If you are in the US and interested in acquiring some of this seed to grow, reach out to Mark through his website.
The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Cuba’s Most Historic Tobacco
MAX PASCHALLMAY 2, 2020
Cuban cigars have long been famous around the world for their quality. The Caribbean island’s combination of perfect growing conditions and unique tobacco genetics coalesce into a product that - at its best - can cost thousands of dollars for a single box. While having the right methods to properly dry, cure, and process tobacco into a world-class cigar is essential in creating this product, it all starts with having a superior plant to work with. And as it turns out, all modern Cuban tobacco varieties are descended from a single ancestor: an ancient landrace known as ‘Criollo.’
Across Latin America, the term criollo in reference to tobacco denotes ‘native’: varieties that were cultivated and held sacred by indigenous people for thousands of years, and which have survived into modern times. Each country or region has its own ‘Criollo’ tobacco variety. Cuba’s ‘Criollo’, however, is truly special. Not only is it an heirloom that was cultivated by the indigenous Taíno, but it has survived centuries of colonization and come to define the standard for quality in a multi-billion dollar industry.
Tobacco fields in Viñales. Source.
Prior to European contact, the Taíno in Cuba cultivated native tobacco called kohiba, which they utilized extensively for ceremonial purposes. For indigenous peoples, tobacco is perhaps the most widely revered ceremonial plant in the Americas. In Cuba, it was a centerpiece of many rituals - both in inducing visionary journeys, and as a sacred offering to spirits, deities, or ancestors. The Taíno have lived in the Greater Antilles for at least 2,000 years, and by the late 15th century had created a burgeoning civilization. Prior to contact, their population in the Caribbean likely numbered in the millions. But that was soon to change.
On the first island where Columbus landed in 1492, the people he encountered brought him dried tobacco leaves as a gift. When they reached Cuba a few days later, the Spanish witnessed people smoking rolled tobacco cigars, and snuffing tobacco through Y-shaped instruments that they inserted into their noses. These snuff pipes, or possibly the cigars, were called tabako by the locals.
A reconstructed Taíno village in Cuba. Source.
Spanish colonization brought untold horrors to the indigenous population of Cuba: men were abducted and enslaved to work in gold mines and sugar cane fields. Women were treated as commodities to be traded and abused by conquistadors. Most died from smallpox and other novel diseases. By the mid-1500’s, Spanish officials claimed that the Taíno were extinct - a narrative which is still often repeated. But it was not true.
A Native woman and child from Baracoa, Cuba. 1919. In the past few years, researchers have begun taking a deeper look at the hidden histories of indigenous people in the Greater Antilles. Source.
Many Taíno fled to remote, mountainous regions. In those areas, many of which remained essentially ungoverned by the Spanish into modern history, they survived and later intermarried with African maroon communities and European settlers. These creole communities preserved many Taíno practices, traditions, and crops - even, in some cases, an indigenous identity. This story played out across the Greater Antilles. Recent genetic studies confirm this: today, over 33% of Cubans have Taíno DNA, and in Puerto Rico that number is as high as 61.1%. Many traditional indigenous crops similarly became essential parts of modern Caribbean cuisines and culture, like yuca, sweet potatoes, calabashes, maize, chillies, guava, etc. Tobacco was one of these.
The landraces of tobacco that Cuba’s Taíno grew as sacred ceremonial plants survived the genocide and colonization of the island by the Spanish, and continued to be grown as a cash crop by small farmers - particularly in the more remote or mountainous areas. It was colloquially called tabaco criollo or tabaco negro cubano. The same rural communities who retained many aspects of indigenous Taíno culture also preserved this original variety of tobacco.
Even the architecture in deeply rural areas of Cuba, such as this tobacco dying shed, is influenced by traditional Taíno materials and techniques. Source.
After the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), Cuba’s first major war against the Spanish for independence, the island was flooded with tobacco seed from the U.S. and Mexico. These foreign tobacco genetics proliferated, and the original 'Criollo' landrace was driven nearly to extinction. In 1907, Heinrich Hasselbring, a researcher at the University of Illinois, found and preserved the original 'Criollo' variety (described botanically as Nicotiana tabacum var. havanensis), knowing how vitally important this variety was. Indeed, many famous American tobacco cultivars (like ‘Connecticut Broadleaf’ and others) were themselves originally bred from native Cuban seeds.
Thirty years later Cuba’s political climate had changed, and ‘Criollo’ was finally poised for a renaissance. New legislation enforced the destruction of all foreign tobacco varieties. At the same time, Cuban agronomist Juan Tomás Roig rediscovered and propagated the original ‘Criollo’ seed, which was then used to repopulate the island’s tobacco farms. As a result, ‘Criollo’ became the foundation of Cuba’s tobacco industry in the 20th century. The indigenous heirloom that had been cultivated for countless generations of Taíno in Cuba, preserved by campesinos in the mountains, and which narrowly escaped extinction, had become one of the most well-known tobacco varieties in the world.
Tobacco production in Cuba still uses many of the same methods that have been utilized locally for centuries. Source.
Initially, ‘Criollo’ was used for all parts of the cigar (filler, binder, wrapper) - an all-purpose cigar tobacco whose flavor and versatility made Cuba’s industry famous. By the late 1970’s, however, a number of tobacco diseases and molds appeared (which the Cuban government alleged was part of a CIA operation), devastating the traditional tobacco varieties on the island. Cuban agronomists worked quickly to fix the issue, breeding ‘Criollo’ and its traditional relatives (‘Corojo’, etc.), with disease-resistant wild tobaccos like Nicotiana debneyi. These new hybrids, with names like ‘Criollo 98’, ‘Corojo 99’, and ‘Havana 2000,’ were created in order to maintain the flavor and qualities of the original varieties, without any of the pesky disease issues. Tobacco farmers in Cuba immediately embraced these hybrids, and stopped growing the old disease-susceptible varieties. Today, new hybrids continue to be bred by Cuban agronomists, which allow farmers to grow the high-quality tobacco that finds its way into Cuban cigars. But ‘Criollo’ is not gone: its genetics survive as the dominant parent in modern hybrids grown by campesinos in Cuba and beyond.
This spring, we planted out seeds of the original ‘Criollo’ landrace that we received from a USDA repository. We do not know if it is susceptible to disease here, or how it will fare in our wet and cold Northeastern climate. What we do know is that this variety has survived against all odds through over five centuries of colonization, genocide, globalization, war, and revolution. The Taíno were the first people in the New World to encounter Europeans, and as a result they were the first to experience the disease, violence, theft, and slavery that were brought by Columbus and his compatriots. The fact that one of their most prized sacred plants has survived the intentional and methodical destruction of their civilization sounds like a miracle, but it is no coincidence.
Cuban ‘Criollo’ tobacco is far more than just a plant of interesting historic note: it is here because every year, for over 500 years, small farmers in Cuba valued the seeds and traditions of their ancestors. The Spanish declared the Taíno extinct in the 16th century, but this plant’s survival points to a very different story. The indigenous and creole campesinos who lovingly preserved it year after year were often ignored by the official record, but their existence illuminates the cracks in the totalitarian logic of colonialism and reveals a far more interesting history of Cuba. This plant is proof that ancestral crop landraces and heirlooms are not just curiosities: they often have qualities that can change an industry, a country’s economy, or even the way we see ourselves. That, we believe, is something that is worth preserving.
We are honored to steward this precious seed, and to pass it along to other seedkeepers.
Seed Rematriation: if you are Cuban or Taíno living in the United States and would like to grow this tobacco, please reach out to us and we will be happy to send you seeds free of charge next spring.