A Spoonful Of Sugar: Transforming Tabaco To Tobacco

A Spoonful Of Sugar: Transforming Tabaco To Tobacco
There is little that illustrates the relationship between ‘drug’ and cultural container as well as the transformation of Sugar and Tobacco. While every medicine is a poison depending on context and dose: economic trade, social inequalities, narrative and intention have their equal share of roles.


A Savage Trade

One of the many curious sights witnessed by Christopher Columbus and his crew on their first landing in the New World was that of Tanío Indians rolling dried leaves into large cigars, lighting them and inhaling the smoke. When questioned, they told the Spaniards that the plant’s name was tabaco. It was a sight that was to become familiar to the explorers, conquistadors, colonists and traders that followed.

Tobacco in its various forms turned out to play a central role in American cultures from Canada to Chile, and California to Brazil. It was smoked, chewed, snuffed, or brewed into a black and bitter concentrate. It was used for healing, purifying, hospitality, treaty-making between tribes, self-discovery and engaging with the spirit world, or purely for sociability and enjoyment.

Tobacco was part of a constellation of even more mysterious intoxicating plants in the New World. The Jesuit priest José de Acosta, who resided in Mexico in the 16th century, witnessed Aztec priests grinding its leaves together with poisonous hairy caterpillars and the seeds of a plant known locally as ololiuqui to make a drink that caused them to hallucinate – or as he interpreted it, to ‘become witches’ and communicate with ‘the devil’. Ololiuqui is a flowering creeper of the morning glory family, containing the closest natural analogue to LSD in its seeds.

According to Acosta, the brew did possess benefits: enabling priests to heal the sick, divine the whereabouts of lost articles and even predict the future. But the Europeans who first encountered the potent visionary medicines of the New World projected onto them, the warring tendencies from within their own culture: the desire to expand their knowledge, forbidden frenzies of activity, and a profound suspicion that these plants were imbued with diabolical powers that they did not understand.

Getting the Indians to grasp that these plants were ‘diabolical’ turned out to be one of the most difficult doctrinal points in their conversion. “The people venerate these plants so much” José Acosta recorded, “that they do all in their power so that their use does not come to the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities”. Many Indian groups, once converted, simply gave saints’ names to the intoxicants and continued to use them in their liturgies.

Yet there was no denying that the ‘savages’ had great medical knowledge. They maintained botanical gardens for their healing plants, and traded a vast range of remedies in their markets. From Hernán Cortés onwards many conquistadors had found native treatments for wounds and local diseases more effective than European ones.

Rodrigo de Jerez, one of Columbus’ crew who had witnessed the Taíno use of tabaco, had himself become a regular smoker, and on his return to Spain was imprisoned by the Inquisition for the devilish practice of smoke-fuelled communion. But by the time he was freed, many more had taken up the habit. Unlike the hallucinogenic cacti, caterpillars and mushrooms, tobacco was a ‘safe’ or ‘soft’ intoxicant that caused no loss of sense or decorum, and could be detached from its sinful ‘primitive’ rituals by being incorporated into the civilised European pharmacopoeia.

By 1550 the first tobacco plants were growing in Dutch herb gardens. The Spanish physician Nicolás Bautista Monardes published a set of books between 1565 and 1574 that created a sensation and were swiftly translated into Italian, French and German. In English they were printed as a single volume entitled Joyfull Newes out of the New-Found Worlde. It was tobacco that formed the centrepiece of his discoveries and his description of it, and its many medical properties, sparked an obsession with the ‘holy herb’ that would prove to be the first manifestation of a global drug culture.

Monardes had gathered his ‘Joyfull newes’ by requesting plant specimens from explorers which he then grew in his Seville garden. Some travelled better than others: had coca leaves maintained their potency on a long voyage or thrived in the European climate, the world might be drinking them alongside tea and coffee today. But he classed tobacco as the most miraculous – classifying it in terms of the Galenic humours as ‘hot’ and ‘dry’, an astringent and a purifier, a purgative for a cold system, and a tonic for winter flu.

Although these virtues were contained in the smoke, the plant was equally useful in other forms: it could be chewed to treat stomach ailments, and the leaves applied topically for headaches. Monardes described the native habit of using it as an intoxicant with disapproval, though several of his prescriptions seem to have been borrowed from reports of Amerindian practices. The practice of smoking announced the novelty of the New World drugs as much as tobacco itself. It had no precedent in European culture and was initially described as ‘drinking smoke’ or ‘fog-drinking’, as analogous with alcohol.

