Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Tobacco




Now that the annual alterations in our tariff consist only in the removal or lessening of one or two of the few vestiges which remain of that cumbrous machinery by which a large portion of the revenue was collected, the public is able to comprehend somewhat more of the nature of such changes as the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduces during each recurring session. Such opportunities are useful for drawing attention to the history of those products of nature which, by their cultivation or manufacture, constitute the material wealth of nations.

At present, thousands of persons not initiated in all the mysteries of tobacco, are reading, for the first time in their lives, elaborate propositions regarding the duties on “Negrohead and Cavendish,” “home-made and foreign,” and are doubtless puzzled to account for the jumbling of a woolly pericranium with the name of a noble family. Should they attempt to gain any further information by a perusal of the Act for the alteration of the existing customs duties upon these articles, we fear their perplexity will only be increased, and their profit from the perusal will be incalculably small.

Still the question of the tobacco duty is one of vast importance, and is worthy of the attention not only of the political economist, but of every philosophical mind. To the politician, the fact that the revenue raised on this material is counted by millions (5,604,032l.) is sufficient to stamp it with vast importance; but the causes which lead to this vast consumption in our small kingdom, and to a much greater one generally through the rest of the world, are worthy of the earnest consideration of every thinking mind. How came such an unpromising weed to exercise such an immense interest on human affairs?—and is its influence for good or for evil?—are questions of importance which have never yet been satisfactorily settled.

The general assumption is, that tobacco was first introduced to Europe by Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1586, and this idea has been fostered by the well-known sign, once common in our tabacconists’ shops, of the servant of Raleigh throwing water over his master, under the fear that he is in a state of alarming combustion. It is true that the custom of smoking tobacco was introduced at that time, and was adopted by Sir Walter Raleigh and other courtiers, who received it from Sir Francis Drake and his followers on their return from Virginia; but it was at that time known, and even cultivated, in France, Spain, and Portugal, seeds having been sent to the two latter countries by Hernandez de Toledo, and to France by Joan Nicot, from whose name has been derived its scientific designation, Nicotiana. If this was its first use in Europe, the habit may be regarded as of purely transatlantic origin, as far as we are concerned; but it is by no means certain that it was not in use in Asia at very remote periods; and if we believe in an emigration from that quarter of the globe leading to the peopling of the American continent, and also in the theory of the “Origin of Species,” it may be held probable that it was carried from the East originally, for several species of tobacco are indigenous to Asia, and the difference is not very great between them and those of the American continent. One species, known to botanists as Nicotiana rustica, is indigenous, probably, in each of the quarters of the globe, at least it is found growing wild in America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

We learn from Herodotus that the Assyrians and Scythians intoxicated themselves by smoking; this, however, may have been by means of the hemp plant, still used in Asia and Africa for purposes of intoxication, by smoking and chewing, under the names of Haschish and Bang. Several writers of great authority have however contended that the practice of smoking tobacco was known in India before the discovery of America.

Its use in America, as we learn from Humboldt, is very ancient, and its cultivation by the natives of one district at least, viz., the banks of the Oronoko, dated far back from the time of the European invasion; and if the cigar is entitled to the character it generally has, of being the most refined mode of using the weed, the use of tobacco cannot boast many improvements since its introduction, for Columbus found the natives of Cuba smoking cigars in 1492, when he landed on their coast; and to this day they can fairly challenge the whole world with “real Havannas.”

The forms under which tobacco enters into commerce are more numerous than many will suppose. In the simplest form, that is, when it appears only as dried leaves, it has really undergone a degree of manufacture; for, like the hay of our meadows and the tea of China, it must when gathered be carefully dried, and during the drying process must be laid in heaps so as to heat or pass through a slight degree of fermentation, which is absolutely necessary to develop its flavour. The tobacco of Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, which forms by far the greatest portion of that consumed in this country, consists of the leaves tied simply at their stalks in bunches, called hands, or of parts of the leaves with the stalks and midribs removed. In this state it is technically called “strips,” and is much used by the cigar manufacturers. Both kinds are packed in large casks, holding when filled and pressed tightly as much as half a ton weight or more, and of these casks so filled, in prosperous times, we receive about 80,000 per annum, the duty on which is 3s. per pound, with an addition of 5 per cent.

Besides this vast quantity, the Americans send us the two kinds of manufactured tobacco known as Cavendish and Negrohead, so much coveted by smokers and chewers. The former of these is in flat cakes, usually about ten inches in length, three inches broad, and half an inch thick, usually of a black colour, but in the finer kinds of a light yellowish brown. These cakes consist of strips of the leaves freed from the midrib and larger veins, placed carefully in a layer, and pressed very hard with a press, after they have been moistened with molasses or liquorice juice dissolved in water; some of the finer sorts are said to be prepared with honey, and hence the term honey-dew applied to the lighter kinds. The Negrohead is in small sticks usually made by twisting one or two strands together like a rope, and then flattening by pressure. These are always black, and are inferior in quality to the Cavendish.

Hitherto, although large quantities of these varieties of manufactured tobacco have been brought to this country, the high rate of duty, 9s. per pound, with the addition of 5 per cent., has prevented any appreciable quantity being duty paid. It has therefore been landed on our shores only for the purpose of being re-shipped either for use at sea by sailors and others, or for foreign countries whose regulations admit of its use. Another difficulty prevented its consumption in this country openly, namely, an excise regulation which prohibits any tobacco containing more than a certain per-centage of saccharine matter from being sold; hence, as all foreign manufactured tobacco of these two kinds contain more than the allowed quantity, that law was a prohibition. Notwithstanding this, however, very large quantities of both kinds undoubtedly are smuggled continually.

