Magazine article The Spectator

Smoking: A Global History of Smoking

Magazine article The Spectator

Smoking: A Global History of Smoking

Article excerpt

The reign of King Tobacco SMOKING: A GLOBAL HISTORY OF SMOKING edited by Sander L. Gilman and Zhou Xun Reaktion Books, £29, pp. 408, ISBN 1861892004 & £26 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

It is half a millennium since tobacco was launched upon the world, on 2 November 1492, when Columbus's men captured their first American and were saddened to find that his most prized possession was not gold but a smelly bunch of herbs. Now that the weed's reign is almost over it is time for a solemn history of the stuff, whose effects included the prosperity of English settlements in territories claimed by Spain, and eventually the rise of their world-dominating successors.

This is not that kind of history. Instead, professors of this and that, from departments of 'cultural studies' here and there, contribute theses on the origins and consequences of smoking, plus lots of jolly pictures, mostly from advertising. Except in the pharmacological bits there is little of the usual Puritan anti-tobacco cant. Other smokeable and pleasurable drugs cannabis, cocaine, and so on - get proper consideration. The book is far too long and occasionally boring, but there are treasures, many of them in the 'I never knew that' class.

For example, it was not today's wicked multinationals that made Chinese people such fervent smokers, but their equally wicked Portuguese predecessors of the 16th century. By 1600 tobacco was extensively planted in Fujian and Manchuria, and the Emperor Kanxi was puffing away even before he was enthroned in 1662, at the age of seven (he banned pipes from the palace later, without noticeable effect). Intricate pipes were introduced to Taiwan by Dutch traders from their posts in Japan. Monsieur Nicot, who gave his name to nicotine, was the French ambassador in Lisbon in 1559, so all that Walter Raleigh stuff is anglocentric nonsense. …

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