An Obnoxious Weed - The Colonial Tobacco Trade in the 1700’s

Early Trade

Virginia’s development is mostly down to the industry of growing and exporting tobacco. The early colonists saw the Native Americans growing tobacco and soon adopted it as their "cash-crop" (growing a commodity for sale, not for personal use). Since 1613  tobacco provided more income than any other farm crop until the 21st Century.


Sir Walter Raleigh is given the honour of introducing tobacco to England, but the Spanish Conquistadors had first seen the Aztecs using it a century before. Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to Portugal, is credited with introducing tobacco to France and Nicot was honoured by the botanical name for the species - Nicotiana tabacum.

Smoking – clay pipe, not the familiar modern cigarette - was therefore already popular in Europe before Virginia was colonised. James I, by 1604, was so repulsed by the habit that he issued A Counterblast to Tobacco, three years before Jamestown was settled.
An Englishman, John Rolfe, sent to the Colony in 1612 by the Virginia Company, found that tobacco would grow well in Virginia and sell profitably in England. Many of the original  Jamestown colonists had died of starvation as their farming efforts had been relatively unsuccessful. Throughout Virginia and the greater Chesapeake, the potential cash value of tobacco soon became apparent.


 In 1613, rather than the harsh strain of tobacco that was native to Virginia, Rolfe grew a crop of Sweet-scented tobacco from seeds imported from the Caribbean. England paid a high price for this sweeter tobacco, and the craze for planting  it followed. Settlers began to plant it in every available land space. Before mid  century the Chesapeake colonies were able to rely on tobacco as a main means of currency.


Jamestown settlers cared more about the price paid for tobacco than for King James's personal opinion against smoking. The tobacco in John Rolfe's original shipment of four hogsheads was sold in England at 3 shillings per pound. Tobacco therefore provided the colonial governments of Virginia and Maryland with one of their principal revenue sources.
A duty of two shillings levied on each hogshead of tobacco exported yielded Virginia £3,000 in 1680, and £6,000 per annum from 1758-1762. In Maryland the proceeds remained steady at £2,500 per annum from 1700. Exports increased from £2,300 in 1616 to almost £50,000 in 1618.


A man's wealth was estimated by his annual amount of accrued pounds of tobacco. Tobacco currency was also used to pay fines and taxes. For example, to marry, a man had to pay the rector of his parish so many pounds of tobacco. Owners permitting Negroes to keep horses were fined 500 pounds tobacco.


Exporting Tobacco


Tobacco was exported direct to England, France, Holland, the Caribbean Islands and South America, with Virginia providing more revenue to England than any other colony because of a 2 shilling/hogshead export tax on tobacco. To ensure a higher percentage of profit remained in England, King Charles II issued the Navigation Acts in 1651. These prohibited export of tobacco except to English ports, but smuggling was rife; sea captains continued to trade in the Chesapeake and were skilled at evading the authorities and export fees. The desire to control the colonial economy to benefit the English merchants eventually resulted in the American Revolution in 1775

The initial Jamestown growers, including John Rolfe, piled tobacco leaves and allowed them to "sweat" as they dried before being shipped to England. Virginian farmers soon discovered the advantage of hanging leaves to dry, however, before pressing them into barrels known as hogsheads. Plantation workers piled dried tobacco leaves into the hogshead, pressed them down with weights or a screw and lever, and repeated the process until the hogshead was tightly packed. The hogsheads would then be sealed tightly so the tobacco inside would not rot or be spoiled by seawater.


A hogshead
 The first hogsheads in the mid-1600's weighed 500 pounds, but the size gradually increased along with the amount of tobacco prized (squeezed) into each. About 1,000 pounds of tobacco could be packed into a hogshead if you knew what you were doing. By the 1800’s a typical hogshead weighed nearly 1300 pounds.