Mr. Gladstone now proposes to allow British manufacturers to make Cavendish and Negrohead, under the supervision of the Revenue Department, in bonded warehouses, and to use so much saccharine matter as will enable them to compete with the American manufacturers. The provisions of the Bill are however so clumsy that it seems scarcely possible they can ever be practically applied, and the expense of carrying them out bids fair to exceed any advantages likely to arise. Why should not the raw material be handed over to the manufacturer to do as he likes with it when he has paid the duty? If he thinks proper to adulterate it, let the laws be enforced against him. Science would render detection easy, and conviction certain; and free trade would be fairly carried out in this as in other articles. Why treat the tobacco merchants, the sugar merchants, and the coffee or tea merchants differently? The first class pays, it is true, nearly six millions sterling to the revenue, but this ought not to mark it out for such restrictive legislation more than the others, for the sugar duties amount to a still larger sum: they were last year on all kinds nearly six millions and a half; tea and coffee together paid six millions within a fraction: now sugar may be adulterated with sand, tea with sloe leaves, and coffee with chicory and a host of other rubbish. It is difficult, then, to see why all cannot be treated on the same general principles.

Besides those varieties of tobacco which are sent from the American States, we have from South America leaf tobacco from Paraguay and other places, several kinds of roll tobacco, as the Varinas-roll, and the curious Amazonas-roll, made up into cylindrical sticks from four to ten feet in length, and pointed at each end, rarely exceeding in the middle three inches in diameter. These rolls are neatly covered with cane, derived from some species of palm, and frequently bright small red and yellow feathers are worked in with the cane, so that the whole represents a decorated cudgel. Indeed, this resemblance is so complete, that a number of them sent from Brazil to the Italian Exhibition in 1861 were mistaken for weapons, and were labelled “Weapons of war from the natives of the banks of the Amazon.” This kind is very rare and costly, and is said to be the finest manufactured tobacco in the world. Since 1851, Turkey has sent large quantities of a small yellow leaf-tobacco, which is said to be derived from the species known botanically as Nicotiana rustica; it is mild-flavoured, and has become a favourite with smokers in England. The Germans, also, send us a small quantity, but of an inferior quality; the principal use of the German tobacco is to form the covering of cigars; but for this purpose none is equal to the produce of the Spanish colonies in the West India and the Philippine Islands. Cuba not only produces the best cigars, but also the best materials for making them, as a matter of course; and no cheroots equal those of Manilla, whence leaf-tobacco of exceedingly fine quality is also sent to Europe.

Besides cigars and cheroots, cigarettes form another mode of using the material much used in foreign countries. In Great Britain, the methods of manufacturing tobacco are various, but the principal is by cutting it with machines into fine filaments. Usually the stalks are first removed, and, according to the amount of preparation the leaf has undergone, and the fineness of the cut, we have “Shag,” “Returns,” and other varieties. If the stalks are left in, and cut up with the rest, “Birds-eye” is the result; so called from the appearance presented by the small, thin, round sections of the midrib and stalk. These are called “cut tobacco;” but in addition there are other kinds, called “roll,” “pigtail,” &c., which are made by damping and fermenting the leaves, and forming them by twisting into a thin cylindrical cord, which is rolled up into the form of a ball. These kinds are favourites with those who chew tobacco. Besides smoking and chewing, tobacco is used as a sternutatory by inhaling through the nose, and the practice of snuff-taking in Britain is nearly coeval with smoking; the habit, which is highly objectionable in many respects, especially in a sanitary point of view, is certainly declining. The little snuff-ladle, with which it was formerly presented to the nose in immoderate quantities, is now never seen, except in collections of curiosities, or in Southern Africa, where the habit largely prevails.

There is no country in the world in which tobacco in some form is not used, but, except in very few, only by the male population. This, it appears, arises not so much from the dislike of the fair sex to tobacco, as to the belief that it is unfeminine and inelegant, a feeling not participated in by ladies of Manilla, Brazil, and Portugal, who puff their cigars and cigarettes wholesale.

So much has been written for and against the use of this narcotic, from the well-known “Counterblaste to Tobacco” of James I., to the much more important one of Sir Benjamin Brodie, that it may appear strange to assert that we are still in the dark as to its real effects upon the animal system. Hitherto, unfortunately, the question has been argued by those who have been violently opposed to its use, or, on the other hand, by those who have been addicted to its use; and each side has reasoned from feelings, instead of from facts. Whether it is positively injurious, and has a tendency to deteriorate the human race when used, is an all-important question, which every year becomes more difficult to solve, because the rapidity with which the habit is extending is in a corresponding degree lessening the opportunities for comparison, and consequently diminishing the proofs against the habit. Whatever may be the truth in this respect, it is quite certain that the habit seems unnatural to the animal economy, and that its known effects are in antagonism to our best supported views of alimentary philosophy. Indeed, the history of the human race presents no greater wonder than the remarkable manner in which this habit, so repugnant to reason, should have spread over the whole world, and enslaved a large majority of the human race. In the hidden cause for this there may be a reason which, if known, would fully account for it on rational principles; it may be a prophylactic, guarding men in their various avocations from atmospheric causes prejudicial to health; or it may be that its sedative properties help to calm down the excitement incidental to the progress of civilisation; but nothing of the kind has been proved in its favour, and we fear that all the positive evidence tends to an opposite view of the question. Ex fumo dare lucem cannot apply to that vast cloud which is raised by the smokers of Great Britain at a yearly expense to themselves of upwards of six millions of pounds sterling, and which cannot be positively proved to be beneficial to any but the small class of merchants and manufacturers who deal in this article, and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.