Four hundred years ago, the little colony at Jamestown, Va., made a last stab at trying to find a commodity that it could successfully export so the only English outpost in North America could survive.

Since it had been settled in 1607, the colony had tried “gold” (“gilded durt,” as John Smith called it, that turned out to be worthless), silkworms, tar, sassafras, plunder (of the Indians, mostly for food), timber, and glass-making, all of which had proven quickly inadequate. It was not until John Rolfe brought in a West Indian variety of “sweet-scented” tobacco in 1611 or so, proving to be much easier to smoke than the harsh native Indian variety, that the settlers found a crop, comparatively easy to grow and light enough to be shipped in bulk, that assured their survival.

The first shipment sent to London in 1613 or 1614 (historians are in dispute) was a meager four barrels’ worth, but it commanded such a good price there — probably around 40 shillings a poundweight, 1,000 pounds to a barrel — that it was quickly established as a workable cash crop and the colonists quickly expanded their fields for the following year. By 1616, 2,300 pounds were shipped, the next year 19,388, and in 1620, some 60,000 pounds: “The only commodity for Merchandizers in booth the Plantations,” went a contemporary account, “is at this day no other than Tobacco, whereby [their] apparel, tooles, implements & all other necessarys (except victuall) are produced.”

Now James I was a well-known foe of tobacco, and had in fact written a bitter pamphlet, “A Counterblaste to Tobacco,” in 1604 to try to discourage a bad habit even then growing among his people. And when in 1620 he discovered that his only colony in America was importing the weed in great quantities, he issued a proclamation severely limiting the amount that could be imported. The colonists immediately replied with a petition:

“Your Majesty ... prohibiting our importation of tobacco, the only commodity which we have had hitherto means to raise towards the appareling of our bodies and other needful supplements ... we are plunged in so great extremities that now remaineth neither help nor hope, but that we must all here perish.” The royal heart could hardly dismiss such woeful pleading—nor his advisors’ warning that the colonists could find a ready market in other European ports, thus depriving England of lucrative import duties from Britain’s most valuable colony — that the trade was continued and Virginia and Bermuda granted a virtual monopoly of the growing English market.

Just a year after the first export of tobacco, John Rolfe, in an act that was surely more political than amorous, married a young woman of the local Indian tribe nicknamed Pocahontas. It was a marriage that ended the war then going on between the settlers and Pocahontas’s tribe, and within a year brought forth the first English child to survive in the New World, but it was to be short-lived. In 1616 Rolfe and Pocahontas traveled to London, primarily because the colony needed to be sure its tobacco was fetching a fair price, but on their trip home the following year Pocahontas caught some mysterious European disease and died at Gravesend.

Tobacco did save Jamestown and assured Engish settlement in the Americas, but it was a most unfortunate salvation, quite apart from the fact that it was known to be “harmefulle to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs.” For one thing, it needs a great deal of land in any case, but in Virginia, whose topsoils were thin, it proved so voracious that plantations were exhausted in a half-dozen years and abandoned on a relentless path westward. “Now the greediness after great quantities of Tobacco,” complained several prominent Virginians, “causeth them after 5 or 6 years continually to remove and therefore neither build good Houses, fence their grounds or plant an Orchards, etc.”

For another, as plantations grew larger to satisfy a growing European market, the tasks of growing tobacco — particularly the picking of the leaves in the fall — became so odious that the planters sought outside laborers. In 1619, a Dutch ship landed at Jamestown with, Rolfe noted, “20 and odd Negroes,” who were sold, not into slavery but indentured servitude on the plantations; normally for either blacks or whites the terms would be around eight years’ labor and then a “freedom grant” of a small acreage on which to farm.

It is recorded that a number of these blacks were so treated, and some even went on to relative prosperity in the Virginia countryside. But the demand for such labor was so great that it was but a short step to procuring black slaves from a slave trade that was already prosperous in the West Indies. There is no doubt but that the colonists were comforted in doing so by a passage from a work only recently translated by King James’s scholars into English: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.”

Four hundred years later, we may well reflect with some irony that the first English settlement of what was to become the United States, and the wellspring of Virginia and the nation it was instrumental in creating, was built on a crop that led to the institution of Southern slavery, widespread devastation and exhaustion of soils, and the sickness and death of millions of people to this very day.

Kirkpatrick Sale, a Mount Pleasant resident, is the author of a dozen books about history and environmental politics.