Man and money  …the birth of tobacco growing


IN May of 1607, Smythe’s ships arrived in Chesapeake Bay, but not with the original complement of settlers.

Some of the colonists who had begun the voyage with high hopes had second thoughts, and left the ships when they stopped for supplies.

Others died aboard.

Those who remained pitched tents along the James River and established the colony of Jamestown.

Soon they fell out with the natives, were beset with disease, and quarrelled among themselves.  The ships sailed back to England in early July.

Upon their return the following January, only 40 haggard settlers were there to greet them.

The venture seemed an unqualified failure.

The London Company decided, nevertheless, to continue the settlement for a while longer. Supplies were sent and additional settler-colonists were induced to undertake the voyage.  Most importantly, Captain John Smith, a boastful, arrogant, yet charismatic veteran of several European conflicts, took command at Jamestown.

Captain John Smith’s 1612 map of the Chesapeake Bay region.

Smith negotiated successfully with the natives, established several new towns and streamlined the structure of Jamestown.

In addition, he encouraged the pioneers to work by granting them a direct share of their production instead of having everyone draw from the common store.

With that, production improved sharply, and Jamestown took a turn for the better.

In the summer of 1609, some 500 additional colonists arrived and the settlement seemed on the verge of success.

The search for a north-west passage had been abandoned, as had hopes of finding precious metals.

Instead, Jamestown had become a thriving settlement of small landholders, sustaining itself by agriculture and trade with the natives and returning some small profits to the London investors.

The most important event in Virginia’s early history was the introduction of tobacco.

According to tradition, John Rolfe brought tobacco to Virginia in 1611 or 1612, and from there it was taken to Maryland.

At the time, the Jamestown settlement was still struggling and tobacco provided it with a much needed cash crop.

Farmers throughout the Virginia settlement now turned to tobacco, and soon the colony was economically viable.

Maryland, too, became an important tobacco grower, and attempts to cultivate the crop in North Carolina also proved successful.

But early efforts to plant tobacco north of Maryland ended in failure.

In 1613, the first shipment of Virginia tobacco to London took place.

Within three years, it had become the colony’s chief export.

Queen Elizabeth I recognised the commercial potential of tobacco.

It was an expensive indulgence and a highly profitable one as well.

In the early 17th Century, tobacco was sold for its weight in silver. This encouraged tobacco growing, exportation and taxation.

It was evident from the first that the Virginians had found a cash crop that would enable them to obtain much needed imports, and England would free itself from dependence for tobacco on the Spaniards.

King James, who opposed the use of tobacco, acted on his belief by imposing a tariff of 4 000 percent on tobacco.

But this had little effect, due largely to smuggling.

By the early 17th Century, the smoking and chewing of tobacco was prevalent in most parts of Europe.

By 1614, there were some 7 000 London establishments where one might purchase tobacco, and England came to realise that tobacco might become their version of Spanish gold!

By 1614, the Virginia tobacco was believed every bit as good as that grown in Trinidad, known at the time for the high quality of its leaf.

By 1615-1616, Virginia’s tobacco planters were able to export 2 500 pounds of tobacco, of which all but 200 pounds went to England.

With that, production improved sharply and Jamestown took a turn for the better.

In this same period, 58 300 pounds of tobacco were sent to England from Spain.

The drainage of species from England to Spain remained a matter of grave concern.

In 1620, the House of Commons unanimously declared “…that the importation of Spanish tobacco is one of the causes of the want of money within the kingdom”.  

The following year, as the supply of Virginia tobacco increased, Parliament opted to end importation of Spanish tobacco, which, by then, took 60 000 pounds sterling out of England.

In that year, England passed a law that all but completely prohibited the importation of tobacco from foreign countries.

Meanwhile, the fact that Europeans had taken to tobacco led to large-scale imports from the Caribbean plantations.

Attempts were made to grow tobacco in northern Europe, but due to climate and soil, these early efforts failed to produce a satisfactory leaf.

Belgium experimented with plantings in 1554, France in 1556, the Germanies in1559, the Netherlands in 1561 and England in 1570.

By 1700, tobacco was cultivated or used in western Europe, Italy, Russia, Persia, India, Japan as well as North and West Africa.

The only way Europeans could obtain satisfactory supplies of tobacco at this time meant England had to take Virginia seriously as a source of wealth.

Virginia, envisaged as a gold mining and exploring colony and later as a place for homesteaders, now became a colony of small landholders, each family performing its own labours.

Tobacco farming required large bands of field workers supervised by an overseer.

Englishmen who agreed to become indentured servants and work in the fields were transported to Virginia and Maryland and served from two to seven years, after which they would be freed and given their own land.  Demand still far exceeded supply. Nevertheless, for many years, the majority of tobacco plantation workers were European.

By 1619, another source of labour was made available.  That year a Dutch frigate landed in Jamestown and unloaded, as part of its cargo, 20 Africans.

Most of them, and others who followed, worked in the tobacco fields.

This was how slavery was introduced into North America. But the English were not about to permit the Dutch to control the lucrative slave trade with Virginia.

The previous year, King James had granted a monopoly in the commerce between Africa and the American colonies to a group of London merchants who organised the Company of Adventurers of London Trading into parts of Africa.

By then, the Dutch grip on the trade was such that the English share was comparatively small.

Tobacco growers accepted slaves reluctantly.

Indentured servants were less expensive. Slaves had to be purchased, and when they died, the planters suffered an economic loss, while none accompanied the death of an indentured servant.

Then, too, the Europeans came voluntarily, the slaves against their wills, and so one might presume the former would be more docile and work more willingly. In time, these attitudes changed.

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.  

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