As with the revival of cannabis today, opinion was sharply divided; some hailed smoking as evidence of a new age of wonders, while others saw it as an apocalyptic sign that the world was descending into barbarism. It was opposed by King James I whose Counterblaste to Tobacco of 1604 characterised it as an unhygienic habit spread by the vain and foolish. But the medical debate was only a prelude to its wider use, and an appreciation for its stimulant and euphoric properties eventually integrated it into daily life.

The practice was concentrated in taverns, where men would smoke as an accompaniment to intoxication just as the Indians did, using devices adapted to their tastes and supplied by European manufacturers. In the 17th century it had established itself as an important commodity, and the booming market was supplied by the Spanish from the Caribbean and the British from their plantation colony in Virginia, where the finest leaf was reputed to be worth its weight in silver. The habit took a firm hold before local authorities had developed a policy towards it, and customs regulations were hurriedly retrofitted to an already established trade.

Prohibitions proved unpopular, expensive and impossible to enforce, and most states gravitated towards a system of licensed ports and traders or excise duties. By 1646 all the European powers had recognised that the policy of least resistance was also the policy of greatest profit. Like tobacco, the ‘soft drugs’ of coffee, cocoa and tea, all arrived with extravagant medical claims and counter-claims, alternately hailed as health-giving elixirs and condemned as pernicious and enervating luxuries. Each was subject to local or national prohibition before taxing, licensing and adaptation.

The market for ‘soft drugs’ encompassed a far larger class of consumers than the spice trade, and appealed to the new ethic of individualism. The ideas of the Reformation were elaborating forms of private life where citizens expressed their personal preferences through consumption and by frequenting new forms of space such as the coffee house. In a culture poor in native stimulants and euphoriants, the new drugs offered alternatives to alcohol that were more congenial to the values of sobriety, civility and productivity.

Where tobacco was the universal accompaniment to the drugs of the New World, all these ‘soft drugs’ rose to popularity in conjunction with another new psychoactive substance or ‘drug food’: refined sugar. Originally produced in New Guinea and Indonesia, sugar had, like coffee, been patched into the global economy by the Arab trade network and had ‘followed the Koran’ to Spain, from where Columbus had introduced it to the Caribbean on his second voyage.

Sugar plantations in British, French and Spanish colonies such as Jamaica and Santo Domingo, initially cleared and worked by natives and indentured convicts, had become massive enterprises driven by European capital and African slave labour, and the Atlantic trade was now supplying it in industrial quantities to Europe where it had been a rarity. Like the other new world drugs, sugar arrived as a medicine.

Before the obesity epidemic, sugar’s concentrated calories gave it miraculous healing powers of energy and nutrition – it was well tolerated by babies, the elderly and invalids, but it was not long before the wider population demonstrated the untapped potential of the European sweet tooth, which thus far had been limited to fruit and honey. The sugar buzz was addictive, as with nicotine, doses that initially produced nausea quickly became tolerated and produced cravings for more.

Sugar became a condiment, a therapeutic and a preservative – added to pharmaceuticals, meats, jams and beer. In particular, it was combined with other soft drugs to make them more palatable. Amerindian cultures and palates had a predilection for concentrated, black and bitter liquids; in Europe, New World drugs were acculturated to local tastes by being sweetened, creamed and spiced. Tobacco ropes were cured with molasses, a cup of sugared tea or coffee was a calorie-rich substitute for a meal, and sweet bonbons and pastilles represented the height of luxury and refinement, while also being stocked in apothecaries.


The Industrial Psychoactive Revolution

The birth of the global drug trade is cited as the origins of what has come to be known as ‘the psychoactive revolution’: the trend towards the consumption of larger varieties of synthetic and naturally derived drug, in ever more powerfully processed and concentrated forms, which is characteristic of the modern West and increasingly, the rest of the world.

The industrial production and mass consumption that had made it so profitable to ship Jamaican sugar and Virginia tobacco around the world has replicated itself again and again in the intervening centuries, and in the process has accelerated humanity from a patchwork of self-contained cultures, each with its own indigenous drug and rituals, towards a monoculture where local habits are displaced by global commodities, themselves displaced in turn by ever stronger variants.

Although this process was driven by a universal and seemingly insatiable demand, it was also resisted vigorously from the start. One of the most frequent arguments against tobacco in the 17th century was that each race was naturally adapted to its own drug: smoking might suit the Native American constitution but be harmful to the European. This line of reasoning gained much credence from the reaction of the New World peoples to Europe’s native drug – alcohol.

