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Tobacco: The intriguing story of Bermuda and Virginia

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Tobacco (nicotiana tobaccum) most certainly originated in central and south Americas and the Caribbean. Christopher Columbus in 1492 sailed into Cuba’s Haia de Gibara looking for gold. He found Indians in some of the islands who “smoked like chimneys”. Rodrigo de Jerez, who was with Columbus, was the first European to smoke a roll of tobacco from a corn husk pipe. Upon his return to Spain he was jailed for smoking as it was considered sinful, but smoking became popular in Spain by the 1530s, especially among mariners who visited America. Another famous name associated with tobacco is Sir Walter Raleigh who established the “lost colony” at Roanoke Island in today’s North Carolina in 1585. It was from here that he first experienced tobacco. Thomas Harriot, a historian who visited Roanoke a year later, wrote about the strange weed in his ‘Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia’. The Indians claimed that tobacco “opened their pores” and had curative powers. The Indians called it “Uppowoc”; “tobacco” is the Spanish word for the plant, derived from the island of Tobago, where it was widely grown. Raleigh introduced tobacco to England. In 1605, King James, who considered tobacco “loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose and harmful to the brain”, levied a huge tax (4000 percent) on its importation to discourage its use.

Notwithstanding this initial resistance, tobacco became very popular in Europe and a few years later the exportation of it from Virginia to England saved (financially) the colony at Jamestown. What were the circumstances that led to this successful industry in Virginia in the early 1600s and what did Bermuda have to do with it?

Could it be that the Spanish or Portuguese, well acquainted with tobacco since 1492, planted tobacco in Bermuda and probably the better quality Caribbean variety? Raleigh’s Indian tobacco was of inferior quality compared to the Caribbean variety. Tobacco does not cross oceans easily and grow naturally or wild, yet two patches of tobacco were found in Bermuda: In 1603, tobacco was found by the shipwrecked Captain Ramirez at Spanish Point and it is arguable that Sir George Somers found or grew a patch of tobacco at Tobacco Bay, St George’s in 1609. Could it be that Sir George Somers and John Rolfe (both on the

Sea Venture which was wrecked in Bermuda on its way to Jamestown in July 1609) took the Bermuda Tobacco seed to Virginia from Bermuda on the two ships they built, the

Deliverance and

Patience, in May 1610?

Several facts support this theory:

[1] On Sir George Somers’ map of Bermuda made in 1609 (the one retained by the Bermuda Archives), a bay near Gates’ Bay (St Catharine’s beach today) is called Tobacco Bay. Many of the hand written names on this map reflect the

Sea Venture wreck (Gates’ Bay, Strachey’s Watch, Somers’ Creek and Frobisher’s Buildings Bay) and were most likely added later (The Somers’ map in the British Library in London has no such place names). Clearly these handwritten names were added by someone who knew intimately about or took part in the

Sea Venture wreck (Christopher Carter or by someone on the

Plough, which brought the first settlers to Bermuda in 1612). Further it is clear that more than one copy was made of the Somers’ map and it is logical that one would have been taken back to Bermuda on the

Plough in 1612 to assist the hazardous approach to Bermuda and the new settlement. This could be the map in the Bermuda Archives with the handwritten names and explains why the British Library’s copy of the Somers’ map has no place names.

[2] Silvester Jourdain, who was also on the

Sea Venture, wrote an account (along with William Strachey) about their sojourn on Bermuda and he writes that they found “verge good tobacco”.

[3] In the recent Jamestown, Virginia excavations, archaeologists found many Bermuda artefacts in the 1610 excavation layer (the date of arrival of the

Deliverance and

Patience from Bermuda), including pig and Cahow bones, shells, Bermuda limestone ballast and in particular two “carved” Bermuda limestone tobacco pipes. It is unlikely that they had tobacco on the

Sea Venture to smoke which was not lost or ruined in the wreck, and pretty certain that they actually found tobacco growing in Bermuda (as Jourdain’s writings confirm).

[4] It is logical [there are a number of references to this idea in Spanish reports of the 1500s] that the Spanish or Portuguese who knew of Bermuda since 1503 or so, deliberately left hogs on the Island as a food source so that they could stop by on their return journeys to Spain/ Portugal and reprovision with meat (hogs, fish and cahows) and water: so why not tobacco?

