Accepted paper:

Tobacco in lowland South America and elsewhere: shifting perspectives on the Enlightenment


Andrew Russell (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

The movement of tobacco across the Atlantic contributed significantly to the development of Enlightenment thought and commerce with consequences that are being felt to this day. Indigenous tobacco use offers cross-cultural perspectives on tobacco as an agent of both enlightenment and destruction.

Paper long abstract:

Courtwright (2001) argues that the movement of tobacco, alcohol and caffeinated products across the Atlantic as part of the 'Columbian Exchange' was "a deliberate, profit driven process" marked by large-scale production methods, widespread consumption and rapid cultural integration. However, focussing on the ecological and economic aspects of this transatlantic traffic masks consideration of other aspects of this exchange, not least the role of tobacco as a precursor and mainstay of Enlightenment thought across Europe. In this paper I will argue that at least some of the differentiating features of the Enlightenment era may be attributed to the ingress of tobacco into western society. However, if the development of cultural perspective was a hallmark of the Enlightenment (Wolff 2007) it is curious how important cross-cultural perspectives on indigenous tobacco use were lost when tobacco traversed the Atlantic. Using lowland South America as a source of ethnographic examples I will argue for the need to shift perspectives again - to see tobacco as an agent not only of intellectual enlightenment but also as the mediator in networks of transnational corporations, governments and consumers with what are increasingly destructive results for humanity.

panel P08
Tobacco and Enlightenment