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History of the Cigar: Clouded in Smoke




The tobacco biz is nothing new to humanity, but as with all fine things, there’s still a bone to pick the world over. > By Gerry Cohen


What getting shot multiple times is to the gangsta-rappers of today, claiming to be the discoverer of tobacco was to the explorers and conquistadors of the 15th century it’s just what you have to do to be taken seriously. Six centuries after the path to the New World was discovered, the real truth of the cigar’s introduction to western civilization is, like many of history’s mysteries, a little fuzzy on the details.


The cigar must acknowledge some of it’s origination to the natives of Mexico, as well as those of Central and South America, who have used tobacco for many centuries. The famous French ethnologist, Jacques Soustelle, devoted his life’s work to the Aztec culture and confirms that tobacco was first used in religious ceremonies and later as curative roles in ancient Mayan, Incan, and Aztec civilizations. If we examine the origin of the word “cigar”

as noted in the Encyclopedia of Tobacco and the Smoker (French)—contrary to popular belief, it does not come from the Spanish word cigaral, which refers to the shape of the cicada bug it belongs to the language of the ancient Mayans. A chronicle of the Quiche tribe, known as the “Popol Vuh” gave the cigar the name, Jiq or Ciq, and the Spanish cigarro comes from the Mayan word Ciq-Sigan. The word took a while to gain traction and appeared in the writings of Father Labatt (1700) as cigales. In 1735, seegar appeared in the New English Dictionary and is still used commonly today.



In these New World civilizations, smoking was the privilege of the religious leaders who used the tobacco smoke as a medium to communicate with the gods. From priests to chiefs and politicians, smoking became associated with special occasions and a sign of class and nobility. The “hoi polloi” wanted to emulate the high class so they began using tobacco, noticing that it curbed the appetite and increased stamina. As a result, tobacco became known for its medicinal attributes. It was typically ground in to a powder and used like snuff, either being inhaled or chewed. In this crude form, tobacco was often mixed with other types of grasses that may have been curative and a great way to “cop a buzz.” Strange Boats on the Horizon If we ask “the Google” (to quote the departing U.S. President) who discovered the Americas, we find names like Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan, Hernán Cortez, and Luis de Torres, And we, of course, all remember our grade schoollessons of how Queen Isabella of Spain commissioned the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, captained by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, to find the New World. On October 12, 1492, Columbus arrived at the island known as Guanahani, now part of the Bahamas. While exploring the island, the natives told him about a larger island close by them called “Cuba.” On October 28, 1492, he landed on what many call “smokers’ paradise.”


Captain’s Columbus log, star date November 1, 1492: “I have sent two of my most trusted companions, de Torres and de Jerez, into the interior to explore and observe the indigenous and they have reported a most unusual sighting: a large number of the native Indians of both sexes walk around their village with a little lighted braid made from a kind of plant whose aroma it was their custom to inhale.”One of the Spaniards, Luis de Torres, who was a linguist and translator of Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldean, continued his journey to the most eastern part of the island. There he lived with natives and noted even more startling observations: “They carry a lighted piece of coal and some grasses, and inhale their aroma using catapults which in their language they call tabacos.” This may be the prehistoric progeny of the modern-day cigar. It is unclear whether he referred to the braid or the catapult or perhaps a palm leaf or dried gourd that held the grasses as the “tabaco.” Columbus notes that the native Indians (the “Taínos”) called the grasses smoke > PRIMER




“Cohiba.” Little would they know that some 500 years later, Cohiba would have become the most recognized and well-known cigar brand in the world. This proud legacy is best exemplified in the slogan “Habanos Unicos Desde 1492” which translates into “Havana Cigars, Unique Since 1492.”


Columbus’ other companion, Rodrigo de Jerez, is considered by Cuban historians as being more important than de Torres, and claim that de Jerez should be the cigar industry’s poster boy as he was the first to smoke a cigar every day starting on October 28, 1492. This observation was further confirmed by Vincent Pinzon, one of Columbus’ co-captains, by an entry is his log book dated November 5, 1492: he reported that they “wrapped dried tobacco leaves in palm or maize in the manner of a mat of paper. After lighting one end, they began drinking the smoke.” De Jerez appears to have been the “Adam” of cigar smoking. He brought the habit back home with him, but the smoke billowing from his mouth and nose frightened his neighbors so he was sentenced by the Holy Inquisition to serve seven years! By the time of his release, smoking was considered en vogue in Spain. Currently, a prize is awarded annually in Havana to the book that best serves the general interests of the tobacco industry and cigars: it is appropriately named the “Rodrigo de Jerez Prize.”


