Tobacco Road and William Shakespeare

An update after reading in the Guardian (11.08.15) that ‘Cannabis residue has been discovered in pipes buried in William Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon garden’ – it seems quite possible that the tobacco grown in the Cotswolds would have made its way to the Midlands – and there are suggestions that our locally grown tobacco had mildly hallucinogenic properties:

“O thou weed, who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet that the sense aches at thee, Would thou hadst ne’er been born. (Othello)

When you think of rolling a fag,
You might well think of Golden Virginia or dear Old Holborn,
Rather than Old Cotswold or Golden Winchcombe,
But it could have been so much different…
Four centuries ago, tobacco thrived
Around Winchcombe and the Cotswold hills,
Smallholders grew illegal cash crops;
Stuarts and Cromwell alike tried to ban
This illicit but hardly secret cultivation,
In their support for the American colonists.

The leaves were dried in Cotswold gardens,
Then short-stored in Cotswold cottages,
Before making their smuggled secret way
Along holloways and old pack horse tracks,
Contraband Nicotiana Rustica,
Edging its way towards the Smoke,
Disorienting, hallucinogenic,
But labelled as Best Virginia ‘bacco;
Charles Stuart’s law demanded arrests:
Arrests demanded Cotswold resistance.

This pattern was repeated under Cromwell,
But bumper Commonwealth harvests knew no laws,
And so, once more, in 1658:
‘I got together 36 horse… found an armed multitude guarding the tobacco field.
We broke through them… The soldiers stood firm and with cocked pistols bade
the multitude disperse but they would not and 200 more came from Winchcombe.’
And so, later in that same year:
Colonel Wakefield, Governor of Gloucester, tried again…
‘But the country did rise… in a great body, to the number of 500 or 600…
the tumult being so great he was constrained to draw off and nothing more done.’

And so, once more, the courts were tried again:
The accession of Charles the Second saw huge fines,
Followed by further Restoration threats in 1662,
Which were ignored as usual,
Despite some ‘spoiling’ of crops and harvests by the authorities,
In this Robin Hood outlaw tobacco land,
That constituted the late 17th century Cotswolds;
No wonder Samuel Pepys commented in 1677:
‘It seems the people there do plant contrary to law, and have always done,
and still been under force and danger of having it spoiled, as it hath been
oftentimes, and yet they will continue to plant.’

But as so often, the market spoiled what the law could not,
Market forces and ‘modernity’ destroyed a whole way of life
(‘To Progress we must all submit, A sorry plight I do admit’);
As colonial production increased, so prices went down,
As prices went down, so demand increased,
Leaving Cotswold tobacco an expensive and ignored anachronism;
But sometimes, even today, when you walk through some field,
You might just catch the rustle of Nicotiana Rustica,
Defiantly asserting its freeborn constitution.

So the next time you strike a light,
Then strike a light to light the strike
Of the Cotswold tobacco growers,
For who knows how different history could have been,
If those freeborn Cotswold men and women
Had been allowed to break that exotic link,
That link between tobacco and the coffee house –
Who knows how many thousands of Africans
Might have been spared the middle passage
And a life of plantation enslavement?
Old Cotswold and Winchcombe Gold instead of cold Bristol slavery.

With thanks to Will Simpson and Jim McNeill for their Bristol Radical Pamphleteer #9
‘Nicotiana Brittanica’