From around 1650 the rum trade began to penetrate the interior of America, with hunters and trappers using it as a tool in negotiations with the local tribes. The stereotype was quickly formed: Indians were unable to cope with strong drink. They were powerless to resist finishing the bottle and trappers would deceive them while under the influence; this led them to be consumed by drunken rages that led to violence, inter-tribal vendettas, and mourning ceremonies where more alcohol would create a vicious spiral of decline. The Columbian exchange of diseases was mirrored by its exchange of drugs, which was profitable for Europe and tragic for America.

It was not so much Native American constitution, however, as Native American culture that underlay the apparent inability to handle alcohol. Like smoking to Europeans, it was an entirely new practice, and new words needed to be coined to describe it and the state that it produced. For Native Americans the closest analogy was the intoxicants used for vision quests, and like them it was seen as a powerful medicine that needed to be taken to purgative excess: if a group was given a bottle of rum, they would nominate one person to drink it all rather than share it.

At the same time, much of the damage attributed to alcohol by European observers had in truth already been done by epidemic diseases, military defeat, colonial violence, and tribal breakdown – of which inebriation was more a symptom than a cause. However alcohol’s drawbacks were not confined to ‘primitive races‘ and the mass availability of cheap distilled spirits in Europe soon made that abundantly clear.

Having conquered Europe, tobacco took on the world, expanding the arteries of global trade in the process. The global drug trade had risen along with the nation-state, but the relationship between the two had always been an uneasy one. In the 16th century it had been traders and merchants who shaped the trade, forcing national governments to react with panicked prohibition or opportunistic taxation.

With the rise of the Dutch and British East India Companies, they were eventually made subservient to the laws and policies of their nations, and to their strategic goals and alliances. By the late 19th century however, the world was shrinking and its affairs falling under the control of a handful of great powers, leading the nation-state to become subservient to international treaties. International prohibition was therefore becoming feasible, and Britain’s opium trade with China would become its defining cause.


Contextual Contradictions

After the Opium Wars, British opium flowed freely into China, though the traffic was eroded by a boom in local poppy cultivation. While the rich entertained themselves in their upscale opium houses, the poor were smoking to ease the pangs of hunger or pass the hours of boredom and stress – and in increasing numbers, swallowing overdoses to commit suicide.

In China these problems were rarely blamed on opium itself. Just as few wine producers see themselves as responsible for the state of the homeless alcoholic, or few doctors see themselves as responsible for the opioid epidemic, many Chinese saw opium as a desirable luxury with medical benefits that also happened to be a tragic last refuge of the desperate. While users across any race or class could become addicted, plenty still retained a modest habit of a few pipes in the evening, usually smoked in company and viewed no differently from a few glasses of Bordeaux.

The medical establishment continued to stress the drug’s digestive benefits, and the protection it gave against fevers and contagion; some mused on its role in the arts and the good life, and others used it to kindle sensuality and desire in the bedroom. In times of famine, the impoverished suppressed their hunger with a pipe of dross instead of food; the minority who reduced themselves to dependency and misery with excess were not to be blamed, but nor was the opium. Just as the elderly increased their dose as terminal pain took hold, so too did those who sought nothing more from it than the release of oblivion.

Christian missionaries viewed such relationships differently. The role of drugs as a ‘scourge’ and tool of ‘nefarious traffic’ had long been the view of such groups, and had subsequently gained ground in reform-minded civil society. As the anti-opium campaign laid claim to the moral high ground, it became influential enough for notorious traders such as Jardine and Matheson to withdraw from the business (which had in any case become less profitable as the Chinese home-grown crop increased).

Although opium was a familiar medicine in the West, it was already being abandoned in favour of purified forms such as morphine, to be administered in clinical settings. As well as ethical concerns, the anti-opium campaign had also drawn on a growing fear of the Chinese communities in the ports, slums and Chinatowns of the West; images of ‘Oriental contagion’ crowded upon one another and became a staple of popular culture. It was in this climate of fear and emigration that the first prohibitions of opium were introduced; marketed as ‘crude temptations of the orient’.

The drug habit of the previous generation became the favourite symbol of China’s humiliation by the West: ‘foreign mud’ that had been peddled by pirates and evil empires to sap their economy and reduce their population to misery. Recalcitrant opium users were forced into detoxification clinics and asylums run by missionary groups, where they were subject to various ‘opium cures’, among them the current Western trend for substituting opium with other drugs including strychnine, quinine, caffeine, and morphine or heroin by hypodermic injection. The cure turned out to be worse than the cause.

Just as the smoking habit had a fortuitous resemblance to native practices such as incense and moxa, the hypodermic needle resonated with long-established healing traditions of acupuncture. Opium houses in coastal cities were replaced by inns and gambling dens where shots of the ‘magic needle’ cost less than a smoke and introduced previously unknown health problems. Blood-borne diseases, sores and abscesses became a common sight in places like Shanghai.