[5] Tobacco Bay is very accessible to Murray’s Anchorage, a natural deep water anchorage probably known to the Spanish and an easy point to stop off to replenish supplies (a fresh water source existed just over the hill in today’s “Somers’ Garden”) without having to enter a harbour. These supplies may have included tobacco at Tobacco Bay.

It is interesting to speculate that the horrific reputation of Bermuda as the “Isle of Devils” was allowed to spread or indeed was promoted by the Spanish to protect this source of provisioning in the mid Atlantic! The Spanish were also very upset when the English settled Bermuda and endlessly discussed taking it by force but that never happened.

John Rolfe was on the

Sea Venture and stranded in Bermuda with his pregnant wife. She gave birth to a baby girl who was christened “Bermudas” but Bermudas died a few weeks later and was buried in Bermuda. His wife subsequently died in Jamestown and he later married Pocahontas. It is probable that whilst shipwrecked in Bermuda he smoked the Bermuda (Spanish) tobacco found there and gathered tobacco seeds from the tobacco found near Tobacco Bay or Spanish Point, took them to Virginia, and later cultivated tobacco there. With slow but solid progress over a number of years in Virginia he developed a very successful export business of a good quality tobacco much preferred to the harsh Indian tobacco. In the book ‘The True Story of Pocahontas’ by Dr Linwood (Little Bear) Custalow and Angela L Daniel “Silver Star” much is said about John Rolfe, Pocahontas and tobacco, based on Indian Legend and oral history passed down by generations of Mattaponi Indians who were part of the Powhattan Empire of Virginia. “When Rolfe and his English wife arrived in Jamestown in 1610 [on the Deliverance from Bermuda] he immediately focused his attention on growing tobacco”. “By 1612, Rolfe’s first crop was curing. It was taller than the Powhattan type of tobacco and showed promise …. Rolfe received word that his tobacco had begun to be compared favourably with the best Spanish leaf, but it was still not good enough to be competitive with Spanish tobacco….”. “Rolfe’s problems in competing with Spanish tobacco appeared to stem from lack of knowledge and care in curing the tobacco.” After the widowed Rolfe married Pocahontas he learned from the Mattaponi how to cure tobacco. Some suggest this is why he married Pocahontas. “According to Mattaponi sacred oral history, the native people of the New World possessed the knowledge of how to cure and process tobacco successfully. The Powhattan tobacco was harsher and had a strong bite, making it difficult to inhale deeply. Rolfe used the West Indies tobacco seed [found in Bermuda?] which was much milder to inhale.” This Bermuda tobacco cured by the Powhattan methods eventually matched the taste of the Spanish tobacco and was a success. “The year 1616 was the year the investors in the Virginia Company were to receive their returns, otherwise the colony would fold”. By 1618 Virginia was exporting 25,000 pounds of tobacco and by 1630 330,000 pounds of tobacco were shipped from Virginia. “Tobacco became the gold the colonists had been looking for.”

The three sailors on the

Sea Venture who were left in Bermuda by Sir George Somers in 1610, Carter, Chard and Waters, grew tobacco at their campsite on Smith’s island, which is confirmed in Jourdain’s writings. Jourdain writes that “they [Carter, Chard and Waters on Bermuda from 1610 to 1612] have made a great deale of tobacco, and if some would come that have skill in making it, it would see very commodious both to the merchant and to the maker of it.” After 1612, when Bermuda was deliberately settled, tobacco became a very successful export for Bermuda as it was high quality and attracted high prices. By 1624 Bermuda was exporting 70,000lbs of tobacco per year but by then Virginia’s tobacco exports had caught up to Bermuda. By 1630, Virginia had far surpassed Bermuda’s exports of tobacco.

Although the settlers at Jamestown never found a route to Asia or any gold, tobacco led by John Rolfe thrived in Virginia and its export financially saved the colony. As the

Deliverance and

Patience sailing from Bermuda in 1610 saved Jamestown from total destruction after they arrived in the “nick of time” to find 60 settlers near death at Jamestown, those two little ships did it a second time, by introducing the superior Spanish tobacco seed from Bermuda. The incredible story of the

Sea Venture and unbelievable timing and series of events that led to saving Jamestown, not once but twice, suggests some kind of divine intervention and that the birth of the United States was simply meant to happen.

Rick Spurling is director of the St George’s Foundation

Columbus in Cuba
Sir George Somers
Wreck of the Sea Venture by Christopher Grimes

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Published April 30, 2012 at 2:00 am (Updated April 29, 2012 at 11:12 pm)

Tobacco: The intriguing story of Bermuda and Virginia

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