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Tobacco and the Social Life of Conquest in London, 1580–1625

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 April 2021

Lauren Working*
Faculty of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford, UK


From its origins in the Chesapeake and the Caribbean to its transformation into smoke in a Jacobean chamber, tobacco entered drastically new contexts of use as it travelled from Indigenous America to the social spaces of early seventeenth-century London. This article draws on comparative anthropology and archaeology to explore how early colonization, particularly in Jamestown, influenced the development of smoking among the English political elite. This offers a case study into the ways in which Indigenous commodities and knowledge were integrated into English ritual practices of their own; it also reveals the deliberate choices made by the English to set themselves apart from those they sought to colonize. Placing the material practices and wit poetry of gentlemen within the geopolitics of colonialism raises attention to the acts of erasure or dispossession that accompanied the incorporation of tobacco into urban sociability. Here, the practices of Indigenous peoples were modified and altered, and the pleasures of plantation were expressed as an intoxication as potent as the plant itself.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press.

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67 Ibid., sigs. Cv, C4v.

68 Ibid., sig. C4r.

69 Tobacco features in George Chapman's Monsieur d'Olive (1606), Thomas Middleton's The roaring girle (1611), Ben Jonson's The alchemist (1612), and Francis Beaumont's Knight of the burning pestle (1613), among many others.

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