During the 1492 voyage, Christopher Columbus and his men caught sight of natives smoking herbs and received a gift of dried, aromatic leaves from Arawak Indians. At the time, tobacco was already a widespread crop, cultivated throughout North and South America. The natives of the pre-Columbian Americas began using tobacco as early as the first century BC. In these societies, tobacco was central to religious and ceremonial rites, medicine and healing, and pleasure.
The First European Smoker
Rodrigo de Jerez, Columbus’ fellow crewman, is credited with being the first European smoker. He paid the price of showing this New World custom to fellow Spaniards at home. Shocked from seeing puffs of smoke exhaled from mouth and nose, the witnesses reported Jerez to the authorities of the Inquisition and he was incarcerated, the punishment for committing an act of the Devil.
Snuff and Smoking in the Colony
In 18th century Ecuador, the territory denoted as the Province of Quito, tobacco had two main forms of use in Hispanic society. Leaves were ground into a powder and sniffed through the nostrils to be inhaled as snuff, or tobacco was smoked in pipes or “cigars” of rolled-up leaves. Tobacco use had no gender divide; snuff and smoking were common to both men and women of all social levels.
Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, 18th century Spanish explorers, noted the widespread custom of smoking tobacco “among persons of all ranks in both sexes. The ladies and other white women smoke in their houses, a decency not observed either by the women of the other castes, nor by men in general, who regard neither time nor place.”
Women smoked rolls of tobacco leaves, and etiquette encouraged them to pay visitors a compliment by lighting their “tobacco” for them. Or a servant might bring a silver brazier filled with embers for guests to light their own tobacco. Europeans easily caught on to the Creole habit, especially those who stayed for extended periods, and adopted the ritual as their own.
Maria Manuela de San Gabriel: A Nun in Despair
Juan and Ulloa made these observations while visiting Cartagena in what is now Colombia, but the practice of smoking was equally infectious throughout the Province of Quito. Scholar Jenny Londoño writes of the predominant use of tobacco during the province’s 18th century, detailing a letter written in 1787 by sister Maria Manuela de San Gabriel from the Convent of the Purest Conception of Ibarra, addressed to the king of Spain.
Maria expresses her anguish over the high price of tobacco and the extreme poverty of the convent and its 38 residents, a state she had once tolerated “when she had tobacco to smoke and sniff,” but can no longer afford. She writes of physicians prescribing her tobacco to alleviate her crippling ails, and that she is now addicted to it, as well as the other sisters, and not being able to afford it, they all live in a state of misery. Maria argues that “when there is tobacco there is much devotion, for if sleep comes to tempt us, we banish it and with fervor continue praising our creator.”
Tobacco as Cure-all
Tobacco had a centuries-long history before the Spaniards even saw it for the first time. Its export to the Old World and integration into colonial society was rapid. Smoking became a social ritual and was rooted in the belief of tobacco’s curative powers and its ability to promote health and well-being.
- Juan, Jorge: de Ulloa, Antonio (1964) A Voyage to South America, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Londoño, Jenny (1997) Entre la Sumision y la Resistencia: Las Mujeres en la Real Audiencia, Quito: Abya-Yala.
- Wexler, Thomas A. (2006) “Tobacco: From Miracle Cure to Toxin,” YaleGlobal.