As the Colony populations increased, so did the production of tobacco. With the rise of imports of tobacco into England increasing from 60,000 pounds of tobacco  in 1622 to 500,000 pounds in 1628, and to 1,500,000 pounds in 1639. By the end of the 17th century, England was importing more than 20,000,000 pounds per year.






Problems in price stability and quality existed, however. In 1660, when the English markets became glutted with tobacco, prices fell so low that colonists barely survived. In an attempt to make up by quantity what was being lost in low prices planters began mixing other organic material, leaves and floor sweepings in with the tobacco. The exporting of this trash tobacco solved the immediate cash problem, but accentuated overproduction and resulted in a deterioration of quality.


"pressed" tobacco
Control over tobacco growing, processing, and shipment therefore became a major subject of debate at official Governmental meetings. Before inspection was eventually implemented, tobacco could be shipped from any wharf and the quality of tobacco unregulated. Poor-quality Trash tobacco decreased prices for everyone, since buyers were often unable to inspect the hogsheads before delivery.


As the reputation of colonial tobacco declined, European demand for it reduced and  Colonial Government stepped in to resolve the situation. Three solutions were put forward


·         reduce the amount of tobacco produced;
·         regularized the trade by fixing the size of the tobacco hogshead and prohibiting shipments of bulk tobacco;
·         improve quality by preventing the exportation of trash tobacco.


These soon fell through because there was no practical way to enforce the law


If the planter delivered his tobacco loose or in bundles he received a receipt -  a transfer note, which entitled the holder to a certain number of pounds of tobacco drawn at random from the total stock of transfer tobacco, derived from several sources. Often, after filling his hogsheads,  a planter had an insufficient quantity left to fill another. The excess was delivered to the warehouse, where the planter would receive a transfer note to cover it.


Clergy, innkeepers, artisans, and others whose main occupation was not tobacco planting  tended small patches of land in their spare time in order to meet various country and parish levies, and to make purchases in local stores. These people carried their small quantities to the warehouse and received transfer notes that could either be sold or tendered as payment of debts, fees, and taxes. Until the union between Scotland and England, creating Great Britain in 1707 Virginia planters had little control over the export and sale of their tobacco crop. With the opening  of warehouses and settlement of Scottish and Dutch merchant services, however, small planters could sell their crop in Virginia and purchase farm tools, clothing, and other items from the same merchant thus eliminating the risk of shipment and sale overseas.


Large planters continued to ship their hogsheads to England and trust their crop to agents in London, Bideford, Bristol, and other cities. Before profits were known, these agents were often instructed to purchase household goods and luxury items for the planters against the sale of the crop. Many of the leading Virginia planters went deeply into debt in the 1760's after miscalculating the sales price, or for ordering too many imported goods before ensuring the annual tobacco crop produced the assumed projected number of hogsheads.


Goods required, included guns, powder and hot and flints. linens of all sorts, but chiefly ordinary blues, osnabrugs, (a coarse type of plain textile fabric, named for the city of Osnabrück from which it may have been first imported.) Scotch and Irish linen, and fine mens and women’s clothes ready made up (modern “off the peg”)  broadcloth, kerseys (a coarse woollen cloth derived from the village of Kersey, in Suffolk, England) and druggets, (a heavy felted fabric of wool or wool and cotton, used as a floor covering) Haberdashers’ wares - hats which cost about five or six shillings apiece. wigs. iron work - nails, spades, axes, broad and narrow hoes, frows (a cleaving tool for splitting cask staves and shingles from the block) wedges, and saws and other tools for carpenters, joiners, coopers, shoemakers, etc. cutlery, earthen-ware, cooking pots, fine china, pewter, window-glass, grind-stones, mill-stones, paper, ink-powder, saddles, bridles – horses, cattle, sheep – all livestock, especially those of breeding quality – furniture, ornaments, books, ….. the list is endless.


