As I’ve been working on the history of Russia’s experience with tobacco, I encountered a surprising development – the domestic production of tobacco in Alaska. Anyone who’s spent time working on Russian Alaska could not help to notice the colonists’ continuing concerns about food and agriculture. However, southern Alaska was an agriculturally fertile region, particularly among the Tlingit (on and near Sitka Island) and the nearby Haida. (I’ve been assuming they just didn’t produce the food the Russians wanted, but I could be wrong). Among their products was a type of tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalis). The mysterious part of the equation is that no one grows N. quadrivalis anymore, and it was native to the southwestern U.S. No one has come up with an explanation about its migration, much less its extermination.
What do we know? The local indigenous groups grew this type of tobacco, and seemed to have consumed it as “chew” – but a particular recipe of tobacco leaf and lime. Though the Russian American Company (RAC) seemed to have been successful in replacing domestic production with imported tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), the mystery for me is why the local population replaced local varieties for an expensive imported variety. Robert Fortuine suggests that it was because the imported version was stronger, but the evidence in only anecdotal, and the mechanism by which indigenous Alaskans acquired it was rather exploitative, to say the least.
But taking a step back, tobacco’s consumption habits reveal a fascinating history of intercultural exchange. In Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands, Russian merchants and explorers seem to have been the first people to introduce tobacco to the local populations. The Russians primarily carried Chinese “ball” tobacco, meant to be smoked in pipes. Though the initial Russian accounts reported that the indigenous communities didn’t understand how to use a pipe, by the end of the eighteenth century, the region appeared to be filled with smokers. On mainland Alaska, chewing tobacco leaves remained the common practice, even as new imported tobacco replaced domestic production. But ball tobacco (finished with sweetener) was not suitable for chewing tobacco. Therefore, the RAC needed a different supply – forcing the company to rely on American, British, and Spanish traders for alternate sources.
To my mind, it’s important to situate the RAC and its economic projects among the broad tapestry of Pacific economic exchanges. Part of this process involved supplying the demand of the domestic market, which was consuming tobacco in a way that was more or less unfamiliar to the company, and also exterminating domestic supplies so that the company held a monopoly on tobacco sales. It’s the sort of colonial economy we’d expect any European country to construct, and yet at the same time it was highly contingent on the other empires’ ability to supply Russians with the needed leaf.
There’s obviously been some great work on exporting fur from Russian America, and on the ongoing concerns over food supply, but no one has yet considered the supplies of tobacco (or the eradication of a domestic tobacco species) as a central project of the RAC. When I look through the records, I want to know more about the tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, and sugar supplies – which were all as important to the declining health of indigenous Alaskans as the punishing work conditions.