been addicted to smoking for a long time, probably for centuries, when the Europeans first appeared among them. They had their rolls of dry leaves, or tabagos, and their smoking appliances of soft stone or baked clay, appliances called by us 'pipes' and by them 'calumets.' Tobacco, in fact, played a prominent part in their medicine, their superstitious observances, and their political assemblies.

"Consulted as to future events, the soothsayer first of all inhaled the smoke of several tabagos, while the other persons present, seated in a circle, vied with one another in the energy of their smoking, their ultimate object being to enwrap themselves in a dense cloud. Then from the midst of this cloud the soothsayer, his imagination wrought to a high pitch by the fumes of the tobacco, delivered his oracles in unwonted terms that made the hearers believe they were listening to the voice of God.

"A like ceremony was observed in the assemblies held for discussing public affairs. Seated on a stone and inhaling the smoke from his calumet, the orator who was about to take the floor waited in passive silence while the chiefs of the nation approached him, one at a time, to blow into his face plenteous puffs from their pipes and to commend to him the interests of the tribe. These fumigations concluded, the orator abandoned himself to his eloquence amid the enthusiastic acclaim of the assembly.

"Seeing the islanders smoking, Columbus's companions wished to try this singular custom for themselves. To the gratification of this desire the Indian lent his ready assistance: he showed them how the tabago is rolled, and how the calumet is filled and lighted. Though history is silent on the subject, it is clear that the first sailor to undertake the inhalation must have been seized with that fearful nausea which no novice in smoking can escape. A stomach of any delicacy would have been forever repelled; the harsh gullet of the mariner found a certain charm in the thing when once the trying experiences of initiation were over.

"The taste for smoking was so soon acquired that, on their return to Spain, the companions of Columbus very quickly extended this Indian custom in their own country. Before long, too, there was discovered a new way to use tobacco: some one conceived the idea of reducing the leaf to a dry powder and stuffing it into the nostrils, sniffing with each pinch of the powdered substance. The Indian had discovered smoking tobacco; the European in his turn invented snuff.

"Spain and Portugal numbered their smokers and snuff-takers by the thousand when, in 1560, tobacco made its first appearance in France. Nicot, French ambassador at Lisbon, sent as an object of curiosity to his sovereign queen, Catherine de Médicis, some seeds of the fashionable plant and a box of tobacco in powdered form. Charmed with this gift, the queen quickly contracted the habit of taking snuff. To please her, tobacco was cultivated, and snuff-takers soon became numerous in all the provinces. It was said that a certain great personage of the period took as much as three ounces daily. He certainly must have had his nose well tanned.

"From one nation to another the use of tobacco gradually spread, but not without serious opposition. The Turks are to-day passionately addicted to smoking, extremely fond of their long pipes; yet hear what sort of a reception they at first gave to tobacco. Against smokers and snuff-takers their emperor, Amurat, issued an edict severe to the point of cruelty. Every delinquent was condemned to receive fifty strokes with the rod on the soles of his feet."

"That ought to have driven tobacco out of the country in short order," remarked Jules.

"That was merely a warning to first offenders," returned his uncle. "For a second offense the luckless person caught in the act had his nose cut off. It was a radical measure to discourage the snuff-taker: no more nose, no more snuff. But the smokers, after this horrible mutilation, persisted in their smoking.

"A king of Persia devised what he thought would cure even this habit: every one caught with a pipe in his mouth had his upper lip cut off. At the same time, of course, every nose proved guilty of snuff-taking fell under the executioner's knife. But the atrocious edict of the Persian king proved as futile as that of the Turkish emperor. Despite all the noses struck off, all the lips cut away, all the feet made to tingle under the rod, the use of tobacco still continued to spread. These fruitless severities had to be abandoned.

"Other regulations sprang up here and there, less cruel, but sufficiently fruitful in fines, imprisonments, vexations of all sorts. Still nothing was of any avail; smokers and snuff-takers remained incorrigible. Finally, taking wiser counsel, the government authorities conceived a plan for making this passion, which no severity had been able to subdue, yield them large revenues. The government itself became exclusive vender of the very article it had at first proscribed with such rigor. France alone derives a yearly revenue of almost three hundred million francs from the sale of tobacco."

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