A Very Regal Rejection of Tobacco

12 May 2014

Cultural Studies | Empire and Globalism | History

It’s not exactly a common occurrence these days that the mere mention of tobacco is met with an audible gasp of wonder. But this was precisely the reaction I encountered recently whilst delivering a webinar showcasing our resource Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration & Cultural Exchange.

The source of this particular librarian’s elation can be traced to my clicking into A Counterblaste to Tobacco, a pamphlet written in 1604 by King James I in which the monarch strongly condemns the use of the weed. It was during his reign that tobacco was first introduced into England, and before long, smoking a pipe became all the rage.

                     Image © New York Public Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.



It’s no exaggeration to say James was repulsed by ‘a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmefull to the brain, dangerous to the lungs’. Some scholars believe that James’s own physical condition (he suffered from crippling arthritis among several other incurable complaints) may explain why he was so vehemently opposed to the established view of the time that tobacco had numerous health benefits.

James’s publication came towards the end of a period of fierce political and military rivalry between England and Spain. He craftily played on the antipathy of the public towards the Spanish by reminding them of the Iberian fondness for smoking. Additionally, he argued that smoking was a dirty habit, a ‘barbarous’ pursuit indulged in by the indigenous peoples of North America, who had been using tobacco for religious purposes long before European settlers established plantations - ‘why do we not as well imitate them in walking naked as they doe?’, he argues.




Image © New York Public Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.



The King would go further than the written word in his efforts to dissuade the populace from smoking, levying hefty taxes on tobacco. But in spite of James’s protestations, the seemingly unstoppable trade juggernaut that was the English Empire imported tobacco at a phenomenal rate during the course of the seventeenth century; shipments increased from 25,000 pounds of the plant during the year of the King’s counterblaste to a whopping 38 million pounds in 1700.

James did at least manage to thwart another smoky foe a year after his pamphlet was published, namely the foiled Gunpowder Plot. However, tobacco would forever remain to him a substance that pollutes man’s ‘inward parts…with an unctuous and oily kind of soote’.


In addition to A Counterblaste to Tobacco, a wealth of gasp-inducing documents revealing the history of tobacco can be found within our Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration & Cultural Exchange resource.


About the Author

Tom Derrick

I am the Senior Collections Analyst for academic publisher, Adam Matthew. My role enables me to contribute to all aspects of the project lifecycle, from collating customer feedback to editorial production. I was fortunate enough to work on the re-launch of one of our most successful resources, Empire Online and have been privileged to work on a variety of other projects including Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975.