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The story of Tobacco

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

From the Amazon Jungle to the world

the story of tobacco

The story is told differently depending on where the storyteller is from. Cubans and Dominicans collate ancestral versions to make themselves the owners of the origin of tobacco and cigars. But we are left with only history. We have done our research and we hope you enjoy this article where we tell you where tobacco comes from, when and many historical and interesting aspects to it.

What is the origin of tobacco?

It has been established that tobacco has its origin in the Amazon region. One tends to think that its diffusion is due to the time of the conquest, but it is not. The first plantations must have taken place between five thousand and three thousand years BC. Tobacco was the most widespread crop on the American continent long before colonial times.

The first to mobilize tobacco seeds were the indigenous groups of the Orinoquia, i.e. the tribes around the Orinoco River, the region now called Venezuela. Then it was the Arawak Indians who began to explore the Antilles and brought tobacco seeds to these Caribbean islands.

Uses of tobacco in pre-Columbian times

Tobacco had several uses in pre-Columbian times. On the one hand, shamans used it during their ceremonies and spiritual rites. Tobacco helped these characters to enter into a trance and "in contact with the spirits''. Even today, in the rites of indigenous communities, tobacco is one of the most important elements. For example, in the Amazon region, to make yajé / ayahuasca, the shaman uses tobacco to purify the energies of the people and his own before tasting the elixir.

On the medicine side, the Indians made a paste of tobacco leaves to cure skin affection. In the form of tea, tobacco leaves were used as a laxative to get rid of intestinal parasites or to induce vomiting in case of intoxication. Tobacco is still used by certain tribes as an expectorant, and as a remedy for headaches.

In addition to religious and medicinal uses, there were even tribes that consumed tobacco as food.

Spanish Conquest and the discovery of tobacco

Tobacco was known to Europeans in 1492 on the occasion of the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his expeditions to the Caribbean on his first voyage, as recorded by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas.

When the Spaniards arrived in the West Indies, they first landed in San Salvador, then stopped briefly to stock up on water in Cuba, and finally settled for the first time in Santo Domingo. The Dominican Republic is officially the first Spanish settlement.

Once settled there, the Spaniards began to trade with the Taino Indians. They were the first to show the conquistadors the act of chewing tobacco leaves or inhaling tobacco dust and smoking the rolled leaves, previously dried in the sun. Until then, the Spaniards had not smoked. They watched in amazement as the Taino Indians inhaled and exhaled from these leaves of a fascinating aroma unknown to them until then.

Interesting fact: The Taino Indians of Cuba called tobacco leaves Cohiba.

The arrival of Tobacco in Europe

According to the work of Fray Ramon Pane, who was one of the friars who lived most closely with the Taino Indians, he was the one who took the seeds back to Spain between 1510 and 1512. Other records indicate that it was the Spaniard Hernandez de Oviedo, governor of the island of Santo Domingo in 1510. Other versions point out that it was the Spaniard Rodrigo de Jerez, one of the companions of Christopher Columbus who spent more time with the Taino Indians of Cuba.

When Fray Ramon Pane talked about the benefits of tobacco, the king of Spain was fascinated and tobacco began to be planted in Spain by royal order. Because of the winters and soil quality, tobacco does not grow in the same way in European lands. That is why, in a growing demand for the mythical product, tobacco began to be imported from America, specifically from the Antilles.

Although there are doubts about who brought the seeds to Europe first, we know that they certainly arrived for the first time in Spain between 1510 and 1512.

European tobacco consumption: the consequences for the islands

The demand for tobacco by Europeans became so great that some Caribbean islands, especially Cuba and the Dominican Republic, established a tobacco eco-market, that is to say, from the production to the export of tobacco, society was stratified. Some segments of society specialized in planting and harvesting, others in the production process, others in transportation and logistics, others in domestic trade, and so on. There is a division of labor and a hierarchy that is established from and around tobacco.

From new world curiosity to a worldwide hit

We, therefore, see that tobacco entered Europe at the end of the 15th century in the form of powder (as it is most easily used by the Indians) and became popular in the 16th century in the form of a "cigarette". During the 18th century, the tobacco industry began to formalize in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. During the second half of the 19th century, tobacco was consolidated not only by the appearance of plantations or domestic handicrafts but also by manufacturing. That is to say, cigarillos, cigars, and small handmade cigarettes began to be produced. At the end of the 19th century, the first tobacco and cigar shops were consolidated. The islanders became masters in the art of rolling cigars of different shapes and sizes, becoming the world reference in cigar craftsmanship. Therefore, the idealization of cigars is not only due to the quality of legendary tobacco but also to the savoir-faire that has been passed from generation to generation during the last centuries in the Caribbean and Central and South American cultures.

Uses of tobacco nowadays

Nowadays the most common and frequent use of tobacco is in the form of a cigarette. Whether it is one of the cowboy's brands, with a yellow filter, or the contemporary version of this, which is heated only through an electronic device, such as the famous iqos.

According to Statista, The revenue in 2022 for the Tobacco Products market amounts to US$912.30bn and it's expected to grow annually by 2.64% (CAGR 2022-2027). The market's largest segment is the segment Cigarettes with a market volume of US$811.20bn in 2022.

statista statistics tobacco products

The percentage for cigars is small compared to cigarettes but in the following table, we can see how between 2020 and 2022 the cigar segment is the one with the highest growth according to the following table by Statista.

statista tobacco numbers

If these stats interest you, you should read our article on what 2022 looks like in the cigar industry


Tobacco is one of the many gifts that the American continent offered to the colonies over 500 years ago. Europeans' appropriation of this indigenous tradition throughout the Americas brings prosperity to some Antillean businesses and helps establish a national economy around tobacco.

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