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3 The Impact of Drugs on Civilisation PDF Print E-mail
Written by Brian Ingliss   
Sunday, 06 February 2011 00:00

3 The Impact of Drugs on Civilisation

Tobacco: herba panacea

THERE WAS SOME DISPUTE AT THE TIME — AMONG SCHOLARS, THERE still is — over who deserved the praise or execration for introducing tobacco into Europe. The Spanish colonists soon took to it, in spite of official disapproval. Bartholomew de las Casas found some of them on the island of Hispaniola who had been reported for smoking; when remonstrated with for indulging in so vicious a habit, they had replied it was 'not in their power to stop'. And rretiaa3/4., /37 sailors brought the habit home. But it gained its initial popularity in Europe as a medicine. Its value in treating fevers and other disorders led Jean Nicot, French Ambassador at the Portuguese Court, to take tobacco plants to France, when he returned there in 1561, as a present for Catherine de Medici; and by the time Nicholas Monardes published his Joyful News out of the New Found World, a few years later, it had begun to be regarded as the great cure-all: herba panacea, valuable whether taken into the lungs, or into the digestive system — or applied externally, to wounds; effective alike against headaches, carbuncles, chilblains, worms, or venereal disease.

This was not illogical, in the prevailing climate of orthodox medical opinion, based on the assumption that health depended on a correct balance of the humours: blood, bile, and phlegm. A medicine which could 'cleanse the superfluous humors of the brain' could be expected to remove whatever symptoms that superfluity had brought on, mental or physical; and also to preserve health — those who took it, according to the mathematician Thomas Hariot, who was with Raleigh's expedition to Virginia in 1585, were 'not subject to many grievous diseases with which, we in England are sometimes afflicted'.

It was for this reason, presumably, that Raleigh brought tobacco plants back from Virginia to plant on his Irish estate; his friend Edmund Spenser, who used to stay there, listed 'divine tobacco' in The Faery Queen as one of the herbs Belphoebe gathered to staunch the flow of blood from Timais's wound. But Raleigh began to enjoy tobacco in its own right, smoking it in a pipe as the Indians did in Virginia. Friends and acquaintances, introduced to smoking, caught the habit; and soon, it became the fashion.

Tobacco caught on not because it induced a trance state, and visions. Young Englishmen of the time would have been terrified if it had. They took to the drug simply because it was fashionable and — as soon as they got over the initial reaction of giddiness or nausea — enjoyable. It provided a mild 'lift', when that was desired; or it assisted relaxation. But it had one unwelcome consequence. It created a craving so powerful that by the 1890s, the writer of an English herbal was complaining that some men could not restrain themselves from having a smoke, `no, not in the middle of their dinner'.

Smoking happened to become fashionable in England at a time when Puritanism was also establishing itself, based on an ethic closer to that of John the Baptist than of Jesus. The Puritan was not then in a position to deny tobacco's medicinal virtues, but it did not escape him that the people who smoked it were rarely concerned for their health. It was consequently possible to argue that because tobacco 'drinking' (as it was then often described, in the sense of 'drinking it all in') was not confined to specific doses at certain times of day, it could actually be harmful — like other drugs whose dosage was inadequately regulated: particularly to the young. Here, the Puritan found allies in the nobility and gentry who, even if they themselves liked to smoke, were apt to be indignant when their sons insisted on following the fashion. Ben Jonson portrayed the type — the clown Sogliardo in Every Man out of his Humour, `so enamoured of the name of a gentleman that he will have it, though he buys it. He comes up every term to learn to take tobacco'. The parents suffered — 'the patrimony of many noble young gentlemen', Edmund Gardner, author of the Trial of Tobacco, observed, had 'vanished clear away with this smoky vapour'.

It was this aspect of the dangers of tobacco that Thilaretes' emphasised in his Work for Chimney Sweepers, which appeared in 1602, denouncing smoking as a 'pestiferous vice'. Still fresh in the memory, he recalled, were reports

that divers young Gentlemen, by the daily use of this tobacco, have brought themselves to fluxes and dysentries, ard of late at Bath a scholar of some good account and worshipful calling was supposed to have perished by this practice, for his humours being sharpened and made thin by the frequent use of tobacco, after that they had once taken a course downward, they ran in such violence, that by no art or physician's skill could they be stayed, till the man most miserably ended his life, being then in the very prime and vigour of his age.

