Bloomberg News

Priests on Pope Ban, Pocahontas Can Thank Tobacco: Lewis Lapham

November 18, 2011

Interview by Lewis Lapham

Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) -- England shipped more than 100 boatloads of settlers to Jamestown, and eight out 10 quickly died. Often teetering on the brink of extinction, the Virginia colony was finally saved by tobacco.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

Arriving in 1610, John Rolfe planted seeds from Trinidad and Venezuela. By the time he returned to England 6 years later with his wife, Pocahontas, and his first shipment of Virginia leaf, London had more than 7,000 tobacco houses where nicotine lovers could indulge their taste for the exotic weed supplied by Spain. The highest quality sold for its weight in silver.

It was a worldwide trend: the Mughal emperor in Delhi was an enthusiast, as were sailors in Istanbul and farmers in Sierra Leone. In Manchuria, the Khan Hongtaiji tried to stamp out smoking when his soldiers traded their weapons for tobacco. Pope Urban VIII banned smoking in church after complaints that priests were not even putting down their lighted cigars to celebrate mass.

Stimulating, slightly naughty, highly addictive, tobacco was the first global craze to emerge from the new world. Now, more than a billion people are in thrall to its smoky pleasures.

I spoke with Charles C. Mann, author of “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,” on the following topics:

1. Ecological Convulsions

2. Native Catastrophe

3. Silver Strike

4. Slave Trade

5. Columbian Exchange

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

--Editors: Zinta Lundborg, Jeffrey Burke. Producer: Paul Goguen.

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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