Smoking, drinking and the British sweet tooth


by Dr Emma Poulter

The smoking of tobacco became fashionable among the upper classes and its popularity gradually spread to the lower social orders. This tobacco was originally grown by indentured white labour in the Americas. Tobacco was increasingly produced by enslaved Africans in the USA and the Caribbean as well as the highly profitable sugar and cotton crops grown on plantations.

Virginia was a major region for the production of tobacco. In 1620 it had established itself as the region's main export crop and by the late 1630s more than 1m pounds (about 450,000 kg) of tobacco was being exported each year. By 1670 the figure was 20m pounds (about 9m tonnes).

Tobacco was also consumed throughout the slave trading system. In west Africa it was used to pacify captured Africans. It was also burned to fumigate the vacated slave quarters on the slaving ships. In the sugar colonies planters gave enslaved Africans pipes and tobacco. As the historian James Walvin points out:

‘Here was a remarkable irony; a slave-grown product was being used to facilitate the slave system, in the Americas, on the slave ships and in west Africa itself'.