I rather had the feeling with yesterday’s post that history had come to life a bit. I suddenly understood, or felt that I understood, what had been happening in 1630, nearly 400 years ago.
And it was that the newly arrived English colonists in Jamestown had learned the custom of smoking tobacco from the native American Indians (as had the Spanish before them in the Caribbean). And they had exported the custom back to England, where it had caught on like wildfire with the English middle classes (who were engaged in trade, and who could afford to buy it even when it was still relatively expensive).
It seems that for the native Indians, tobacco was regarded as a medicine. And as a medicine it was probably used fairly infrequently. And when it arrived in Europe, it was as a medicine to be used only occasionally. And European physicians adopted it as a new and useful medicine.
However, somehow or other, the practice of smoking tobacco seems to have lost its medicinal character, and become something that people simply enjoyed doing. We have this experience in the modern era with drugs like heroin, which also started life as pain-killing medicines, but were soon being used for pleasure. The same thing might be said of that other modern invention, the motor car, which originally had the purpose of carrying people from one place to another a little faster than in a horse and carriage, but was soon being used by people who were hooked on speed, and drove round and round in circles on racetracks at the highest speeds they possibly could. It may even be that musical instruments (e.g. drums) started out as useful devices (to synchronise the beat of the oars aboard triremes?), but soon started being used by people who simply enjoyed beating out increasingly complex rhythms on them, in the company of other drummers. It may also be that when potters started covering their wares with useful glazes (that prevented the pots absorbing liquids), some of them noticed that different coloured glazes could be used to create first patterns on them, and then entire pictures, and in this manner the graphic arts were created.
Whichever way, just like heroin or speed or drums or glazed pottery, tobacco rapidly acquired its own devotees. But not everybody liked it, just like not everybody likes speed or drums or pottery. For every devotee of tobacco, there was probably another who saw no value in it at all. Why should you want to drive round and round in circles as fast as you possible can? You don’t need to do that! It’s a complete waste of time and money.
But once, circa 1610, the custom of smoking tobacco had caught on among the English middle classes , the American colonists could barely keep up with the demand for tobacco. They grew more and more of it. Their tobacco plantations became larger and larger. And because it seems that tobacco crops exhaust the soil within a few years, they had to keep creating new plantations, further and further from their original colonies. The colonies along the coast expanded. And in this manner the colonists found themselves in increasing collision with the local native Indian settlements.
And because tobacco farming was labour-intensive, the colonists needed labourers. And soon the small stream of voluntary new migrants from Europe proved insufficient. And so they resorted to the use of the cheapest of cheap labour: African slaves.
And soon many of the colonists had become very rich, growing and selling tobacco for the almost insatiable European markets. And as they imported not just European manufactures – cloth, pottery, tools, machines – but European manufacturing tools, they began to create an industrial base. The first steam engines began appearing in England in 1698, with Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric engine in 1712. And most likely these engines started appearing in the American colonies a few years later. Is it very surprising that these rich new colonies had become entirely self-sufficient in every way by about 1750, and began to increasingly assert their independence in ways that would have been inconceivable a century earlier. The arrival of contingents of Cromwell’s New Model Army in the colonies in 1650, to suppress Indian (or French) or pirate raids was probably welcomed with relief. But a 100 years later, their redcoat descendants were no longer needed, and no longer welcome.
I’d been told that America’s wealth was first built upon tobacco. And now I can believe it.
Meanwhile, back in England, the new craze for smoking tobacco was being greeted with dismay among the ruling classes. With what horror they must have beheld farmers in their fields with corncob pipes clenched between their teeth as they ploughed their fields or gathered their produce. Or young men and old men, and women and children too, gathering in taverns to not just drink cider, but also to smoke! And all so utterly unnecessary. Wasn’t God’s own English air sufficient for them to breathe?
I think that the deepest objection of antismokers to smoking is that it is a completely unnecessary pastime. Their forebears had got by for millennia without smoking: why start now? The same objection can be raised to drinking alcohol (even though even Jesus did that). Or banging drums. Or painting pictures. Or dancing. Or staging plays. It’s all completely unnecessary. And the puritans of that time might be thought of as people who objected to the unnecessary. They objected to tobacco and alcohol and music and dancing and theatres. They fought against it not just in their everyday lives, but in their churches from which they had stripped all the unnecessary art and sculpture and music. They lived minimal, sober lives. They spent nothing on these fripperies. And because they spent little money, they saved it. And they became rich.
Nothing has really changed in 400 years. The antismoking zealots of today are the same ones there were 400 years ago. And they will be no more successful today than they were then. There are some slight differences. The religious trappings have largely fallen away. And while tobacco was regarded as a medicine in 1600, it’s now regarded as a poison.
Some day, this matter of what is necessary and unnecessary will come to a head. Do we want to live in a barren world from which everything unnecessary has been stripped away, or do we want one in which they are retained and encouraged – and in which people smoke and drink and dance and play music, and drive around in fast cars?
I know which I will prefer.