WI John Rolfe never brought Bermuda tobacco to Jamestown?

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by pdhudson, Jan 13, 2018.

  1. pdhudson Member

    Jan 2, 2018
    Okay, so! In 1609, the Jamestown colony was pretty much a filthy, useless money hole that wasn’t producing any of the gold it promised and also rapidly shrinking due to starvation. What saved it was John Rolfe, who turned it into a town revolving around the production of a lucrative new cash crop: tobacco.

    From there, Jamestown expanded, and British colonization in the southern U.S. grew from there. The problem was getting workers who wouldn’t die of malaria. Settlers tried to make indentured servants from Europe work the land, but they kept dying of malaria. Then try tried enslaving the Native Americans, but they kept dying of smallpox and malaria and also easily running away. They eventually started importing kidnapped Africans, who for whatever reason were better able to survive malaria. And the trans-Atlantic slave trade was born.

    But it was all dependent on John Rolfe. Because the tobacco that grew around Jamestown was extremely harsh; Europeans didn’t like smoking it. The Spanish had developed a milder strain in the Caribbean, but it was illegal to sell it to anyone who wasn’t a Spaniard.

    We don’t know how exactly John Rolfe got his hands on this milder strain of tobacco. We know he was on the Sea Venture, which got hit by a hurricane on the way to Jamestown and ended up stranding the survivors in Bermuda for nine months. Sometime during those nine months, Rolfe somehow got ahold of those illegal tobacco seeds. When he finally got to Jamestown, he planted the seeds, England got addicted to tobacco, and Jamestown turned into a boomtown.

    Here’s the thing: without those tobacco seeds, would the trans-Atlantic slave trade still have happened? I think Jamestown would have folded. Would the English keep trying to establish a colony in the area? I assume the Puritans would still come to New England, but they were just a handful of religious extremists, not an economic powerhouse that England would have supported.

    Even if the English continued to try colonizing the New World, the attempts would take longer, possibly giving the Spanish the opportunity to settle the land first. And the Spanish had colonies elsewhere. Their only option wasn’t to try to farm a malarial swamp. (Jamestown specifically was in an awful place; even higher ground a few miles away would have made a huge difference.) Would they have had to resort to African slaves?

    Furthermore, would Native Americans be better off? In places colonized by the Spanish, Native Americans intermarried with the settlers. In places colonized by the English, they were decimated. Spanish colonization was still awful - and smallpox was still tearing through the population - but it wasn’t quite as vicious as English colonization.

    So what if the Sea Venture never washed ashore in Bermuda? It was a fancy new ship and its newness is what doomed it. What if they had waited longer before taking it out to sea for the first time? The caulking would be stronger and they might not have run into a hurricane. John Rolfe would have gone straight from England to Jamestown and never come across those tobacco seeds. I and everyone else in the U.S. would probably be speaking Spanish right now. And Africa would probably be way more stable. On the other hand, we probably wouldn’t have gotten The Tempest. But I’d gladly trade one Shakespeare play for no trans-Atlantic slave trade and a less horrific Native American genocide.

    What do you guys think? Am I being too optimistic? And what else do you think this would have changed?
  2. frustrated progressive Insert Witticism Here

    Jun 16, 2013
    Traffic,Heat,Crime,Poverty, Still Paradise (LA)
    Someone else probably would have brought it in soon afterwards.
    It was a fairly obvious and simple idea.
  3. pdhudson Member

    Jan 2, 2018
    But none of the other supply missions to Jamestown had stopped in the Caribbean. The Sea Venture's time in Bermuda was a complete accident. And the Spanish were actively trying to prevent any non-Spaniards from getting ahold of the seeds. Like, if they found out you gave or sold the seeds to a non-Spaniard, they'd literally kill you.

    Also, it's unlikely that this other person would have married Pocahontas, giving him a connection to the Powhatan, who taught Rolfe native methods of curing the tobacco. Maybe this person would have already known other methods of curing tobacco, but you'd think someone like that would have other opportunities, such that he wouldn't have ended up in a hellhole like Jamestown. Most of the people England sent to Jamestown were "garbage people" that they just wanted to get rid of.
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  4. Analytical Engine Monarchist Collectivist Federalist

    Mar 12, 2007
    UK, EU (for the moment), Earth
    The Chinese tried this with silkworms, and the Portuguese with rubber plants. It didn't work - people still eventually managed to smuggle them out of the country because they were so desirable.

    Someone is going to try it with Spanish tobacco.
  5. Galba Otho Vitelius Well-Known Member

    Apr 21, 2016
    This is a good POD. Here are some thoughts:

    1. Yes, the Jamestown colony would have folded, as did many other attempts at colonization on the Eastern seaboard, and in any event the settlement was relocated IOTL because it was in a terrible location.

    2. The English would have kept trying.

    3. The Chesapeake is still a good area for a colony.

    4. The success of failure at Jamestown really doesn't affect what the Puritans are doing, the English capture of New Amsterdam/ New York, Philadelphia, or the Carollinas colonies, or for that matter the establishment of Maryland. These were all done independently of Virginia.

    5. So with the other points in mind, Jamestown just gets known as another failed attempt at colonization. Even IOTL, the American historical myths make a bigger deal of the later New England settlements.

