Whilst tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) is certainly a stimulant, in sufficient quantities (such as those used traditionally by American Indians) it can have what, for all intents and purposes, may be called hallucinogenic properties. Certainly the South American Indian shamans see it as such, but this appears not just to be due to cultural conditioning (apprentice shamans are instructed beforehand of the nature of the visions they are going to see) but also to the actual chemistry of tobacco. Tobacco contains the harmala alkaloids harman and norharman, and the closely related harmine and harmaline are known hallucinogens. The levels of harman and horharman in cigarette smoke are between forty and 100 times greater than in tobacco leaf, showing that the burning of the plant generates this dramatic increase. The effects of nicotine on the central nervous system are still far from being understood. The hallucinogenic effects of tobacco become far more explicable when it is borne in mind that the strains of tobacco smokes by the American Indians were far more potent than our commercially produced varieties. Furthermore, the amounts consumed by them were often considerably greater than even the most ardent chain-smoker is able to manage.
Petum was a widely used early European word for tobacco and is said to be derived from the Tupi-Guarani Indian word for the plant. The word nicotine is derived from the surname of Jean Nicot de Villmain, who brought back Nicotiana rustica to France in 1560. Although he was not the first to do this, he nevertheless got the dubious honor of having this poisonous substance named after him. The word tobacco is first mentioned (in the form tabaco) by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1478-1557) who uses it as a term for the act of smoking and also, in his later writing, for the leaves of the plant itself.
When Columbus discovered America in 1492, members of his expedition became the first Europeans to witness the – to them – curious habit of smoking tobacco. When, in his journal, Columbus describes Indians: 'who always carried a lighted firebrand to light fire, and perfume themselves with certain herbs they carried along with them', he was not writing from his own observations but from the accounts relayed to him by Luis De Torres and another Spaniard who had been sent ashore on 2 November 1492. Jerome Brooks, a historian of tobacco use, has some interesting comments on this passage. He notes that De Torres was a learned man who knew not only his classical sources but also read Hebrew and Arabic. Since the voyagers had thought they would land in Asia, De Torres had been brought along to act as interpreter for Columbus when, as they hoped would happen, they gained an audience with the Great Kahn. The phrase 'perfumed themselves' is seen by Brooks to be that of De Torres rather than Columbus. De Torres would have known the work of the Greek historian Herodotus, who describes the ancient Scythian inhalation of cannabis smoke, and attempted to relate the wholly exotic New World practice of tobacco smoking to this Asian custom. There does not appear to be any evidence that either Columbus or any of his entourage brought back the novel plant to Spain on their triumphant return, although it is possible that some sailors in this or later crews brought it home in small quantities, an occurrence that would have gone unrecorded and therefore is impossible to confirm or deny.
As with early encounters with the peculiar almond-shaped cocoa beans, European explorers were initially confused by the gift of dried tobacco leaves and so discarded them. But when Columbus sailed from San Salvador to Cuba, his second stop in the New World, two of his crew are said to have more closely observed the indigenous smoking custom, even to go so far as to try it...“thus becoming the first Europeans to smoke tobacco”.
Saint Bartolomé’s 1514 transcription and third-person modification of the Columbus log (the only extant version) included an ecclesiastical sense of wonder at the New World custom, but went on to suggest that the smoke “dulls their flesh and as it were intoxicates and so they say that they do not feel weariness.” No mention was made of the aroma or taste of the product, but it is said that those first two members of the crew became habitual smokers during their time in the Caribbean.
It did not take long for tobacco to be condemned once smoking met Christianity. Hispaniola’s military governor wrote of the indigenous peoples’ evil customs with emphasis on “one that is especially harmful: the ingestion of a certain kind of smoke they call tobacco, in order to produce a state of stupor.” Alas, having described the pipe and process of smoking, he concludes that the practice results in a slumber of inebriation, so the harmful affect appears to be spiritual, as the productive soul is deadened by the product’s intoxicating quality.
Indeed, European Christians soon observed tobacco in native ritual that looked absolutely satanic, “an active tool of the Antichrist,” as well as in individual instances by shamans who seemed to use it as a medium for communication with the devil himself. Even Motecuhzoma’s seemingly innocuous after-dinner tobacco use failed to impress the likes of Hernán Cortés, though the lavish arrangements of the Emperor’s lone dining experience, a decadent feast that included endless vessels of his favorite frothy chocolate beverage, has been well documented.
As the New World peoples fell to conquest, technology, and disease, tobacco soon began to entertain a mixed reception as the custom gradually caught on. Early European practitioners took such a devotion to smoking that observers couldn’t help but notice its power, or what is now referred to as its addictive properties. Columbus is quoted having said, “it was not within their power to refrain” from smoking, having become accustomed to it.
Aside from the Spaniards, other European explorers were coming into contact with native people and their practices throughout the Americas, particular on the North American eastern seaboard, and not all of them were as quick to condemn tobacco. Indeed, with a little positive marketing from influential people, tobacco would easily be separated from its negative New World associations and become a major player in the rising global empires of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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