European traders introduced tobacco to the Solomon Islands as a trade commodity in the early nineteenth century. It was regarded as the perfect trade item since besides being portable and preservable it can be divided into small sections in trade arrangements, and is addictive. As in other parts of the world, Solomon Islanders were initially perplexed and frightened by people smoking tobacco since they appeared to be on fire and bellowing smoke. But before long they tried and became addicted to it. The usual form was twist or stick tobacco, the leaves wound into tight spirals heavy with resin. Tobacco was packed in twenty-four-pound boxes, twenty sticks to the pound, all wrapped in tobacco leaves. It was smoked in small clay pipes, another trade item (or sometimes local bamboo pipes) and was used to entice trading in commodities and labour. Indentured labourers returned home with large quantities, and over many decades huge amounts of tobacco were imported into the Protectorate. When tobacco seeds became available people planted their own in their villages and gardens.
The BSIP Report for 1898-1899 notes that tobacco was the chief import but that it was impossible to state the amount with any accuracy. 'In addition to the amount used by the traders for purposes of exchange, the labour ships dispose of large quantities, either in the purchase of native food, or by way of gifts to the natives'. (p. 9) The first exact estimate came in the 1901-1902 Report: 143 cases, or about 21,052 pounds weight (9.39 tons). (p. 11) The cost was about 1/- per pound weight. Using this annual weight of tobacco as an average we can get some idea of the thousands of tons that Solomon Islanders must have smoked since the mid-nineteenth century. Around 75 percent of beach bonuses for labourers were paid in tobacco, as much as twenty to thirty pounds per recruit, accompanied by other small trade items. In 1918, Malaita's District Officer calculated that around £7,000 was being distributed in this way each year, mainly in tobacco. Moreover, labourers were then returning with about half of their £6 per year wages invested in tobacco. Men, women and children all smoked and significant health damage was done.
Tobacco was the principal source of revenue for the early Protectorate. In 1905, trade tobacco cost 1 shilling for twelve sticks, which was 2s. 2d. per pound. Soon after, an import duty was imposed and so trade tobacco was six sticks to one shilling or 4s. 4d. per pound. When duty rose again to 1s. 6d. Solomon Islanders only got four sticks for one shilling, equal to 6s. 6d. per pound. By 1918 the rate had fallen to three sticks for a shilling. (BSIP 14/46, District Officer W. R. Bell to Acting Resident Commissioner C.R.M. Workman, 19 Feb., 28 May 1918; and BSIP 14/48,Bell to Workman, 17 Apr. 1920)
Later some took up different methods of smoking, shifting from clay pipes to tobacco rolled in newspaper or pages from school exercise books, and finally to tailor-made cigarettes. W. D. & H. O. Wills Co. built Solomon Islands Tobacco Company in the light industrial zone at Kukum, Honiara in 1967, managed by Alan Faulds. Production of twist tobacco began that July, and 5 tons of cut and twist tobacco were manufactured each month, enough to supply the Solomon Islands and New Hebrides market. In 1968, its first full year of operations, the company produced 149,510 pounds (66.74 tons) of twist tobacco worth $249,208. The leaf came from the United States and Africa. (NS 7 Mar. 1967, 7 June 1967, no. 8, 1969)
- British Solomon Islands Protectorate (ed.), British Solomon Islands Protectorate News Sheet (NS), 1955-1975. Details