Nicotiana tabacum was unknown in Europe when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic. There he saw both men and women who ‘drank’ (or inhaled) the smoke of rolls of burning leaves. The use of tobacco spread quickly through Europe. (Le Couteur)
“For a long time, there was simply no name for what you did with tobacco. Only in the course of the seventeenth century did ‘smoking’ become a commonly used term. Up to that time it was compared with drinking – one spoke of ‘drinking smoke,’ (‘fog drinking’) and ‘drinking tobacco.’” (Stern)
In the Islands, tobacco cultivation dates at least to 1809, when Archibald Campbell observed ‘smoking tobacco is another luxury of which the natives are very fond.’ Don Francisco de Paula Marin planted tobacco on January 11, 1813.
Six years later, the use of tobacco was widespread. Chiefs, as well as their servants would pass a single pipe from one person to another. (Schmitt)
The island of Kauai is credited with the enterprise of first systematic attempts in tobacco growing (as it was in sugar, coffee and other agricultural effort), which was in 1851, possibly earlier.
Hanalei was the first tested locality, in which venture Messrs. Wundenburg, Bucholz and Gruben were the pioneers, followed very soon after by JR Opitz at Waimea.
“(T)obacco raised on these islands is said by the Mexicans and Californians to be of excellent quality. It certainly possesses a flavor superior to that of two-thirds of the cigars imported into our market. It will grow, I think, almost anywhere on these islands.” (Judge Robertson; Thrum)
However, they soon learned that “growing tobacco at Hanalei, on the island of Kauai, has proved a failure, and Messrs. Bucholz and Gruben who were engaged in the same business have removed to Waimea, and joined Mr Opitz.”
“It has been found that tobacco cannot be grown to any profit at Hanalei, owing to the great humidity of the soil, and luxuriant vegetation, which keeps the ground filled with destructive insects.” (Lee; The Polynesian, July 17, 1852)
“Wundenburg speaks of the growth of tobacco in the following terms. ‘I have been examining where tobacco will grow best, and have found that it is most advantageously cultivated in those very plaices, which are unfit for the growth of nearly every other thing.” (Lee; The Polynesian, July 17, 1852)
“I believe all the leeward sides of the islands contain many tracts of land exclusively fitted for its cultivation, but the windward sides never will furnish good places for the growth of tobacco, except on a few small spots in barren ravines, well sheltered from the high winds.”
“Where the tobacco grows the finest, as near Waimea on this island, only one good crop can be raised in a year.” (Wundenburg; Lee, The Polynesian, July 17, 1852)
The good news held true in the leeward side of the Island of Hawaiʻi. “The promising outlook attending the cultivation of tobacco on the island of Hawaiʻi must be very gratifying to the promoters and shareholders in the established plantations”.
“(T)he crops and returns therefrom this past year already exceeding the estimate set forth in launching the new enterprise, so as to warrant the extension of the planting area and curing barns for the scientific care and treatment of the leaf.”
“A shipment each of several tons leaf tobacco from the Kona and the Hawaii Tobacco Co’s this year, is reported to have met ready sale in New York at very satisfactory figures; the leaf being of excellent quality and well cured received favorable notice of eastern buyers.” (Thrum)
The Islands grew “four different kinds of tobacco in our field, and as some of them are much better than others”. (Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society, 1854)
First, native tobacco – when tobacco was first introduced into these islands, there were two kinds cultivated by the natives, one with a large round leaf, and the other with a smaller and more pointed one.
Second, there were some plants from seeds introduced from Havana by Robert C Wyllie. Both in appearance and flavor, the tobacco bears a strong resemblance to the broad-leafed native kind, and none but one well acquainted with tobacco, could distinguish them.
Third, there were a few plants from seed sent us by William L Lee, procured by him from the NYSA Society. It has a very small, round and fine leaf, and a superior tobacco.
Fourth, seed sent by John Montgomery; the plant is so different from any other we have seen, that it was suppose it was from Manila. (Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society, 1854)
Later, “Cooperative experiments with tobacco have been conducted on the island of Hawaii with the object of producing a type of tobacco that is especially adapted to Hawaiian conditions.” (USDA; Pacific Commercial Advertiser, December 19. 1904)
By November, 1908, there are three de facto tobacco growers in Hawaii, the Kona Tobacco Company, operating in Kona and Hāmākua, on the island of Hawaii, one farmer in south Kona, and one farmer in Hāmākua.
“Hawaiʻi’s competitors in the tobacco industry are Cuba, Sumatra, and possibly the Philippines, tropical countries only. … The superior burning qualities of the Hawaiian-grown Cuban leaf will sell it in any market, and four years out of five Cuban leaf will not burn. The maintenance of the present duties on tobacco are necessary if a tobacco industry is to be built up in Hawaiʻi.” (Tariff Hearings, House of Representatives, 1908-1909)
Things were looking up for the Kona crop … “A small quantity of the Kona leaf was sent to the Coat recently to be made up into cigars. These have just arrived and demonstrate beyond a doubt that the wrapper tobacco as grown in the Kona district has no superior not even shade grown Connecticut or the finest imported Sumatra.” (Hawaiian Gazette, July 25, 1911)
“The source of commercial tobacco is a large, sticky-hairy annual herb to about 6 feet high, 3 native of tropical America. Since about 1812 it has been growing in Hawaii, where from 1908 to 1929 it was tried out on a large scale in Kona, Hawaiʻi, as a possible industry.” (In Gardens of Hawaii; Melrose)
A disastrous fire broke out in late 1912, completely destroying numerous company buildings and two years’ worth of tobacco stored in them. The company never recovered. With the advent of World War I then the Great Depression, tobacco slowly withered away in Kona. (Melrose)