Philaretes explained how this had happened. Tobacco, he asserted, worked by evaporating man's 'unctuous and radical moistures' — as was demonstrated in the fact that it was employed to cure gonorrhea by drying up the discharge. But this process, if too long continued, could only end by drying up `spermatical humidity', too, rendering him incapable of propagation. Experience also showed that tobacco left men in a state of depression, `mopishness and sottishness', which in the long run must damage memory, imagination and understanding. Nor was it any use the defenders of tobacco arguing that the Indians took it without such ill-effects; the Indians had accustomed themselves to taking it from childhood.

Tobacco: counterblast

Work for Chimney Sweepers was the first of scores of similar pamphlets which were to appear later on the same theme, denouncing the use of tobacco — and later of other drugs — for non-medical purposes. Whatever the drug, the writer was likely to claim that it was physically and mentally destructive, if not in its immediate effects, then in the long term; that it put the youth of the country particularly at risk — as some scarifying illustration from Bath (or Baden, or Ballston Spa, N.Y.) would demonstrate; and that it had a sinister past record. As the composer of the prototypical broadside, Philaretes could be cited as deserving of some small niche in the history of drugs. But his offering was to be overshadowed by the more famous Counterblast to Tobacco which came out two years later, in 1604 — its anonymous author's identity not being concealed for long: James I, newly ascended to the British throne.

In certain respects, the Counterblast was ahead of its time. James did not waste time trying to explode tobacco's reputation as a cure-all by citing examples of its failures; he contented himself with exposing the contradictions in the claims made on its behalf.

It cures the gout in the feet and (which is miraculous) in that very instant when the smoke thereof light — flies up into the head, the virtue thereof— as heavy — runs down to the little toe. It helps all sorts of agues. It makes a man sober that was drunk. It refreshes a weary man, and yet makes a man hungry. Being taken on going to bed, it makes one sleep soundly; and yet being taken when a man is sleepy and drowsy, it will, as they say, awake his brain, and quicken his understanding. As for the curing of the Pox, it serves for that use only among the poxy Indian slaves. Here in England it is refined, and will not deign to cure here any other than cleanly and gentlemanly diseases. Omnipotent power of tobacco!

James also emphasised tobacco's most commonly encountered pernicious effect: 'many in this kingdom have had such a continual use of taking this unsavoury smoke, they are not now able to resist the same, no more than an old drunkard can abide to be long sober'. But he spoiled his case by clearly hinting at one of the reasons for his dislike of tobacco: his hatred of Raleigh. Nor could he resist the temptation to set out his arguments against tobacco in the form of literary conceits. Tobacco, he sought to prove, was 'the lively image and pattern of hell', because it had in it all the vices for which man might expect hell to await him •

to wit; first, it was a smoke; so are the vanities of this world.

Secondly, it delighteth them who take it; so do the pleasures of the world delight the men of the world. Thirdly, it maketh men drunken, and light in the head; so do the vanities of the world, men are drunken therewith. Fourthly, he that taketh tobacco saith he cannot leave it, it doth bewitch him; even so, the pleasures of the world make men loath to leave them, they are for the most part so enchanted with them; and further, besides all this, it is like hell in the very substance of it, for it is a stinking loathsome thing; and so is hell.

It was a little too pat, confirming that James was less the shrewd observer of the effects of the drug that he appeared to be, than the diligent collector of all the possible rationalisations which could be mustered against it.

That autumn, James informed the High Treasurer of England that all importers of tobacco would have to pay, in addition to the customs duty of 2d a pound that Elizabeth had imposed, the sum of 6/8d; an increase of 4,000 per cent. It was the first attempt of its kind to get rid of a drug by indirect prohibition — by imposing a tax so heavy that only the very rich would be able to afford to buy it. And this discrimination was deliberate. When tobacco had been discovered, the preamble recalled, it had been taken 'by the better sort', only as physic. But it had recently, 'through evil custom and the toleration thereof, been taken in excess by a number of riotous and disorderly persons of mean and base condition who, contrary to the usages of which persons of good calling and quality make, spend most of their time in idle vanity, to the evil example and corrupting of others'. They also spent too much of their wages, which they ought to be spending on their families, 'not caring at what price they buy'; so that people's health was being impaired, making them unfit for work, and consuming their resources, and also the country's, because 'a great part of the treasure of our land is spent and exhausted by this drug alone'. James, in other words, had been moved to action less because of the drug's effect on his subjects' health, than because it might make them less loyal and hard-working. Men who took time off to smoke could be expected to expend much of that time in talk; and the talk might turn to gunpowder, treason and plot . . .

