Theses Doctoral

Cultivating Colonies: Tobacco and the Upstart Empires, 1580-1640

Morris, Melissa Nicole

This dissertation addresses a fundamental question: how did the English, French, and Dutch establish successful colonies and trade routes in the Iberian-dominated Americas? It argues that the English, Dutch, and French (a group I refer to as the “Upstart Empires”) relied upon Iberian and indigenous knowledge and trade networks in a series of illicit commercial operations and failed colonies in South America and the Caribbean before they were able to establish themselves permanently in the Americas.
These little-studied colonial experiments all had one thing in common: tobacco. A crop in high demand that grows nearly anywhere and requires little special equipment, tobacco was an obvious choice for new colonies. The Spanish Empire was founded on mineral extraction and the subjugation of extant empires. For other colonizers, the development of plantation economies was crucial. Cultivating Colonies looks at how this came to be. This dissertation relies upon a diverse source base, using Spanish, Dutch, French, and English archives to tell a story that transcends imperial boundaries.
The dissertation begins by considering the intersection of botany and European expansion. It situates European voyages of discovery and colonization in the context of a search for plants and their products, including spices, and argues that early colonization efforts involved a close understanding of local environments. Tobacco was a plant Europeans encountered nearly everywhere they went in the Americas, but it was only a century after Columbus that smoking became fashionable in Europe. Thus, tobacco’s rise as a transatlantic commodity coincided with the Upstart Empires’ increased presence in the Americas.
Spanish colonists and Africans learned how to grow and consume tobacco from indigenous peoples. Spanish colonies on the margins of empire began to produce it to trade with the English, Dutch, and French from the late sixteenth century. Through this trade, the Upstart Empires learned more about tobacco, and also about the environment and geography of places just beyond the reach of the Spanish and Portuguese. They began to establish trading posts and colonies in such places, and especially in the Guianas—a vast stretch of land between the limits of the two Iberian powers. There, Carib, Arawak, and other indigenous groups were willing to ally with small numbers of interlopers against their Spanish enemies. In these settlements, Northern Europeans participated in indigenous warfare and traded commodities in exchange for agricultural knowledge, labor, and goods.
Even as the Upstarts established permanent colonies in North America and the Caribbean, they continued to settle in South America, too. Moreover, the Upstarts’ experiences in South America were crucial to the development of their colonies to the north. Colonies as diverse as St. Christopher, Virginia, and New Netherland all grew tobacco using methods and seeds from South America. In each settlement’s early years, the Upstarts were also reliant upon indigenous and African agricultural knowledge, an overlooked foundation of European colonization. Cultivating Colonies argues that the illicit tobacco trade and the short-lived colonies that sprang from it were crucial to the ultimate success of the English, Dutch, and French empires in the Americas.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Brown, Christopher L.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 14, 2017