Tobacco Tidbit: Planting Perspective
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the tobacco plant will be responsible for a substantial improvement in the health of a nation.” - The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer by Ian Heggie
Or will it?
As we open another season of making tobacco on the National Colonial Farm, I must stop to discuss just a glimpse of why we subject ourselves to the tedious work of tending tobacco fields annually. After all, what's the point of growing this almost forgotten 'weed' if nothing is to be done with it?
Tobacco is a complex plant in the history of North America, particularly Maryland’s history. It is amazing how this simple ‘weed’ has shaped hundreds of years in the culture, economy, and government of this beautiful state. From the first sighting of its leaves by Columbus (who received them as a gift from the indigenous peoples of South America, deemed them worthless, and promptly threw them overboard) to the tobacco buyout in the 1900’s due to soil destruction, this plant has left its mark on all who come into contact with it.
Here at the Accokeek Foundation, we seek to tell the stories of all who shaped the land known as Piscataway Park; indigenous and immigrant, free and enslaved, rich and poor. What we find is that all of those people are connected through several things, one of the largest being agriculture.
On The National Colonial Farm, the story of a tidewater tobacco farmer is captured through historical demonstrations and museum theatre. Here the stories overlap; the history of the Piscataway people being evicted from their sacred land for the sake of tobacco farming (as well as the immense resource they were as tobacco growers themselves!), a middling class tobacco farmer and his family trying to make a living from the growth and sale of tobacco, and the enslaved woman that the farmer owns specifically to work in his fields.
How did this beautiful plant become twisted into such a complex history of slavery, economic destruction/success, erasure of indigenous culture, and the colonization of indigenous America?
Supply and demand, I believe, would be the answer. Explorers from England and Spain came to the American coast seeking land, riches, and uncharted territory. Coming across the tobacco that the indigenous people grew for spiritual ceremonies, they discovered a potential enterprise that quickly grew out of hand.
Always desiring more, the English colonists who settled in Virginia and Maryland shortsightedly abused the land, growing tens of thousands of pounds of tobacco every year, and shipped it to England for global distribution. Soon a vicious cycle evolved: a battle for power evidenced through land accumulation, tobacco growth, indirect and direct oppression of those who had less/were deemed less, enslavement, death, and a constant quest for a way to rescue oneself from the cycle. What was once a few plants grown for traditions, gifts, and ceremony became the livelihood of most farmers (regardless of color) in Maryland for over 250 years, and the global impact of tobacco trade is deafening.
This little plant has touched every American's life in some way. It is interwoven into the history of this country. Even as we seek to put behind us the marred production system of this addictive plant, we are only trading sin for sin as we find cash crops and new systems through which we can hopefully fill the need for 'more'.
The little Orinoco (sweet tobacco) seedlings pop up in their pots. The sight is beautiful, but also jarring. With a sense of joy and reverence, I smile as those little leaves unfurl to soak up the sun rays. This time of year in the 18th century, tobacco farmers would be preparing their fields for transplanting, hilling hundreds of tobacco hills and transplanting hundreds of plants a day. How they managed the difficult work and still had time to grow their garden, I cannot quite puzzle out.
These little seedlings hold so much promise, a promise that every person whose stories our land tells would’ve experienced. They also hold much temptation, serving as a healthy reminder not to fall prey to the ‘need’ for more. Greed, the ideas of "I need more" and "I deserve ___", is an addicting mindset that will never be satisfied. Striving for that satisfaction always seems to come at the expense of others: the indigenous people, the soil, the enslaved Africans, the lives of tobacco farmers everywhere, the health of humanity. Yes, these seedlings hold a reverence for me - a lesson. We make tobacco, not to sell it or smoke it, but to provide our patrons with the perspective this plant holds. May we continue to investigate and understand the powerful story that tobacco tells and refuse to limit ourselves to hearing just one chapter in its history. Maybe then, the quote above may become true and America will finally see an improvement in the social health of our nation as a result of tobacco.
How does the growth of tobacco (any variety) here in America connect to your story? Tell us in the comments below!