    6. I keep seeing "even more Spanish colonies" scenarios, but the Spanish had taken over every place in the New World where they conceivably could take over. And people keep forgetting that the Spanish kept expanding their holdings. In Mexico and Peru, natives held out in pockets for decades if not centuries past the times of Cortes/ Pizarro. They pushed into northern Mexico and later southern Texas, New Mexico, and California, they pushed into Chile and eventually the Plata, also into what became Venezuela. These were all more natural areas for the Spanish to expand into than what became the United States. They went to Florida as a base to protect the treasure fleets and didn't do much beyond that.

    7. But I do think "more French colonies" are entirely feasible because they had so many near misses IOTL, and they did try in the Carolinas. So they might have gone into the Chesapeake if the English efforts completely collapsed. But really its much more likely that would you would get is a somewhat later British settlement of Virginia starting from a different location.

    8. I've been ignoring the slaves and the tobacco. The problem with slaves from Africa is that everyone imported them, and they are still coming in large numbers to the Carolinas in any timeline, and they will still probably wind up in whatever gets established in Virginia' Maryland.

    9. I'm not sure, but I don't think tobacco was that big in Maryland and you still got lots of African slaves. Tobacco staying as something just produced in the Caribbean has more effects. In the USA, the government actually promoted tobacco use heavily, such as giving all the GIs in World War 2 tobacco products, then sort of did the opposite, and the attitude would probably be more hands off if this was something just produced in British colonies in the Caribbean. Maybe it gets reserved for the black market like other drugs imported from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
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  6. GeographyDude Well-Known Member

    Jun 9, 2014
    You bring up excellent points.

    Combined with the failures at Roanoke, if the English have 3 to 5 to 10 more years (wish I could estimate this better) in which things go badly at Jamestown, they likely will stop major new efforts or ramp-ups of existing colonies for a generation (20 years), maybe two generations.
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2018
  7. Claudius Well-Known Member

    Sep 12, 2008
    New Jersey, USA
    Slavery was used by all of the colonizing powers in the West Indies, most profitably for sugar. Once it had been demonstrated to be profitable there, someone is going to start importing African slaves to British North America . Besides tobacco, there was cotton, rice. indigo and other crops grown with slave labor.The only way to prevent that would be to have some POD that had the English government from a very early date , legally ban chattal slavery, but I'm not sure what that POD might be
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  8. GeographyDude Well-Known Member

    Jun 9, 2014
    The book Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia, Kathleen Brown, University of North Carolina Press, 1996,

    presents a case that slave codes in Virginia really accelerated after Bacon's Rebellion in 1676.

    It was a sloppy rebellion where Nathaniel Bacon didn't take effective power when he seemingly could, but was more interested in his own military commission. But "the powers that be" seemed really scared of even the possibility of an alliance between slaves and indentured servants.

    Yes, some slave codes before, but a lot more afterwards, and one could argue that afterwards is when the racialization of slavery really shifted into high gear and gave us the plantation culture we're all very familiar with.

    * generally a boring academic book, not near as exciting as the title sounds
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  9. metalinvader665 Well-Known Member

    Aug 19, 2011
    Tennessee, North American Union
    One problem with Spanish colonisation is that it tended to have poor results when there wasn't a structured, centralised group of people to take over and co-opt their leadership. Look how light their presence was in Tejas, California, and Florida, for instance, and this extends to South America, given the Spanish in Patagonia and the Chaco. I believe the English policy toward American Indians in large part existed because of how few Indians there were compared to settlers. Racism played a large part, given how poorly treated mixed-race individuals were in many cases, but I think that if it were the English who conquered the Aztecs or Inca instead of the Spanish (it just takes a brilliant leader using the same tactics and with the same luck as Cortes or Pizarro), they would have a similar culture to the Spanish in their colonies.

    Now, what I think is Spanish exploration of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia would continue without English interference, and they'd establish a mission system there (the basics of which existed OTL). In time, Spain would find the gold in Georgia, which also occurs in the Carolinas, see the Georgia Gold Rush for what happened OTL, and indeed, it's the same gold which American Indians vaguely knew of which taunted Hernando de Soto throughout his expedition. This means more population in the region, but as with Potosi or the mines of northern Mexico, the gold will exhaust itself (within a few decades, quicker than those areas). In North America, the lack of Indians to conscript like in Potosi, Zacatecas, etc. will likely mean Spain relies even more on African slaves than they did in those places. And I think that given the potential of other cash crops, once the gold runs low you'll see the Spanish increasingly switch to tobacco and other cash crops which early slavery in the South made work. Which means demographically the South might evolve much like Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the most "Caribbean" parts of Colombia or elsewhere in Latin America--remember the OTL South was already often compared to the Caribbean and Latin America by various writers since before American independence.

    Something to keep in mind, basically.
  10. mrmandias Regent

    Nov 29, 2006
    The Great Empty
    The main driver for the transatlantic slave trade was sugar in the Caribbean. Tobacco in Virginia was peripheral.
  11. GeographyDude Well-Known Member

    Jun 9, 2014
    In 1662, the Virginia House of Burgesses decided that if the mother is a slave, the child is also a slave. In my mind, this is already going pretty hardcore.

    Bacon's Rebellion took place in 1676, and slave codes over time increased. Also seemingly strengthened was the move from indentured servants to slaves, with 'others' and nonchristians being the slaves.

    That's the claim also put forward by this second source:
    https://books.google.com/books?id=8...e&q="Bacon's rebellion" "slave codes"&f=false
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2018