Tobago Tobacco Trinidado

Naipaul’s last chapter of A Turn in the South–entitled “Smoke”–is about eastern North Carolina. Now and then he draws parallels between aspects of the American South and his native Trinidad and Tobago. Here’s one such digression.

THE WORD “tobacco” is thought to have come from Tobago [doubtful!], the dependency or sister island of Trinidad. And before “Virginia” became the word in England for tobacco [huh?], tobacco was sometimes called “Trinidado,” after the island of Trinidad, part of the Spanish Empire since its discovery by Columbus in 1498. Tobacco was a native Indian crop. But after the discovery and plunder of Mexico in 1519-20 and Peru fifteen years later, the Spaniards were interested only in gold and silver; they were not interested in tobacco. It was the English and the Dutch and the French who went to Trinidad to load up with tobacco. ‘there were hardly ever more than fifty Spaniards at a time in Trinidad in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Gulf of Paria, between Trinidad and Venezuela, a vast safe harbor, was nearly always full of foreign ships. An English explorer and diplomatist, Sir Thomas Roe (who later went to the Mogul court at Agra in India as the representative of King James), came to the Gulf of Paria one year and saw fifteen English, French, and Dutch ships “freighting smoke.” Another English official reported that the tobacco trade might in time be worth more than all the Spanish gold and silver from the Americas.

The trade was illegal, however–even though crops were grown in Trinidad with the complicity of the Spanish governor. Under Spanish law only Spain could trade with a Spanish colony. Occasional sweeps were made by the Spanish navy against foreign interlopers in the Gulf of Paria; and foreign sea captains and sailors who were caught could be hanged on the spot. And the Indian tobacco fields–tobacco a crop requiring such great care, as I was to see in North Carolina–were flattened: part of the process by which in three hundred years both the native Indian population and tobacco were to be rooted out from Trinidad.

The island that the British captured (without a shot) in 1797 was a sugarcane slave colony. And it was to work in the sugarcane estates that, thirty years or so after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, Indians were brought over from India on indenture. It was sugarcane that gave a rhythm to the life of rural Indian communities. Tobacco was no longer a local crop.

I would have been disbelieving, and delighted, to be told as a child that Trinidad had once been known for its tobacco. To me tobacco was glamorous, remote, from England (in absurdly luxurious airtight tins), or American (in soft, aromatic, cellophane-wrapped packets), something from an advertisement in Life.

SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 278-279.

Here are a few additional tidbits from the Webster’s Dictionary Online entry for tobacco.

The Foolish Dictionary (1904) defines tobacco thus: “A nauseating plant that is consumed by but two creatures; a large, green worm and–man. The worm doesn’t know any better.

A “Special Definition” adds more history about the plant, including this bit.

Bright Tobacco

Prior to the American Civil War, the tobacco grown in the US was almost entirely fire-cured dark-leaf. This was planted in fertile lowlands, used a robust variety of leaf, and was fire cured or air cured.

Sometime after the War of 1812, demand for a milder, lighter, more aromatic tobacco arose. Ohio and Maryland both innovated quite a bit with milder varieties of the tobacco plant. Farmers around the country experimented with different curing processes. But the breakthrough didn’t come until 1854.

It had been noticed for centuries that sandy, highland soil produced thinner, weaker plants. Abisha Slade, of Caswell County, North Carolina had a good deal of infertile, sandy soil, and planted the new “gold-leaf” varieties on it. When Stephen, Abisha’s slave, used charcoal instead of wood to cure the crop, the first real “bright” tobacco was produced.

News spread through the area pretty quickly. The worthless sandy soil of the Appalachian piedmont was suddenly profitable, and people rapidly developed flue-curing techniques, a more efficient way of smoke-free curing. By the outbreak of the War, the town of Danville, Virginia actually had developed a bright-leaf market for the surrounding area in Caswell County, North Carolina and Pittsylvania County, Virginia.

Danville was also the main railway head for Confederate soldiers going to the front. These brought bright tobacco with them from Danville to the lines, traded it with each other and Union soldiers, and developed quite a taste for it. At the end of the war, the soldiers went home and suddenly there was a national market for the local crop. Caswell and Pittsylvania counties were the only two counties in the South that experienced an increase in total wealth after the war.

So “bright” tobacco is God’s gift to Piedmont farmers with bad soil, just as moonshine is God’s gift to mountaineers who don’t have the roads to get bulkier products of their corn to market. And then, of course, there’s the opium poppy, the coca leaf, etc.

Well, this topic could go on and on, so I’ll just close with a few startling items from Gene Borio’s fascinating tobacco timeline.

  • 1633: TURKEY: Sultan Murad IV orders tobacco users executed as infidels. As many as 18 a day were executed. Some historians consider the ban an anti-plague measure, some a fire-prevention measure.
  • 1634: RUSSIA: Czar Alexis creates penalties for smoking: 1st offense is whipping, a slit nose, and transportation to Siberia. 2nd offense is execution.

Those New World tobacco plantations were the Afghan or Burmese poppy plantations of their day. Three centuries later, however, Turkish tobacco was king.

By 1911, even though Duke’s American Tobacco Co. (ATC) controlled 92% of the world’s tobacco business, most popular American brands were Turkish blends, with names like Fatima (L&M), Omar (ATC), and Zubelda (Lorillard), to be followed in 1913 by Camel (RJR), which by 1923 had captured 43% of the US market.

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