In the 1730's, Governor Gooch's efforts to force tobacco to be inspected before shipment were finally agreed. The Inspection Acts revolutionized tobacco regulation and became a permanent feature of trade until the War for Independence.. Official public inspection warehouses were established at specific locations along the Chesapeake Tidewater, planters by law had to transport every hogshead of tobacco to a warehouse for inspection. Inspectors were empowered to break open each hogshead, remove and burn any trash, and issue tobacco notes to the owner specifying the weight and kind of tobacco. It became harder for growers to ship Trash tobacco - and easier for colonial officials to collect the appropriate taxes.


Intellectually, the "tobacco mentality" affected the wealthy plantation owners in the Tidewater area. They competed over the quality of their crop, while plunging deeper into debt to the English merchants in order to display their wealth and maintain a high status among Colonial society.

George Washington was, initially, a successful tobacco planter. He inherited slaves and agricultural lands on the Middle Peninsula and the Peninsula when he married, Martha Dandridge Custis, the richest widow in the state.In 1759 his slaves on the Claibornes plantation produced 23,427 pounds of tobacco and 281 barrels of corn. Washington quit growing tobacco on his Potomac River plantations, however, partly because transportation costs were too great and because his agents were unskilled and unfair in their dealings. Despite his instructions to time the sale of his crop to reflect the seasonal high points in the market, Washington received low prices so often that he decided to grow wheat, oats and other small grains on his Mount Vernon plantations instead.


Labour, Growing and Harvesting,

The plantation economy in Virginia was based on cheap land and even cheaper labour. Tobacco is a labour-intensive crop to grow, requiring over a year of work to gather the small seeds, grow them early in the year in cold frames, transplant to outdoor fields when the soil is warm, then weeding is necessary throughout the summer - "topping" plants to remove the flowers and force more of the plant's energy into the leaves. Harvesting the leaves individually for several weeks as they ripen in late summer to early autumn. Then drying and storing…

The original English settlements in Jamestown had no slaves, but by 1700 there was not enough labour to be of sufficient use. The first black slaves arrived in 1619 and in 1660 only 3% of the colonists were black. By 1680 the black population still only composed less than 7%. Between 1667-1686 Virginia created a legal structure for holding black families in permanent slavery, and imported a huge quantity of slaves after 1700 to provide sufficient labour to grow tobacco. At the time of the first census in 1790, 20% of the residents in Virginia were slaves.

The demand of tobacco as a main export crop altered the balance, however, it must be noted that until the early-mid 1700’s white convicts and voluntarily indentured white people formed a greater part of the workforce. (Until Australia was discovered)


Shipping – beware pirates
To avoid piracy – rife along the coast of America and the Caribbean in the 18th Century, shipments were sent to England in convoy. Once the Royal Navy regularly provided an escort, merchant ships could dispense with armament thus creating more space for cargo.
 From the following, it appears convoys were prepared in the spring months:

Tobacco Shipping Discussion in the Maryland Assembly:

Wednesday in the Evening May 15, 1695. To his Exncy the Governr
The humble Peticion of the Commanders of the Merchants Ships now trading and lying at Anchor in the Ports of their (Majesties) Province of Maryland. Humblly Sheweth unto your Exncy. That yor (Petitioners) having been hindered by severall Impedimts (as first the bad season for Making and Raising Tob. 2ndly the excess of Rain and ill weather occasioning great Trouble in rolling of the same when got ready Received, 3rdly the want of Sloopes) for the said and several other Reasons cannot possibly be ready to Saile for England within the time appointed by the Commandore. Yor (Petitioners) do therefore humbley pray your Exncy that our time of stay for the dispatch of our necessary Business (for the Intrest as well of the Masters as our Owners) may be lengthened untill the last day of June that at which time wee do all Sincerely promise to be all ready loaden or unloaden at Kiquotan to set Sayle under Convoy of Capt Crowe the Commandore aforesaid. And as in duty bound shall pray &ca. Signed by 24 ship commanders.




 London, Bideford and Bristol were the main English ports for Tobacco
 see  Part Two 


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