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How Sir Walter Raleigh Helped Introduce Tobacco to Europeans

Our multi-billion dollar cigarette industry (and its effect on the general health) is the responsibility of early English settlers to Roanoke Island…

In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh helped found the infamous settlement on Roanoke Island in Virginia. Although this colony was short-lived and no one quite knows for sure what happened to its residents, Roanoke did leave at least one lasting legacy that continues to influence our lives to day. It was at Roanoke that Europeans first had experience with tobacco. Thus, our multi-billion dollar cigarette industry (and its effect on the general health) is the direct product of the efforts of those early settlers on Roanoke Island to popularize the drug in Europe.

The British hoped that the Roanoke Colony, like many other colonies, would be a source of much needed revenue. Queen Elizabeth I also hoped that it would serve as a base to allow Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, and other privateers to harass Spanish shipping. To that end, she granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter that gave him ten years to establish a colony in the New World. After extensive planning, the colony was founded in 1585. Although Sir Walter Raleigh himself did not accompany the settlers to the new colony, he sent a number of competent men including Mr. Thomas Harriot. Harriot was a 25 year old historian and surveyor who visited the colony for about a year soon after it was founded.

Harriot was among the first Europeans to learn the Algonquian language and learned a great deal about the local Indians while visiting the Roanoke colony. One of the things he observed was that the Indians had a curious herbal remedy which they claimed “opened the pores” and prevented diseases. After Harriot and some of the other English colonists ventured to try some of this “uppowoc,” they were quickly sold on it. Whether they really thought it was a good herbal remedy or whether they realized it could be an important cash crop is difficult to say. Whatever their true feelings about uppowoc, Harriot for one wrote glowingly about it in his book “Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.” This was the first book written about the New World in English and its enthusiastic endorsement of uppowoc convinced many Europeans to try it after the residents of Roanoke island began exporting limited quantities of the “herbal remedy.”

Soon, “uppowoc” came to be known by its Spanish word “tobacco” and was being exported in ever increasing amounts. To this day, Virginia and the Carolina remain important tobacco producers. Not everyone was convinced by the supposed health benefits of tobacco, however. As early as 1605, King James I imposed a 4,000% increase in taxes on tobacco hoping to convince people to quit the practice he considered, “…loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, [and] dangerous to the lungs.” Obviously, not everyone shared his remarkably modern view of smoking and the demand for tobacco grew and grew until it was one of the most important exports in the Americas. Indeed, tobacco helped make early colonies viable, so it had a positive influence by encouraging early settlement even though it has very serious negative effects on our general well-being.

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