Rodrigo de Jerez secured his place in history as a trailblazer way back in 1492. He and a companion, Luis de Torres were crewmen who sailed to the Americas aboard the Santa Maria as part of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage.
While in Cuba, which members of the voyage assumed to be China (Columbus knew the world was round but thought it rather tiny), Rodrigo and Luis hoping to meet the great Khan of Cathay, ran into some native Cubans. Perhaps they had never actually seen a native of China or perhaps, to Spaniards, everyone else in the world looked alike. Nevertheless, they were befriended by the Cubans, never realizing they might just as easily have been eaten.
The Cubans were taking a smoke break and they invited Rodrigo and Luis to join them. According to Rodrigo, they had wrapped some dried leaves in palm or maize into something that looked sort of like a paper musket. To the Spaniards’ surprise, they lit one end with a flame and pushed the thing into their mouths, “drinking the smoke” from the other end. Luis wanted nothing to do with it, finding it a filthy habit, most likely addictive, and socially repugnant. But Rodrigo being, as previously mentioned, a trailblazer, jumped right in, thereby becoming, right there on November 15, 1492, the first European to ever smoke tobacco.
The natives believed that tabacos, as they called it, was a gift from the Creator and that the exhaled tobacco smoke was capable of carrying one’s thoughts and prayers to heaven. Rodrigo just thought smoking was sophisticated and cool. Almost immediately, he became a confirmed two-pack-a-day man.
Rodrigo brought the habit back to his hometown (despite signs posted all over the Santa Maria saying Thank you for not smoking), but the cloud of smoke billowing from his mouth and nose gave his neighbors such a fright that the holy inquisitors imprisoned him for seven years. By the time he left prison, smoking was de rigueur.
I used to wake up at 4 A.M. and start sneezing, sometimes for five hours. I tried to find out what sort of allergy I had but finally came to the conclusion that it must be an allergy to consciousness.
– James Thurber