To judge by the Counterblast, James would have preferred to ban tobacco outright; but that could possibly have been dangerous, with so many pipe-smokers among the Court circle; and it would certainly have been difficult, with tobacco in such demand as a medicine. So the intention — the preamble continued — was simply to provide a restraint on consumption, in order to reduce the amount being imported, while leaving 'sufficient store to serve for the necessary use of those who are of the better sort, and have and will use the same with moderation to preserve their health'. But the new duty, James soon found, had precisely the opposite effect to that which he had intended. The people who used tobacco to cure ailments, finding it so expensive, were forced back on older herbal remedies which cost little or nothing. Those who had begun to smoke for pleasure, however, and become addicted could not bear to do without their pipefuls. And although with so heavy a duty to be paid, merchants did indeed, as James had hoped, find it less profitable to import tobacco, this only meant that they found it more profitable to smuggle it. In the decade that followed the introduction of the duty, tobacco consumption continued to increase, not least among the poor. 'There is not so base a groom' — the pamphleteer Barnabe Rich complained in 1614 —

that comes into the alehouse to call for his pot, but he must have his pipe of tobacco, for it is a commodity that is now as saleable in every tavern, inn, and ale house, as either wine, ale or beer, and in apothecaries' shops, grocers' shops, chandlers' shops, they are (almost) never without company, that from morning to night are still taking of tobacco; what a number are there besides, that keep houses, or open shops, which have no other trade to live by but the selling of tobacco.

Tobacco: fund-raiser

In ordinary circumstances James, with his sublime intellectual arrogance, would have been likely to try stiffer measures to check smuggling. But that would have meant increased expenditure, which he was in no position to undertake. He was chronically desperate for funds; and the signs that tobacco smoking was on the increase had suggested a way to secure them. In 1608 he had ordered a reduction in the duty to a shilling a pound, selling the right to collect it to one of his favourites, Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery. Tobacco imports began to rise so rapidly that James found he had sold himself short; in 1615 he revoked the deal (paying Montgomery compensation) so that he could sell the right to collect the duty for a sum more closely approximating to what it would be worth to the patent holder — £16,000 a year, by 1620.

For the remainder of James's reign solvency was the essential consideration. By farming out the duty, he in effect ensured that it would be kept as high as it could go without causing the importer to switch to smuggling. But the importers were not the only problem. Distributors and retailers, it was found, were stretching their stocks by adulterating the tobacco with ground up stalks and leaves of other plants, and disguising the thinness of the flavour by adding small quantities of spirits, and spices, to delude the customer — unlike Jonson's Abel Drugger :

He lets me have good tobacco, and he does not

Sophisticate it with sack, lees, or oil

Nor washes it in muscadel and grains

Nor buries it in gravel, underground

Wrapped up in greasy leather, or piss'd clouts.

'Sophistication' was frowned on by the authorities because it lost them revenue. When half of what was sold was no longer pure tobacco, this meant, in effect, that duty was being paid only on one out of two pipefuls smoked. The practice became so notorious that James had to intervene to authorise the inspection of stocks held by retailers. As a result, before the end of his reign he found himself setting himself up as guardian of the purity of the drug which twenty years before he had tried to suppress. And the irony only began there. The British colonists in Virginia, who for some years had almost despaired of being able to survive, experimented in 1611 with growing tobacco. The flavour happened to appeal to the British smoker. It was very much in James's financial interest that this taste should be encouraged because, as the House of Commons was told in 1620, the amount of sterling leaving the country in bullion to pay for tobacco had reached six figures. Such vast (for that period) sums were better channelled into British colonies helping them to become self-supporting, and eventually to contribute to the Treasury — than shipped to swell the treasure chests of Portugal and Spain.

