The natives brought fruit, wooden spears, and certain dried leaves which gave off a distinct fragrance.
Christopher Columbus, 1492
When the first explorers arrived in the Americas they encountered a new plant know locally as 'tabaco'. The native Americans held the plant in high regard and would smoke its dried leaves on ceremonial occasions, inhaling the fumes through a tube. The sailors who tried it and liked it brought tobacco back to Europe. It arrived in England in the 1560s where 'tobacco drinking' soon became fashionable.
Tobacco was seen by some as a cure-all, effective against everything from toothache to cancer. It also had its critics, however, including King James I. He was worried that the American colonists were too reliant on it as a crop and tried to control its production through heavy taxes. This only encouraged smuggling and as Britain became more addicted, and the profits from tobacco became greater, its future and that of the colonies became guaranteed.
When the first enslaved Africans were shipped to North America in 1619 they were no doubt bound for the tobacco plantations of Virginia. At first the Africans often worked alongside British indentured servants who were contracted to the plantation owner for a fixed length of time. As tobacco became more profitable, and those willing to become indentured servants fewer, the plantation owners looked to Africa to meet their labour needs. Between 1690 and 1770 about 100,000 slaves were imported to Virginia and Maryland.