Columbus made four voyages between 1492 and 1504 and explored the tobacco hills of San Salvador, Cuba, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Honduras. According to some history buffs, the monk Ramon Pane who was with Columbus on his second voyage discovered tobacco, witnessing locals smoking in Hispañola. He is also credited with being the first to introduce tobacco in Europe. Based on the consensus of information we have today, Columbus or one of the members of his first voyage should be credited with the discovery of tobacco. The controversy continues once we try and identify who brought the plants or seeds back to Europe.


Some historians suggest that in 1518, the Spaniard Hernán Cortez, the conquistador of Mexico who makes a cameo at the end of the Gibson film Apocalypto, took seeds back to Spain for King Charles V. Tobacco soon spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula. This is contradicted by a specialist dictionary that suggests that Francisco Hernandez Goncalo brought the seeds back to Spain in 1570.


Portuguese historians have a different take claiming that Hernandez de Toledo was the first to bring tobacco leaves and plants from the Yucatán and from the Mexican province of Tabasco to Europe in 1520. They support this assertion by claiming the first tobacco plantation was built in Lisbon with tobacco from Mexico. The Dutch claim that the famous merchant Damien de Goes returned from Florida with seeds as a gift to King Sebastian of Portugal. French claims are bathed in controversy. Originally, it was thought that the French Ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot, carried the seeds from Lisbon in 1560. The consensus has now changed and it is believed that the monk Andre Thevet first introduced tobacco to France via Brazil in 1556.


Smoking methods followed the customs of the tobacco producing lands. In the East or North America, pipes were first used and then a form of cigarettes, whereas the Caribbean and Central and South America used a form similar to the modern day cigar. This is why England became the country of pipes and Spain the country of cigars. Its popularity and use grew and so did its profile. Physicians began to question tobacco’s curative claims, which led to the first “anti-tobacco” campaign in 1619 championed by King Edward I. For the next 30 years, smokers suffered real persecution. In the Near and Middle East, smokers had their lips and noses cut off! This negative sentiment did a 180 when governments found that they could tax tobacco. Tobacco use flourished and the state coffers of Spain, France, and England got fat.


Tobacco use spread, with sailors and soldiers of the day as disciples. The first Havana cigars reached the shores of New England in 1762 following an expedition to Cuba. The first factories opened in the Americas in Connecticut in 1810. At the same time, the great Spanish cigar factories in Seville were in senescence. The smokers of the day loved the snuffs made in Andalucía and embraced the new version of Spanish cigars. Tobacco leaf did not hold up well during the long voyage from Cuba to Spain; however, the few that made it were exceptional. It was the improvement of maritime travel especially the steamship that catapulted the growth of Cuban cigars into Europe as well as the burgeoning United States. In 1900, there were approximately 300,000 cigar brands in the United States and its population consumed 3.5 billion cigarettes and 6 billion cigars annually; 4 out of 5 men smoked at least one cigar per day! Cigars flourished in the U.S., becoming an important part of our society and culture, while the industry itself created hundreds of thousands of jobs, where the task of rolling cigars was left to women. Tobacco grown in Florida, Maryland, Connecticut, and Kentucky used to make cigars in the U.S. was not as strong as Havana leaf. But the size of the U.S. market allowed both Cuban and American made cigars to co-exist, giving the smoker the final choice. The Cuban Revolution changed everything in 1959, and effectively shut off access to the highly respected Havana cigar. However, it did create an exodus of experienced tobacco growers who reinvented their craft in places like the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Honduras. These countries and other tobacco producing countries like Mexico and Costa Rica began to produce new and interesting

cigar options for the smokers of today.


We have peered into the fascinating history of cigars; a rich and controversial legacy of hand made artistry. Remember the next time someone complains about your cigarsmoking, just mention that it is your chosen medium to contact the gods. As we look to the future, “we should always remember the past and learn from it, less we are doomed to repeat it.” Against the backdrop of all the negative sentiment of anti-tobacco legislation today, remember the same thing happened some 390 years ago. This too shallpass and for sure, this time around, we will all keep our lips and noses.


SMOKE | WINTER 2008/2009 Gerry Cohen.

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