Lazarat, an all but forgotten village in the Albanian mountains, was last month under siege from a small army of police. It had finally been brought to heel two decades after the inhabitants had established a well-entrenched economy cultivating cannabis. This enterprise involved 90% of the men and women of the town, and is estimated to have generated over $4 billion each year. After three days of fighting, and despite attacks from rocket launchers and mortars, the police managed to placate the inhabitants, making around 50 arrests of the main gang leaders.
Watching this report last week, I was struck by the resemblance that this had to a different time, place and drug: seventeenth-century Gloucestershire and the tobacco plant.
Although it is well known that tobacco began to be widely consumed in the early modern period, it is not always appreciated what lengths people went to in order to cash in on the habit. Smugglers shipped in illicit varieties; unlicensed retailers sold it at untaxed rates; and entrepreneurs added soil and coal dust to bulk up their products. But perhaps most daring were the small-scale farmers who grew tobacco as a cash crop to supply the national market.
Unlike marijuana in most of the modern West, the trade and consumption of tobacco in the seventeenth century was legal. However, the licensed traffic was controlled by powerful trading companies, anxious policy-makers, and unscrupulous government commissioners. They all took the view that the best way to extract money from tobacco was to regulate the trade, opting to import the plant from the newly established American colonies. Yet despite domestic tobacco cultivation having been perpetually outlawed in England and Wales since 1619, there were individuals who tried to undermine the system.
Many of these people lived in the West Country, in the relatively less agriculturally developed and more parochially independent boondocks of the Cotswolds and the Vale of Tewkesbury. In 1631 it was reported that they, ‘having gathered their tobacco, daily bring it to London by secret ways’. Five years later, Charles I’s Privy Council commanded the local elite of Tewkesbury to enforce the ban and bring any delinquent to justice.
However, the king’s councillors soon came to realise that the gentry responsible for carrying out such orders were reluctant to do so. In fact, owing to the popularity of tobacco growing, and the wealth that it was providing for poorer farmers, local rulers were actively protecting (if not quite encouraging) the industry.
In a similar way, the previous mayor of Lazarat, prior to last month’s clampdown, had also condoned his inhabitants’ rampant weed cultivation.
Following the outbreak of the English Civil War, the feasibility of growing tobacco – and getting away with it – increased. By the 1650s, Cromwell’s republican state was dispatching dragoons to Gloucestershire to locate and burn each year’s crop. By now, however, the plant’s cultivation had spread out into neighbouring counties as well as on Jersey and Guernsey.
The next two decades met with renewed attempts to stamp out the business. Although more success came in finding and punishing those responsible, it was not until the 1690s that tobacco cultivation (at least on a commercial scale) was finally eradicated. Still, it required the military hardware of the day, and what one historian, Joan Thirsk, termed ‘draconian’ measures, to fully pacify inhabitants of the “Wild West” that was Gloucestershire. Whereas Albanian police took just three days, successive early modern regimes wrestled with the problem of illicit cultivation for over sixty years.
Read one way, this can be tied in with a “rise of the state” narrative. The triumph of the Parliamentary state by the latter seventeenth century is, in this case, symbolised by its ability to fully enforce a domestic ban on tobacco cultivation. This contrasts with previous monarchical governments who could not completely make every parish in the kingdom adhere to their own interpretation of what constituted as law.
Compare this to the 21st century, and we can see that when a state opts to do so, it can successfully bring down a whole community that derives its wealth from illegal means.
Albania’s sudden enthusiasm to banish an illegal, albeit profitable, business has been explained as a product of its desire to merge with the EU. If this analysis is true, the whole business bears a definite resemblance to seventeenth-century efforts to integrate England into a more unified entity, where the regulation of drugs – or to use the less culturally loaded term: intoxicants – was part and parcel of this centripetal process.
Alex Taylor is completing an MA Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield after becoming addicted to the study of tobacco and its wider social, political, and cultural impacts.