Cultivating the tobacco habit


September 28, 1997

Christopher Columbus was the first European to note the habit: The natives he encountered on what he believed to be land near India were smoking a green, previously unknown herb.

Amerigo Vespucci reported that the natives, by then called Indians, "chewed like cattle so that they could scarcely speak."

Europeans thus encountered tobacco.

They greatly liked it.

Their first impressions are worth re-reading, as a reminder that cultural habits can radically change.

The chroniclers were writing long before knowledge or worry about lung disease. Second-hand smoke was an unknown. So was the Marlboro Man, since the "West" meant the Caribbean, Mexico and Peru.

Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish physician, helped persuade Europe that its mariners had discovered great wealth. His account was published in English in 1577 as "Joyfull Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde," and he considered the best news of all to be the startling variety of flora and fauna.

He describes rhubarb, lauds sassafras ("the rind of this tree has as sweet a smell as the cinnamon has") and offers one of the first descriptions of an armadillo ("all covered over with small shells, even unto the feet, like a horse is covered with armor").

But his greatest wonder is reserved for tobacco. He told his readers that the Indians considered it a cure-all. He promoted it ,, as an antidote to toothaches, bad breath, gout, ulcers, burns, kidney stones and deafness.

Historians say those uses were unknown to the Indians. Indian medicine men may have used tobacco smoke as a disinfectant but the rest was largely the writer's imagination.

The skepticism was far in the future. What people knew is what Monardes told them. What follows is a selection of his findings, with modernized spellings and grammar.

'Joyfull Newes Out of the Newe Founde Worlde'

This herb tobacco has particular virtue to heal griefs [pains] of the head. The leaves must be put hot upon the grief, and multiplying the time that is needed, until the grief be taken away.

* In the grief of the stomach, it is to be noted that the leaves are to be warmed better than any other, among ashes of embers very hot, thrusting the herbs into them to warm them well, and although they be put with some ashes, it makes them work better, and of more strong effects.

In oppilations [blockages] of the stomach, and of the inner parts principally, this herb is a great remedy, for that it both dissolves them, and consumes them, and this it does in any other manner of oppilations or hardness, that is in the belly.

They must take the herb green, and stamp it, and with those stamped leaves rub the hardness a good while.

* In wounds newly hurt and cuts, picks or any other manner of wound, our tobacco does marvelous effects. For it both heals them and makes them sound, and the wound must be washed with wine, and annoint the sides of it, taking away that which is superfluous, and then to put the juice of this herb, and upon it the stamped leaves, and being well-known that it shall stand until the next day.

* In the toothache, putting it to a little ball made of the leaf of the tabacco, washing first the tooth with a small wet cloth, takes away the pain, and both stay it, that the putrefaction go not forward.

* One of the marvels of this herb, and that which does bring most admiration, is the manner in which the priests of the Indians used it, which they did in this manner:

When there was among the Indians any manner of business of great importance, in which the chief gentlemen or any of the principal people of the country needed to consult with their priests, they went and propounded their matter to their chief priest.

Forthwith in their presence, he took certain leaves of tobacco and cast them into the fire, and did receive the smoke of them at his mouth, and at his nose with a cane, and in taking of it, he fell down upon the ground as a dead man, and remaining so, according to the quantity of the smoke that he had taken. And when the herb had done its work, he did revive and awoke, and gave them their answers, according to the visions and illusions which he saw, while he was rapt.

And he did interpret to them, as to him seemed best, or as the Devil had counseled him.

And as the Devil is a deceiver, and has the knowledge of the virtue of herbs, he did show them the virtue of this herb.

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