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Wars And Stratagems And ... Cigars?

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By : Ann Knapp    99 or more times read
Submitted 0000-00-00 00:00:00
A tobacco tax that has its origins in the rivalry between a king and his courtier? Increased sales due to war? And plague?

It's all part of the story of tobacco. Smoking has always been bound up in the history of European politics. After all, it's likely that no one of European origin would ever have smoked a cigar if Columbus's sailors hadn't discovered natives of present-day Cuba smoking tubes of dried tobacco in 1493.

From there, tobacco spread across Europe--first to Spain and Portugal, and thence to France (via a French ambassador to Portugal named Jean Nicot, as in nicotine)--and finally to England. But in England the new habit, while it quickly became fashionable as anything and was even hailed by some doctors as a cure-all, attracted some less-than-positive attention from the crown. The English were the first people to take to smoking in large numbers merely for fun; in Spain and France tobacco continued, for a while, to be viewed as a cure-for-what-ails-you, an herbal remedy for various conditions. As we'll see, it was from England that smoking, as a hobby, actually spread back to these countries.

James I, the seventeenth-century Scottish king, wrote a 1604 pamphlet, A Counterblaste to Tobacco, that offers some of the harshest anti-smoking invective ever committed to print. (This is the same James who, of course, authorized a translation of the Bible into English; the result, largely synthesized from existing illegal translations, went on to influence the development of English prose for centuries and continues to do so.)

Some historians speculate that James's opposition to tobacco was actually linked to his hatred of Sir Walter Ralegh, the famous courtier-poet-explorer (one of the Renaissance's "portmanteau-men," in writer Wyndham Lewis's phrase) who had done as much as any English person to spread the popularity of smoking. Moreover, Ralegh's example had helped establish smoking as a pastime (while other European countries were, to some extent, still thinking of it mainly as a medicine!).

Walter Ralegh, in short, did for smoking what Kurt Cobain did for flannel shirts, but, as a victim of court intrigue (other "nobles" had convinced King James I that Ralegh was a traitor, which was easy to do given that Ralegh's popularity would seem threatening to any absolute monarch), he was imprisoned for most of the last two decades of his life. And James took aim at the hobby Ralegh had done so much to spread, even revealing his personal animus toward Ralegh in the pamphlet. Ralegh is described, not by name, in A Counterblaste to Tobacco: "It [tobacco] was neither brought in by King, great Conqueror, nor learned Doctor of Physic - [but] by a father so generally hated." He was condemned in more effectual terms soon after, and imprisoned. James soon imposed a 4000 percent tax on tobacco.

But the royal suppression of tobacco didn't prove a workable policy for James I--especially not when the Thirty Years War began a few years later. English troops in that war are credited by historians with spreading the idea of smoking for fun (as opposed to smoking for medicinal purposes) to other parts of Europe: first to Bohemia, then Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden, and (especially) Germany.

Tobacco was too proven of a moneymaker for James I, and succeeding monarchs, to continue suppressing it entirely, especially when these same monarchs needed money to support their imperial, colonial and military ventures--the Thirty Years War included.

During the mid-seventeenth century, as English law seesawed between permissiveness and proscription, other countries went for outright repression. Russia instituted cruel anti-smoking measures in 1634 (you could, among other things, have your nostrils mutilated for being caught smoking), and Murad IV, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1623-1640, lay down a smoking ban of his own.

But by the late seventeenth century, as plague ravaged London once again, many educated smokers guessed (wrongly, of course) that their habit might be instrumental in sparing them from plague. It was thought that tobacco "dried" a person's nerves, making him or her stronger and less susceptible to disease. Tobacco's fortunes went up again.
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