History of Kretek Clove Cigarettes

History of Kretek Clove Cigarettes

Kretek, the clove-infused cigarette of Indonesia, was created in the town of Kudus, Central Java, in the late nineteenth century. What was once a small-scale cottage industry has grown over the course of more than 100 years becomes one of the largest contributors to the Indonesian economy, second only to oil and gas.


The Story of Tobacco

The first stories on tobacco originate from Christophorus Columbus in 1492, who reported that the native people of the American continent smoked tobacco to chase away tiredness. Tobacco leaves were also used for ritual ceremonies and for medicine amongst the Indian tribe.

The suppressors and conquerors from Europe then started smoking tobacco leaves, and this habit soon spread all over the world. In 1559, Jean Nicot, the French Ambassador in Lisabon, conducted research on tobacco. He even sent a mixture of tobacco powder to Queen Chatarine de Medici as a remedy for her headaches.

Nicot’s research, titled Historia Plantarum, is further published in the book, Dela in 1586. In his article he gave the tobacco plant the name of Nicotiana, which later on became known as the tobacco genus, a botanical member of the Solanaceae family.


Tobacco in Indonesia

In Indonesia, tobacco has been known for a long time. In the 17th century Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles in his legendary book, The History of Java, wrote about tobacco. Sources of Javanese literature, such as Badad Ing Sangkala, mentioned that tobacco was introduced on the island of Java around the time that Panembahan Senopati Ing Ngalaga, the founder of Mataram Dynasty, passed away in around 1602.

Raffles was of the opinion that tobacco seeds were first brought in by the Dutch. But, other sources point to the Portuguese. The reasons for this being that the Javanese may be closer to the word tembako (Indonesian for tobacco), or tumbaco (in Portuguese), as compared to the word tabak (in Dutch).

Rumphius reported that in around 1650 many tobacco plantations could be found in Indonesia. During the VOC days large scale tobacco plantations were found in the Kedu, Bagelen, Malang and Priangan areas. Later on, in the 17th century, tobacco plantations spread further to Deli, Padang, Palembang, Cirebon, Tegal, Banyumas, Semarang, Rembang, Kediri, Besuki, Lumajang, Malang, Surabaya, Pasuruan, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Ambon, even up to Papua.


The Quest for the Spice Islands

The history of the clove, the key ingredient in kretek, is interwoven with the history of Indonesian itself. Cloves were once highly prized for their medicinal properties. Even in Roman times, cloves demanded high prices. It is little wonder then that many a merchant became rich through the buying and selling cloves.

The highly sought-after spice originally grew only on five tiny islands east of Sulawesi and west of Papua. In order to control the buying and selling of the spice from its source, the Dutch and English East India companies were formed at the beginning of the 17th century. Thus began an era of colonization and foreign intervention in Asia.

It was not until the 19th century that people began adding cloves to their cigarette. The trend caught on quickly, and within a few years kretek were being produced on a commercial scale and the beginnings of a new industry were been born.

The Inventor of Kretek

Tobacco was first introduced to Indonesia at the beginning of the 17th century. Cigarettes of that time were homemade, hand-rolled and wrapped in cornhusk. It was not until the late 19th century that cloves were added to the tobacco.

It is believed that the first person to add cloves to his cigarette was a man called H. Jamhari, a resident of the town of Kudus, the birthplace of kretek. During the 1880s he suffered from mild asthma, and found that rubbing clove oil on his chest could offer some relief. He then thought a way to bring the healing properties of the cloves closer to his lungs – if he sprinkled some cloves into his cigarette and the smoked it, would this not be even better?

Miraculously, H. Jamhari was cured. He began to produce and market his invention, extolling its medicinal properties – the first kretek were sold through pharmacies. As the popularity of kretek grew, so cottage industries began to spring up, all producing hand-rolled clove cigarettes.


The Beginnings of Mass Production

Unfortunately, H. Jamhari died before he could make his fortune out of kretek. This task was taken up by another Kudus resident by the name of Nitisemito. He transformed a cottage industry into a mass-production industry in two ways: firstly, by creating his own brand (Bal Tiga) and image. Nitisemito introduced marketing campaigns the likes of which Indonesia had not seen before. Beautiful labels were printed in Japan and free gifts were offered to loyal smokers in return for empty packs. Secondly, began to subcontract work. A middleman handled the labor, while Nitisemito provided the tobacco, cloves and sauce. This practice was quickly adopted by other kretek companies and continued up until mid-20th century, when companies began to hire their own employees as a way of ensuring quality and loyalty. The Bal Tiga company did not recover after the Second World War and was declared bankrupt in 1955.


The Kretek Revolution

By the 1960s, it looked as though kretek was a dying breed. Western cigarettes had become more popular, especially the international brands, which lent the smoker a certain prestige. However, the 1970s saw a revolution in the kretek industry, which ensured its success until the present day.

In the mid-1970s, an oil boom attracted foreign investment to Indonesia. President Soeharto invested this money in the development of indigenous industries, and offered low-interest loans to kretek makers, thus fueling the industry.

Furthermore, licenses were issued to companies to allow them to begin automated production of kretek. The uniform size and shape of this new breed of clove cigarette became a favorite with upper classes, and by the late 1970s kretek was competing directly with foreign brands. The clove cigarette was reborn as a sophisticated smoke, an indulgence for the middle and upper classes. High-end packaging designs and advertising campaigns transformed the kretek from a peasant’s pleasure to sought-after luxury.

Finally, the government’s policy of compulsory transmigration in the 1970s ensured that kretek spread to every corner of the Indonesian archipelago. This attempt to relieve overpopulation in Java by forcibly uprooting families and moving them to other parts of the country encouraged kretek companies to expand their distribution to cover the whole of Indonesia.

( Taken from Djarum )