Tobacco growing in France ~ early history 1556-1856


Some 2-3,000 farms in France are currently involved in the growing of tobacco making this country the fifth largest producer in Europe. Some of these farms are based in the Touraine Region and I will be writing about these (past and present) over the coming months. My interest in European tobacco agriculture builds on the research I did a few years ago on the history of Tobacco Growing in the West of England and its links with slave grown tobacco in the America. (Short booklet available here.)

Early history of tobacco growing in France:

André Thevet ~ from Wikipedia

1556 André Thevet, a monk from the Angoulême region in the Charent Department, brought back tobacco seeds to France for the first time from Brazil where he had gone as chaplain of the colonising fleet under the command of vice-admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon (Portugal soon followed in 1558, Spain in 1559 and England in 1565).

Tobacco, however, was already being smoked and/or chewed in French port cities by sailors. After spreading beyond French ports, tobacco was first associated with peasant herbal cures and remedies. It was particularly important for the poor of the country who used its a hunger suppressant (this was also the reason for the popularity of tea in Europe).

By 1560 Tobacco became popular among the French aristocracy when Jean Nicot (French Ambassador to Portugal), promoting the plant’s healing properties, sent some as snuf to Queen Catherine of Médici (queen consort and regent of France) to treat the migraines of her son, François II. The treatment was successful and tobacco, called the “Queen’s herb”, was sold through apothecaries. As a result tobacco was named “Nicotiana Tabacum” after Jean Nicot.

Tobacco quickly became a staple crop in French gardens and, by the early 1600s, the tobacco habit was firmly established in France at the dawn of the nation’s colonial age. While the English state decided to prohibit tobacco growing at home in order to support colonial/slave-grown tobacco in her American colonies (especially Virginia) the French state made the decision to exploit this colonial market in addition to a growing export market of tobacco products manufactured in France. For example, a French colonial ordinance forbade the retail sale of tobacco in Québec, thus leaving the settlers without any incentive to improve the quality or yield of their crops. As a result they used native american/first nation cultivation techniques and grew only what they needed for their own use, curing it naturally in the open air. Centuries of this simplistic method of preparation brought recognition of a unique Québec tobacco, “tabac canadien“.

1629 Cardinal Richelieu instigated a customs’ excise on the importation of tobacco which, at the time, still came from the New World. This decision resulted 7 years later in the first plantations in France in Clairac (Lot-et-Garonne), west of Bordeaux.

1631 The profits of French Caribbean traders who were dealing in tobacco convinced Cardinal Richelieu to charter Compagnie Des Isles d’Amérique to develop Caribbean bases of tobacco production.

The Compagnie Des Isles d’Amérique taxes to the French Crown were due to be paid in kind; i.e. in best quality tobacco leaves. The first French settlers at Saint Christopher (1628) and Martinique (1635) were tobacco farmers. French colonists who were too poor to pay for their passage from France to the colonies had to reimburse the company upon arrival of two to three years labour preparing and rolling tobacco leaves. To promote these French colonial settlements as monopolies in the French tobacco trade, Richelieu brought in a new and heavy tax on tobacco originating from non-French colonies in 1629 (see above), but frustration with the contraband trade together with the crown’s financial needs and the allure of tobacco profits drove Richelieu to bring in a more comprehensive tobacco tax in 1632, this time imposing taxes and other duties on all tobacco of any origin whatsoever. Nonetheless, French producers could often get higher prices by selling illegally to Dutch and English traders rather than to the Crown’s company.

1635 Martinique and Guadeloupe were both settled by the French who quickly imported slaves to work sugar and tobacco plantations on their islands.

1636 The first plantations in France in Clairac (Lot-et-Garonne), west of Bordeaux and one of the main harbours at the time in the lower Lot valley. This was the first attempt in Europe at growing tobacco on a commercial scale.

By the mid 17th Century, there were large number of plantations established, particularly in the valleys of the Lot-et-Garonne, in Lorraine and Normandy.

1699 France’s Louis XIV and his physician, Fagon, opposed smoking. Snuff-taking becomes fashionable. Snuff-taking originated in France along with the snuff box of papier-mache.

1735 The French government encourages tobacco growing in Canada. From then on it was cultivated fairly constantly. Two of the varieties grown were native to Québec – Petit Canadien and Rose Quesnel.

1792-1815 During the Napoleonic Wars, hand-rolled cigarettes come into circulation in Spain. The regular soldiers who served in the French military gained a liking for tobacco. Having occupied Andalusia (Spain) these soldiers experienced ‘cut’ or ‘minced’ tobacco known in Andalusia as ‘tobacco picado’ ~ a form of tobacco relegated to the poor in the conquered region. Eventually it proved a popular form of using tobacco in France. The rural poor of Andalusia smoked the minced tobacco, wrapped in maize husks, but the upper class in urban areas would wrap the tobacco in paper.

c.1850 European women developed an early taste for smoking. The French writer, George Sand, while living with Chopin in the mid-1800s, loved to shock her guests by lighting up a cigar after breakfast.

1843 The first commercially produced cigarettes were manufactured in France by the State-run Manufacture Francaise des Tabacs. The first consignment of 20,000 cigarettes were sold at a charity bazaar organised by Queen Marie-Amelie in Paris that year.

1853-56 During the Crimean War cigarettes are widely circulated in Europe via the various participating armies (French, Turkish, English and Piedmontese) who found it far cheaper to roll their own cigarettes than to buy ready-made cigars.

About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
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One Response to Tobacco growing in France ~ early history 1556-1856

  1. Pingback: Tobacco growing today in France ~ with images from the Creuse Valley, Central France | Social history in the Touraine ~ Central France

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