Without wishing it, therefore — to the end of his life, James continued to recall 'the dislike which we have always had of the use of tobacco in general', and to share the uneasiness of the Virginia Company about allowing the colony's economy to rely on a `deceivable weed', the fashion for which 'must soon vanish into smoke' — the British Government had embarked upon a course of economic imperialism, based on two assumptions. One was that as colonies were revenue-raising enterprises — or at least, it was hoped, financially self-supporting — they must be allowed, and if necessary encouraged, to produce any commodity which could be sold profitably, even if it were not regarded as desirable in itself. The other was that if the commodity were not regarded as desirable in itself, its manufacture and sale could always be excused by pointing out that people were going to buy it anyway, so they might as well buy a British product. By this means, quality would be ensured; and the profits would benefit the British taxpayer.

Tobacco: banned

Hypocritical though James's attitude to tobacco became, at least his policies were flexible enough to be administratively feasible. In other parts of the Old World, the reaction of rulers to the introduction of tobacco was generally the same, but they often preferred to take what must have appeared to be the simplest course; outright prohibition of the drug, with severe penalties for anybody caught selling or taking it.

Visiting Constantinople in 1611, George Sandys was told that on the orders of the Sultan Amurath a man caught smoking had been paraded through the streets mounted facing backwards on an ass, with a pipe drawn through the cartilage of his nose. In Iran, the Sultan's brother Shah Abbas imposed similar penalties; Sir Thomas Herbert, arriving there with a British delegation in 1628, found that Abbas had sentenced two merchants who had been caught importing tobacco to have their noses and ears cut off; and their consignment, forty camel loads, was burned — its 'black vapour gave the whole city infernal incense for two whole days and nights together'. Both rulers, when such punishments r ti    proved insufficient to check smuggling, introduced the death penalty. Jean Tavernier, visiting Iran in the 1670s, was told that some rich merchants found smoking in an inn had been punished, by Abbas's heir, as befitted the nature of their crime, by having molten lead poured down their throats. In India, the Great Mogul Jehangir Khan decreed that anybody found smoking should have his lips slit. When ambassadors from the Duke of Holstein arrived in Moscow in 1634, they saw eight men and a womanm publicly knouted for selling tobacco, and the death penalty was /3,41"C' decreed that year for habitual offenders.

The fashion of tobacco-smoking for some reason took longer to spread through Europe; but by the middle of the seventeenth century several states had laws against it. In the Canton of Berne, where the laws were related to the Ten Commandments, tobacco smoking was put in the same category as adultery, punishable by fines, the pillory, and imprisonment. And when this failed, the Canton set up a special Tobacco Court, modelled on the Inquisition, with payments for informers and harsh penalties for those who were convicted.

These laws and penalties, admittedly, were not based exclusively on the objection to tobacco as a drug. The Tsar Michael claimed also to be concerned about fire hazards; there were objections to the fumes and the spitting which accompanied smoking; and there was the fear that where men smoked together, they might be conspiring together. But whatever the motive, and however savage the penalties, the result was everywhere the same; prohibition was an utter failure. Sandys noted that in spite of the warning given by the sight of the convicted smoker paraded round Constantinople, people continued to smoke clandestinely. Tavernier found men and women in Persia 'so addicted to tobacco that to take their tobacco from them, is to take away their )

Everywhere, eventually, the ban had to be lifted, and tobacco allowed in. Its consumption was in future to be restricted only by a variety of Government expedients to make money out of it by the levying of customs or excise duties — or by a state monopoly of the kind Richelieu introduced in France and which lasts to this day; and by local by-laws, directed not against tobacco as a drug, but against its unwelcome social side-effects.

Tobacco: tamed

How did it come about that tobacco, from being the drug most commonly used to induce visions in the New World, should have soon been domesticated in Europe; so that, as the flow of tributes from essayists and poets reveal, it was welcomed as a mild mental stimulant, stirring ideas, and as a mild tranquilliser, soothing away nervous tensions? The tobacco smoked in Europe may not have been as strong as that used by the Indians, and it was probably not taken in such powerful doses; but that is not sufficient to account for the difference. The most likely explanation is that the European mind had been carried too far from its moorings in instinct for tobacco to be capable of producing the trance state; and there was no shamanist tradition which could have been taken up to exploit tobacco in the way the medicine man was accustomed to do.

