Trading Tobacco for Women

A National Cigar History Museum Exclusive 

© Tony Hyman

Uploaded  July 29, 2010

        Numerous reports and anecdotes have appeared in the literature about what happened to Jamestown Colony’s first boatload of tobacco. The popular story, and it may or may not be true, is that the the handful of men who survived the first two years in the colony were so desperate for women (a less cultured chronicler might have said horny), and England so desperate for tobacco, that sending women in exchange for tobacco seemed a trade made in Heaven. The prime reason the colony was established (though it isn’t included in junior high textbooks) was to grow tobacco for the mother country, and if dangling brides in front of the colonists could speed the process, so be it.

        The England of the late 1500s was in dire distress. The problem wasn’t the Spanish armada; that had been destroyed by a fortuitous storm in 1588. It wasn’t fear of the Spanish land forces; their army was spread thinly all over the globe. England’s problem was her citizen’s almost universal addition to tobacco.  For most of that century, tobacco was grown exclusively by the Spanish in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo and Venezuela. Holland and Portugal joined Spain as tobacconists to the world starting around 1575, growing the much-sought-after weed in their colonies in the Caribbean as well as Central and South America.  At the end of the 16th century, among the great European mercantile nations, only England and France were left out of the lucrative tobacco market. That’s not entirely correct. England was in the market; the problem was she was in the market only as a consumer. A voracious consumer. A German journalist writing about his visit to England in 1598 reported the smoking of clay pipes was an almost universal practice. Everyone, including a lot of women and children smoked.

        All this tobacco had to come from somewhere. And that “somewhere’ was mostly from the Spanish. English tobacco merchants and consumers had no source other than their traditional, and in large measure despised, rivals: Spain, Portugal and Holland. The latter’s capital, Amsterdam, would eventually become the world’s center of tobacco distribution, second to no one. The Crown recognized the addition, and who the “drug pushers” were, and decidedly weren’t happy. What do do about it? The first step, parliament decided, was to profit from it.

        If the population was going to smoke, the Parliament reasoned, the government should make money by charging import duties. By 1604, they were as high as 60¢ a pound (remember, in 1600 people worked a full day for a few pennies). The European response was predictable. Industrious boat-owning entrepreneurs from the sea-going nation that wanted tobacco and the three three sea-going nations who had tobacco all became smugglers. Smuggling was easy. Greater Britain consists of a bunch of islands with a lot of safe un-policed rivers and harbors where a sailor of moderate skill could easily land a small craft.  It wasn’t long before ninety-plus percent of the tobacco smoked, chewed and snuffed by subjects of the British King was smuggled in. The Crown collected so little from its import duties that the income didn’t cover the cost of attempting enforcement.

        Lost income is a problem. Granted. But England’s tobacco-induced woes had more to do with outgo. Tobacco worldwide was traditionally paid for only in gold. Silver coinage properly struck by a major nation like England was also acceptable. As a result, with no offsetting income, England was losing £200,000 in scarce silver coin every year to European smugglers. At that time, the best grade of Spanish tobacco sold for the modern equivalent of $125 a pound. The lowest grades of trash tobacco brought about $15 a pound. The greatest power on earth found itself growing seriously short of coins to conduct the nation’s business. Worst of all, those coins were in the hands of traditional enemies.

        England had no choice. The citizenry couldn’t survive without a reliable source of tobacco and the country couldn’t afford the near-critical drain of its coinage. And that, more than all the high-sounding reasons schoolmarms tell their charges, is why Jamestown and most of the subsequent British colonies were founded. The settlers came for all sorts of reasons, but the government approved because it desparatly needed a British owned settlement that could grow tobacco. Virginia was a logical place to begin because the natives were already planting it there.

        How fast and far did British colonial tobacco culture spread? Their first successful North American colony, Jamestown, was founded in 1607. In 1614, the English writer Barnaby Rich described Londoners as being able to buy tobacco in 7,000 shops “in every land and in every corner about London.” Londoners spend, he said, £320,000 on tobacco, about one third of which still ended up in the hands of the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish. England needed more colonies.

        Records show that in 1622, Jamestown colony shipped 60,000 pounds of tobacco, about 40,000 pounds of which was of very low quality, and brought very low prices. English merchants that year refused to send supplies back to the colonies unless quality improved. “We heartily wish that you would make some provision for the burning of all base and rotten stuff and not suffer any but very good to be cured [and sent to England].”  Why was England getting such poor tobacco? The colonists weren’t dumb. Prices for good tobacco were a lot higher in Amsterdam.








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This is but one report.

        There are many others, dating the arrival of the ladies as anywhere from 1609 to 1622, and numbers of  women from the 12 above to a more commonly seen 21 to nearly 100 wives in one.

        The truth? I can only answer with that wonderful Cuban phrase “¿Quien sabe?”   (Who knows?”)

        Museum visitors are encouraged to send a copy of any telling of this tale they may run across, especially those before 1900. Don’t forget to let me know exactly where you found it.


“Buying Women for Tobacco,” MY CIGAR, Vol. 1; No. 1 (Saturday, December 5, 1874, page 7.  Published by the Boston Cigar Club. The American News Co., agents for the publisher. Price in New York: 2¢

    The history of the Commonwealth of Virginia, says the “Richmond Whig,” begins with an auction sale -- not, however, in a store, but beneath the green trees of Jamestown, where probably the most anxious and interested crowd of auction habitués ever known in the history of the world were gathered. In a letter, still to be seen, dated London, August 21, 1621, and directed to a worthy colonist of that settlement, the writer begins by saying: ---

    “We send you a shipment, one widow and eleven maids, for wives of the people of Virginia. There has been especial care in the choice of them, for there hath not one of them been received but upon good recommendations. In case they cannot be presently married we desire that they may be put with several householders that have wives until they can be provided with husbands.”

        But the writer of this epistle had little reason to fear that any of the “maidens faire” would be left over. The archives contain evidence to prove that these first cargoes of young ladies were put up at auction and sold for one hundred and twenty pounds of tobacco each, and it was ordered that this debt should have precedence of all others. The solitary “one widow” went along with the others, for they could not be particular in those days. The good minister of the colony no doubt had a busy time that day. He did not mention any fees, nor did the bridegrooms think of tendering any. All was joy and gladness; no storms ahead, no inquisitive clerk to stand and say, “Here’s the license, fork over that $1.” Nothing of the sort. From some of these couples the first families of Virginia are descended.


Cited in its entirety.

        But I digress. I began this treatise with mention of trading wives for tobacco. True or not, it has been reported frequently, and I shall follow the practice. Rather than make judgment of the veracity of these diverse tales, it is my plan to do as oh so many bloggers and Fox news entertainers do, and repeat what I read without verification.

        Starting at this point and forever following, you will be able to read the accounts as I find them.