3 – Walter Raleigh Introduced Tobacco and Potatoes to England
Sir Walter Raleigh is a fascinating historical figure as he has managed to have a variety of achievements and deeds falsely attributed to him. For instance, he didn’t chivalrously lay his cloak on a puddle to ensure the feet of Queen Elizabeth I stayed dry nor was he this dashing and handsome individual as is often suggested.
Perhaps one of the most enduring myths associated with Raleigh is the notion that he introduced potatoes and tobacco to England. The date given for the arrival of tobacco in England is 27 July 1586 when Raleigh brought it over from Virginia. One fable says that a servant believed Raleigh was on fire when he saw him smoking a pipe for the very first time and proceeded to douse him with water.
In reality, tobacco had been in England for a number of years before the above date. Spanish and Portuguese sailors regularly smoked tobacco and probably introduced the habit to their British counterparts long before Raleigh is said to have brought it over. Some sources suggest it was Sir John Hawkins who brought tobacco to England in 1565.
Raleigh is also credited with bringing the potato to England but again, this is untrue. The Spaniards discovered the potato during their Inca conquest and there are records which suggest it was sold in Seville in 1570. There is no real mention of potatoes in England until the 1590s when herbalist John Gerard released a plant catalogue which contained over 1,000 species of plant including a picture of the potato. Yet again, there is simply no evidence of Raleigh introducing potatoes to England although he may have come across the sweet potato off the coast of Venezuela.
While Raleigh didn’t introduce tobacco or potatoes to England, he was a renowned explorer and one of the queen’s favorites. In fact, when Queen Elizabeth I discovered Raleigh’s secret marriage to a maid, she had him thrown in the Tower of London in a fit of jealous rage. He was released and failed in his attempt to find El Dorado. His luck ran out when King James I came to the throne in 1603 however. Raleigh was accused of treason and was sentenced to death. After 12 years in the Tower of London, he was released only to fail on a second expedition to find El Dorado. He defied the king’s command by attacking the Spanish on this mission and was executed in 1618.