General Characteristics of Tobacco

Nov 15 22:00 2004 Tanya Roberts Print This Article

It is ... agreed that the use of tobacco in Europe, as a means of ... ... in the ... of the leaves of the plant into Spain from America. There is every reason to suppose

It is generally agreed that the use of tobacco in Europe,Guest Posting as a means of inebriation, originated in the introduction of the leaves of the plant into Spain from America. There is every reason to suppose that the plant previously existed in Asia, if not from the earliest times, though we have no very reliable authority for its having been used, at least to any great extent, for any of the purposes to which we have devoted it. Various old authors report, that the ancients of the extreme East were acquainted with the burning of vegetable substances as a means of inhaling narcotic fumes, and, indeed, when we consider their love of incenses, both as a luxury and an element of their religious cult, we need not be surprised at this; but we have no evidence that the smoking of tobacco was known in the Old World before the introduction of the plant from the New.

It was in 1492 that Columbus first beheld, at Cuba, the custom of smoking cigars; but it was not until some years afterwards that a Spanish monk recognized the plant in a province of St. Domingo, called Tabaca. This is much more likely foundation for the name of the herb than that adopted by some, who assert that it originated in tabac, a tube used by the natives for smoking. That there was no particular aptitude in the European taste for the use of this herb, seems evident from the very slow progress, which ensued even of the knowledge of its qualities.

So late as 1560, when Jean Nicot, the French ambassador at the court of Portugal reported of it to his sovereign, scarcely any thing was known of the foreign vegetable, and in place of the men who accompanied Columbus having taken to any imitation of the Cuban-natives when they returned to Europe, it would rather seem that the adoption of the pipe is attributable to an Englishman, Raphelengi, who, having accustomed himself to it in Virginia, introduced the practice into England.

Sir Walter Raleigh does not seem to have used the pipe until after the return of Sir Francis Drake in 1586, so that nearly a hundred years expired before even the roots of the habit were fixed in the English people. Nor, probably, would the practice after this have spread as rapidly as it did, if it had not been for the persecution to which it was almost immediately exposed. If it is true, as has been said, that a few opposing volumes will fix the roots of a heresy, we need scarcely wonder at the triumph of tobacco, against the use of which more than a hundred fulminating volumes issued from the press within a few years.

These observations suggest a reference to the question, how far tobacco was intended for the use of man? The practice of the Cuban savages is seized by one party as a proof of a final cause, insomuch as savages are supposed to follow the first dictates of nature; and then comes the other party, who point to the tardy adoption of nature's gift by a civilized people as a clear proof that the weed was not intended for the uses to which it is applied. It is utterly vain to discuss questions of this kind. We have no elements for a proper judgment. Perhaps, for aught we know, the American savages were some thousands of years in coming to the habit—at least we have no reason to suppose that it could be a very primitive adoption.

Whether, indeed, man's custom, in most cases, is a proof of itself of nature's intention, must always be a puzzle; but as we know that many very bad things are greatly more natural to human beings than we would wish them to be, we have just as good a right to say for those to whom good tendencies are delightful from the beginning, that nature intended they should do their best to eradicate what is hurtful, and reclaim their fellow creatures from the indulgences of vice. The true practical question must, in short, always be what is beneficial and what is hurtful, according to the results of our experience.

The botany of our subject presents us with seven or eight different species of the plant, all affecting, more or less, the warm latitudes. Virginia seems, of all regions, the best suited to its culture, and yields in great quantity the common or Virginian tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). A more hardy kind (N. rustica,) may be cultivated in such latitudes as that of Scotland. This is the species, which has been found in Europe, Asia, and Africa; and were it not for the restriction imposed by statute, we would produce it on rich soils in greater quantities than would be convenient for our treasury, or beneficial to our people. It need not be said that the question of intention, on the part of nature, is not much helped by the habitat of the production used; otherwise we might expect to find the northern races less addicted to the use of this tropical weed than those of the warmer regions.

We know that probably the contrary is the truth; but all our efforts to draw any conclusion for or against the adaptation of a race to a production of a climate, are rendered futile by the teachings, not more of our religion, than of naturalists, who insist for a central point of origin for all races, and a constitution suited to all climates. The safest position to hold is that a bad habit may be formed in any latitude, and supported by any number of arguments, where the wish still holds its mysterious power over the conclusions of what we call reason.

As regards the composition of tobacco, we have endless experiments in that nearly new science, Organic Chemistry, which seems to try the patience of industry itself. There are some nine or ten different substances, which go to the formation of a tobacco leaf, and these seem to change in their proportions according to the condition of the plant. Setting aside starch, various acids, and salts, we come to what may be termed the essential element or principle called Nicotina. These proportions of carbon, hydrogen, and azotes, really tell to the analyst nothing from which he could predicate any thing certain as to the character of the compound.

In this respect, all the formula of organic substances is nearly under the same mystery, a small difference in the proportions producing the greatest difference in the combined results. But we can be under no mistake as to the character of the element which is called Nicotina—a colorless liquid alkaloid, with an acrid, burning taste. It is one of the most intense of all poisons, approaching in ita activity the strongest preparation of prussic acid.

The other important element procured from the analysis of tobacco, is an oil called nicotianin, supposed to be "the juice of cursed hebanon" referred to in Hamlet. As this oily substance is also a very intense poison, differing essentially from the alkaloid, and indeed it is supposed to be capable of acting on different vital organs. We have thus in tobacco two poisons—rather a remarkable fact in organic chemistry, where we find, generally, only one very active principle at the base of any particular production in the vegetable kingdom. It is indeed asserted by Landerer, that there is none of this deadly oil in the fresh leaves of tobacco; and Mr. Pereira remarks, that the substance must be developed in the drying of the leaves under the influence of air and water. The discovery; if true; may free the weed from the charge of possessing a double poison; but the consequence is all the same to the foreign consumer; who never sees the leaf in its green state.

It has been said that the smoke of tobacco, as analyzed by Zeise and others, contains nothing of the deadly alkaloid; and tobacco smokers have pleaded for less detrimental effects from the pipe or cigar than from the quid, but I fear their conclusion is not very tenable; for the detrimental oil, as we in fact see from the pipe itself, is largely increased by the continued roasting and burning. We know; too, that the old pipe is a favorite with the epicures; the more oil by which it is blackened the better becomes the instrument; till it attains perfection as a mass of clay soaked with poison; and dried, and soaked and dried a hundred times; so that the entire matter is imbued with the absorption.

On man, the physiological effects have been very minutely observed. I cannot do better than give the words of Mr.Pereira: "In small doses, tobacco causes a sensation of heat in the throat and sometimes a feeling of warmth at the stomach. These effects are, however, less obvious when the remedy is taken in a liquid form, and largely diluted. By repetition, it usually operates as a diuretic, and less frequently as a laxative.

Accompanying these effects are often nausea, and a peculiar feeling, usually described as giddiness, scarcely according with the ordinary acceptation of this form. As dropsical swellings sometimes disappear under the operation of these doses, it has been inferred that the remedy promotes the operation of the absorbents. It occasionally acts as an anodyne, or more rarely promotes sleep.

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Tanya Roberts
Tanya Roberts

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