It is generally agreed that use of tobacco in Europe, as a means of inebriation, originated in introduction of leaves of plant into Spain from America. There is every reason to suppose that plant previously existed in Asia, if not from earliest times, though we have no very reliable authority for its having been used, at least to any great extent, for any of purposes to which we have devoted it. Various old authors report, that ancients of extreme East were acquainted with burning of vegetable substances as a means of inhaling narcotic fumes, and, indeed, when we consider their love of incenses, both as a luxury and an element of their religious cult, we need not be surprised at this; but we have no evidence that smoking of tobacco was known in Old World before introduction of plant from New.
It was in 1492 that Columbus first beheld, at Cuba, custom of smoking cigars; but it was not until some years afterwards that a Spanish monk recognized plant in a province of St. Domingo, called Tabaca. This is much more likely foundation for name of herb than that adopted by some, who assert that it originated in tabac, a tube used by natives for smoking. That there was no particular aptitude in European taste for use of this herb, seems evident from very slow progress, which ensued even of knowledge of its qualities.
So late as 1560, when Jean Nicot, French ambassador at court of Portugal reported of it to his sovereign, scarcely any thing was known of foreign vegetable, and in place of men who accompanied Columbus having taken to any imitation of Cuban-natives when they returned to Europe, it would rather seem that adoption of pipe is attributable to an Englishman, Raphelengi, who, having accustomed himself to it in Virginia, introduced practice into England.
Sir Walter Raleigh does not seem to have used pipe until after return of Sir Francis Drake in 1586, so that nearly a hundred years expired before even roots of habit were fixed in English people. Nor, probably, would practice after this have spread as rapidly as it did, if it had not been for persecution to which it was almost immediately exposed. If it is true, as has been said, that a few opposing volumes will fix roots of a heresy, we need scarcely wonder at triumph of tobacco, against use of which more than a hundred fulminating volumes issued from press within a few years.
These observations suggest a reference to question, how far tobacco was intended for use of man? The practice of Cuban savages is seized by one party as a proof of a final cause, insomuch as savages are supposed to follow first dictates of nature; and then comes other party, who point to tardy adoption of nature's gift by a civilized people as a clear proof that weed was not intended for uses to which it is applied. It is utterly vain to discuss questions of this kind. We have no elements for a proper judgment. Perhaps, for aught we know, American savages were some thousands of years in coming to habit—at least we have no reason to suppose that it could be a very primitive adoption.
Whether, indeed, man's custom, in most cases, is a proof of itself of nature's intention, must always be a puzzle; but as we know that many very bad things are greatly more natural to human beings than we would wish them to be, we have just as good a right to say for those to whom good tendencies are delightful from beginning, that nature intended they should do their best to eradicate what is hurtful, and reclaim their fellow creatures from indulgences of vice. The true practical question must, in short, always be what is beneficial and what is hurtful, according to results of our experience.
The botany of our subject presents us with seven or eight different species of plant, all affecting, more or less, warm latitudes. Virginia seems, of all regions, best suited to its culture, and yields in great quantity common or Virginian tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). A more hardy kind (N. rustica,) may be cultivated in such latitudes as that of Scotland. This is species, which has been found in Europe, Asia, and Africa; and were it not for restriction imposed by statute, we would produce it on rich soils in greater quantities than would be convenient for our treasury, or beneficial to our people. It need not be said that question of intention, on part of nature, is not much helped by habitat of production used; otherwise we might expect to find northern races less addicted to use of this tropical weed than those of warmer regions.