Secular Solvents

As with alcohol and tobacco in the 19th century, medical theories began to place more weight on ideas of problematic ‘types’ with psychological weaknesses, typically minorities and those of lower socio-economic class. The term ‘alcoholic’ came into common use alongside coinages such as ‘addict’ and ‘narcomaniac’ to classify anyone with an underlying pathology that made drugs a problem, instead of treatment or social lubricant.

The emerging orthodoxy was in tune with established opinion that held drunkenness to be a sin, and temperance to bring an individual closer to civility and god – key pillars of the women’s movement at the time. To argue for the benefits of intoxication was to defend the indefensible: many drugs such as tabaco had come so far from their ritualistic origins that the only organised defenders remaining were made up almost entirely of vested economic interests.

There was no real defence from a population of drug consumers composed mostly of ethnic minorities, medical patients, and a small subculture of bohemians and petty outlaws. “Is it” asked the Society for The Study of Inebriety “a sin, a crime, a vice or disease?” Depending on the answer to this question, the solution might be higher taxation, public education, state monopoly, medical regulation or criminalisation. All these options were deployed in different nations and in various combinations.

Just as during alcohol and opium prohibition, many of the existing prohibitions of today have done nothing to quell demand but have significantly mutated supply, even as the barriers have started to lift – with both medical and recreational products often being concentrated into their most lucrative and dangerous forms. Morphine to heroin, cocaine to crack and cannabis to skunk, these terms are mostly delineated by their legal status.

Tobacco and sugar, having spread from America to Europe, have now conquered all but the most remote corners of the globe. They were followed by opium, travelling from Europe to Turkey to India to China and beyond. Cannabis radiated out from Asia into Africa and Europe, then via both channels to Brazil and the Americas.

Cocaine spread from South to North America and Europe, and is now endemic in Asia and Africa. Opium, refined into heroin, has funded warlords and insurgencies from the Golden Triangle to Columbia and Afghanistan. The synthetic drugs of the 20th century from ecstacy to LSD are at home in an institutionalised youth culture, and the new drugs of the 21st century such as ketamine and salvia have achieved global fame and distribution over the internet.

Over the last three centuries this process of confluence and global diffusion has determined the fate of global empires and defined international trade. Whether it remains prohibited or is regulated and taxed, it will continue to drive the global economy of the future. While demand and use may not escalate forever, the industrial processes involved and the associated changes in culture appear to be far more dynamic.

This is well illustrated by tobacco and sugar, the very substances that initiated the global drugs trade – previously luxuries associated with religious ritual and medicinal marvels, their processing and supply has altered beyond recognition, and while this may not have affected appetite for their use, the ensuing effects are a different endgame; both medically and socially.

An important component of this change in social attitudes has been the redefinition of the smoking habit as a nicotine addiction. Drinking coffee is not labelled as a caffeine addiction but tobacco is now seen as a ‘drug’ in the pejorative sense of the term. Its users are therefore pathologised as ‘addicts’, and many smokers prefer to justify their preference this way.

But the relation of nicotine to the dangers of smoking is a curious one: if eaten, the amount of nicotine in a pack of cigarettes is lethal, but as smoked – its more the tars in the tobacco that deliver the taste and carcinogens. This is why the drug has come to be its own remedy, with nicotine patches and gums distributed as a socially acceptable form of puritan substitution.

Tobacco duties raise vast sums, are easy to extract and politically hard to oppose, even though they fall disproportionately on the poor – and as some argue using the type of utilitarian logic so often leveraged by society – even though smokers place greater pressures on health services in the short-term, they also die sooner.

While I am personally glad that drowning in clouds of smoke is no longer a public phenomenon in enclosed spaces, if tobacco was nothing but a vector of death and disease, it could not have entwined itself into modernity as tightly as it did. Like all substances, it offers benefits and extracts costs, in a ratio that varies between individuals and across cultures, and which is constantly adjusted relative to a shifting ‘norm’ over time.

The ratio is markedly more positive in some substances than others, but it can never be reduced to a definitive medical or biochemical calculation: it is determined by form and dose, trade regulation, competing interests, and the psychological or cultural containers within which it unfolds. Tobacco has been called ‘the shaman’s curse’ on the West, a revenge for the inequalities of the Columbian exchange, where the most prized of sacred plants became a poison chalice.

Broadly speaking, the decline of tobacco seems to correlate with higher levels of wellbeing, education, and prospects for living a long and happy life. If so, the Age of Tobacco may be waning as science tips the scales decisively against it, but its story still has much to teach the re-emerging cannabis and psychedelics industries of today, and its twilight could yet be a long one.