Europes First Tobacco Smoker

Spanish sailor Rodrigo de Jerez has gone down in history as Europes first tobacco smoker. He sailed with Christopher Columbus on the Santa Maria in 1492.

Columbus had been sponsored by three Spanish merchants to find a more direct route from Span, across the Atlantic Ocean to China, thereby cutting short the long and often dangerous trip around Africa and India and through South-East Asia. Merchants tiny coastal ships faced attacks by pirates, head hunters, losses from uncharted reefs, typhoons, and ‘there be sea-monsters’.

Upon arriving in modern day Cuba Columbus sent out sailors, including Rodrigo to find the Emperor of China.

We can imagine Rodrigo de Jerez walking from Indian village to village asking “Take me to your leader?”, only to find an old man wearing feathers and not much more, a far cry from opulent wealth  of the Emperor of China.

He found the young Indian men gathered together on ‘ceremonial occasions’ (we would call Friday nights) to share a pipe of tobacco. From experience I can tell you that raw tobacco smoking is harsh and tends to feel like the skin of the throat has been burnt red raw. A coughing fit usually follows, leaving an awful after taste.

I can imagine these young Indian men would have ‘seen stars’, become instantly light-headed and ‘dizzy’, fallen over, no doubt coughing and gasping while their friends laughed until they cried.

Rodrigo de Jerez not only joined them in this frivolity, he copied the American Indian tobacco smoking style with his own pipe. However, while the Indians only smoked occasionally, as a social, bonding, even spiritual experience – Rodrigo smoked constantly upon his wanderings.

He returned to report to Christopher Columbus his failure to find the Emperor of China. However, he proudly showed him the discovery of tobacco and his smoking (or as he called it ‘drinking smoke’ skill). Columbus was not impressed, as he had an obligation to the Spanish merchants at home to return with tea, silk and other spices from China, and perhaps Japan and India. Columbus saw no value in tobacco. European’s he thought would find no value in it.

When Rodrigo returned to Spain on the ‘Nina’, one of the three ships Columbus had been loaned by the merchants, he took tobacco with him. We know this because Rodrigo was met by the Spanish Inquisition (religious police) who imprisoned him for 7 years because “only the Devil could give a man the power to exhale smoke from his mouth”.

Rodrigo de Jerez has officially gone down in history as Europe’s first tobacco smoker.

When Rodrigo was finally released from jail, he found sailors smoking everywhere, in Spain at least. At that time tobacco smoking was illegal in all other European countries because it was considered a vile and stinking habit. The raw tobacco is very acrid to taste, and causes people to spit the awful taste out.

These sailors suffered from scurvy, and had introduced sexually transmitted infections to Europe from the America’s. Many had the symptoms of pox.

Plus, they may have been infested with parasites, because they did not wash their clothes, bodies and hair regularly. As raw tobacco smokers they reeked of the acrid smell of stale tobacco through their clothes and hair. When in port they were roudy, heavy drinkers. Some had wooden legs and eye patches too.  At that time tobacco smoking was confined to Spainish seafarers, and the portside prostitutes and taven drinkers they associated with most often. Decent towns folk considered sailors ‘the scum of the earth’.

Other European countries banned tobacco because it was a dirty, even filthy and a socially rude habit done by dirty, stinking foreigners. By the time tobacco smoking Spanish sailors arrived in far off China, the Emperor threatened death to all who smoked.

The Portuguese followed the Spanish across the Atlantic Ocean to South America, where they set-up  a trading post in what is now modern day Brazil (the only Portuguese language country in all of the America’s). The Spanish complained about the presence of the Portuguese to the highest authority of all – the Catholic Pope in Rome.

The Pope directed the Portuguese they could not expand any further than Brazil in the America’s, but they could take possession of East Asia instead. In return the Spanish would stay out of Asia.

This map shows the extent of Spanish (in red) and Portuguese  (in green) influence  at that time. The Portuguese also traded with China and Japan from their island base at Macau.

The Portuguese set up trading posts from Macau, off the coast fo China through to Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia. They traded with India and parts of Africa too.

The Spanish achieved retribution for the Portuguese settlement in Brazil by having their colony of Mexico set-up their own colony in the Philippines (in the middle of Portuguese South-East Asia), thereby side stepping the Catholic Pope’s directive.

The non-Catholic Dutch followed the Portuguese into South-East Asia and took vital ports from the Portuguese by force. The Dutch were followed by the British.

Instead of taking the now Dutch ports by force they set-up their own trading posts, including Singapore and Hong Kong.

Instead of buying tea and spices from the Dutch, or the Portuguese before them, the British imported their own.

Families set-up Tea Houses in Bond Street London, to blend their own raw tea into brand varieties we still recognize today.

When the English discovered how much money the Spanish government was making from tobacco taxes, they decided to issue British tobacco licenses.

Family based tobacco merchants soon opened businesses next to the tea merchants in Bond Street and did much the same thing – importing some of the better varieties of tobacco from the America’s, then blending them for pipe smokers.

Part Two – coming soon

Quit Tobacco Smoking

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2 Replies to “Europes First Tobacco Smoker”

  1. I am not a tobacco smoker, however I found this blog really interesting. It revealed many many things I did not know. Keep up the good work. I will check back to read the second instalment. Lilly

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