When tobacco smokers were seen to be physically no worse off for their indulgence — their semen did not dry up, and many of them lived on into old age — suspicions died; and during the Great Plague, tobacco attained respectability even among those who, like Samuel Pepys, had feared it as a dangerous drug. In the spring of 1665 he saw how a cat could be killed by 'the oil of tobacco'; but a month later the sight of doors marked with a red cross and the inscription 'Lord Have Mercy Upon Us' prompted him to resort to it: 'I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell and to chew, which took away the apprehension.' And with a growing sense of Britain's maritime destiny, the tobacco trade attained full respectability, coming to be regarded not simply as a commercial, but as a national, asset. When an increase in the tobacco duty was mooted in 1685, a critic of the project was quick to point out that in addition to bringing in so much revenue, and providing the colonists with the wherewithal to buy vast quantities of English manufactures, 'the tobacco trade employed nearly two hundred ships, the breeding ground of many mariners'.

In America, too, tobacco-smoking among the colonists followed the pattern newly established in Europe. Even the Indians began to use it more for ritual and symbolic purposes — the 'pipe of peace'. In some States where tobacco was not grown attempts were made to curb consumption: Massachusetts banned smoking in company (even among consenting adults) in 1632, and three years later tried to stop its sale by retailers. But such regulations proved unenforceable, and tobacco developed into an industry A"/ second only in importance to alcoholic liquor. The effects on the health of the community cannot now be estimated; but some idea of the social and economic significance of the development was provided by Joseph C. Robert in The Story of Tobacco in America, published in 1949. Tobacco not merely saved the Virginia settlement; it

created the pattern of the Southern plantation; encouraged the introduction of Negro slavery, then softened the institution; begot an immortal group of colonial leaders; strained the bonds between mother country and Chesapeake colonies; burdened the diplomacy of the post-Revolutionary period; promoted the Louisiana purchase; and, after the Civil War, helped to create the New South . . . Dispute and violence are milestones along this tobacco road; Culpeper's Rebellion marked the seventeenth century, the Black Patch war the twentieth. Colonial Virginians used tobacco as money; in the confusion following the Second World War the American cigarette was currency 'from Paris to Peking'.

Tea: coffee

Tobacco was the only drug from the Americas which caught on in the Old World; but in the middle of the seventeenth century two other drugs which had not been known before in Europe began to appear from the East: tea — which Pepys recorded as a novelty 7.5'-e.Vin 1661 — and coffee. Both were originally introduced, as tobacco had been, for medicinal purposes — the apothecary telling Mrs Pepys it was 'good for her cold and defluxions'. Both, like tobacco, 26 aroused authority's suspicion when it was found they were being taken for pleasure.

Coffee came from the Middle East, where its appearance had so alarmed the authorities in Mecca and Cairo that they had tried to prohibit its sale, with regulations that all stocks found should be burned, and all people found drinking it punished. As with Indian hemp, earlier, the accusation was that coffee was an intoxicant — a reputation which Sir Anthony Shirley, one of three brothers with a reputation as travellers in far-away lands, confirmed after he had tasted it in Aleppo in 1598. So when it was introduced into Europe, a number of rulers reacted to it as their forbears had reacted a century before to tobacco, decreeing fines, imprisonment and corporal punishment for those involved in its distribution or consumption. But the tendency was to regard it as a danger chiefly to the lower orders; the aristocracy reserved the right to drink coffee. Inevitably such qualified prohibition proved unworkable; and rulers soon switched to the method King James had pioneered, taxing it instead.

Tea did not attract the same hostility because, except in Britain, it continued for two centuries to be sold by druggists, and bought by the public, chiefly as a remedy for internal disorders (it was to surprise the town of Angoulême when Balzac's Mme Bargeton gave a tea party, as tea was still sold there in chemists' shops for indigestion for which purpose the curé of Yonville was to recommend it to Madame Bovary). In Britain, where it became popular as a pick-me-up, it provoked some virulent attacks from satirists and from politicians; Henry Savile told Mr Secretary Coventry in 1678 that it was a base, unworthy and filthy substitute for wine. But by then it was too late. One of Charles II's first acts at his restoration had been to impose a duty on tea; and it had proved to be one of his most profitable fiscal expedients. When the traveller and philanthropist Jonas Hanway tried to launch a campaign against it a century later, he had against him not only Dr Johnson — 'a hardened and shameless tea drinker' as he described himself, 'who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning' — but also almost the entire population of Britain, poor and rich alike, who by this time were consuming it in such quantities that it had become one of the State's chief sources of revenue.

Last Updated on Monday, 07 February 2011 17:46
 

Our valuable member Brian Ingliss has been with us since Monday, 07 February 2011.

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