Christopher Columbus and Tobacco

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue…

Remember reciting this poem in honor of Christopher Columbus, the man who sailed from Spain with his three ships hoping to find a western sea route to China and the Asian spice route?  Years ago, the day was a celebration of the man who discovered the Americas, but many of the facts about him were hidden.  Over the years as the details have come out about Columbus’ treatment and enslavement of the natives on the islands he visited, the day is less about the man and more about the celebration of the indigenous people that make up the Americas.  One little known fact that hasn’t changed is that Columbus and his crew are credited with introducing tobacco to Europe.

When Columbus took off for his journey in 1492 he encountered islands in what is known today as the Bahamas.  The Natives greeted Columbus and his men with gifts of friendship, “fruit, food, and spears.” Among the gifts were some dried leaves from the tobacco plant.  Since they were inedible, the leaves were thrown overboard.  This tabacos, as it was called by the indigenous people, was considered a gift from the Creator,” and was used for medicinal purposes and for bartering.

It wasn’t until Columbus and his men set sail again, this time docking off the coast of Cuba, that they witnessed the local people actually smoking the leaves.  One article said a scout from the ship went to the interior to Cuba and observed men with herbs rolled into a dry leaf which was lighted and inhaled.  He describes the men as “almost drunk.”  Another article mentions a party from Columbus’ ship “witnessed local people there smoking tobacco through Y-shaped tubes which they inserted in their noses, inhaling smoke until they lost consciousness.” This time when tobacco leaves were presented to Columbus as a sign of friendship they realized they were a prized possession and accepted them.

While much is said about Columbus’ journeys and his treatment of natives, not every article mentions the discovery of tobacco or that one of his crewmen, Rodrigo de Jerez, is credited with being the first European smoker as he introduced the habit to his hometown.  Columbus had it right the first time by throwing the leaves overboard, but it would be just a matter of time as other discoverers followed in his wake and also brought back tobacco plants from the New World.

In the 526 years since Columbus and his men were presented tobacco, the number of smokers has grown to over 1.1 billion and more than 7 million die each year from the habit.  Here in the U.S. the number who die is more than 480,000.  Tobacco kills up to half of its users and is the leading cause of death, illness and impoverishment.  It’s time we do more to make tobacco history again.

Image of Columbus is from Encyclopaedia Britannica



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