Ten thousand years ago our ancestors evolved to develop the ability to digest ethanol allowing them to eat fermented fruit without getting sick, and thus begins a love story ten thousand years in the making. From slavery to pirates, revolutions to democracy, your local carrefour to your bathroom floor, in many ways it is the quintessential story of the human experience, this is A History of Rum.
Ethanol or drinking alcohol is produced through a process of fermentation through which yeast converts sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide. This process usually produces an alcohol content between four and seven percent and until the eighth century C.E. the poor pitiful souls of our ancestors would have never experienced the hard liquors that you and I sell our souls to every weekend. An efficient method of distillation was finally (blessedly) invented by Muslim alchemists in the form of the still in the eighth century,and in that moment the fate of human history was changed forever.
The tale of rum – the great social liberator – begins, ironically, with Christopher Columbus and the slave trade. Sugarcane is most likely indigenous to New Guinea and through extensive trade eventually found its way to the Muslim world where Europeans first encountered it during the Crusades. They have been addicted ever since. When Columbus returned to the New World in 1493 he brought with him sugarcane from the Canary Islands and so began the mass production of sugar in the region. The first records of regional Sugarcane production are from 1505 on Santo Dominigo and only five years later King Ferdinand of Spain authorized the shipment of fifty African slaves to the island to work both in the mines and in the sugarcane plantations – this is in effect the beginnings of the systematic transportation of African slaves to the New World and within two years over a thousand slaves would be transported to the Caribbean.
Early sugar production was a messy process that produced a pound of molasses for every two pounds of sugar. This created a waste problem for farmers because at that time they couldn’t pay people to take the sickly sweet liquid off of their hands so much of it was simply dumped in the ocean until the mid seventeenth century. Sugarcane had been fermented into a sort of sweet wine before of course but it wasn’t until 1652 on the Island of Barbados that it was first distilled to make rum. There is some dispute as to how the process began but according to historian Anthony Blue it was actually the plantation slave workers who first discovered that molasses could be fermented and distilled into the alcohol we all know and love.
In 1655 the British Naval fleet captured Jamaica from the Spanish and rum quickly replaced the sailor’s daily ration of beer due to the fact that it was not only cheaper after acquiring the new colony but it was also stronger and stayed sweet in the cask longer than water or beer. The rising popularity of rum threatened the French Brandy market so its production was banned on the French island colonies, making it even cheaper for Britain and New English colonies.
The increasing demand for sugar in Europe, molasses for rum, and plantation workers to supply it all famously established a triangular trade. This market was making some people very rich and when Britain tried to increase its share of the wealth first through taxes and then with the Sugar Act of 1764 it led to increased resistance from the colonies and eventually became one of the causes of the American Revolution.
In 1737 Benjamin Franklin published The Drinkers Dictionary in which he identifies over two hundred and twenty synonyms for drunk, including “been at Barbados” in reference to Barbados rum. Some estimates place rum consumption at an average of four gallons a year per capita at the time of the American Revolution. As the modern world would have to wait until the mid nineteenth century for the arrival of the germ theory, heavy drinking among Americans was first and foremost a practical choice. It was commonly believed at the time that water was unhealthy as it often made them sick, alcohol was much safer so it became a central part of life for early Americans; they drank at almost every meal and social occasion and even while at work.
The importance of alcohol in American society even went so far as to encompass politics. It was common practice in the early American elections that candidates provide prospective voters with rum as part of their campaign, even George Washington took part and despite winning the election he still complained that his campaign manager didn’t spend enough money on alcohol. Washington was a fervent advocate for alcohol in the army and at his inauguration as the first President of the United States he commissioned two barrels of barbados rum to celebrate. His love for the spirit was a jealous one however and in order to pay for the construction of a new capital building Washington passed a whiskey tax in 1791 which led Thomas Jefferson to resign in protest.
The love of “kill-devil” wasn’t limited to land-dwellers however, and the history of the drink is tightly wound up in British naval history. Before the practice of watering down rum in the navy the daily ration of rum per sailor was half a pint twice a day at a minimum 57.5% alcohol. The practice of watering down rum in the navy didn’t begin until 1740 when admiral Edward Vernon ordered that the daily ration be made of three parts water and one part rum in order to reduce drunkenness. To improve the taste of the drink lime juice was added, earning navy men the nickname of “limeys,” and significantly reducing the rates of scurvy and other diseases related to vitamin c deficiency. The drink was called “grog” in honour of the grogham coats often sported by Vernon, the “Old Grog.”
Sailors in the British navy only stopped receiving their daily ration of rum in 1970. There is however an exception. For naval officers it was long considered good form to offer an extra ration of rum to the crew after an especially difficult emergency repair job and of these splicing the mainbrace was the most difficult. The term soon became a euphemism for the reward that would be received afterward and eventually came to be the name of the command to offer the crew an extra ration of rum or grog. To this day the Queen can still give the order to “splice the mainbrace” on special occasions.
Rum is sometimes called “Nelson’s blood” in reference to the death of admiral Horatio at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 after which his body was preserved in a cask of spirits to be brought home. Legend has is that the sailors drilled holes in the cask and essentially drank the bloodied rum of admiral Nelson throughout the rest of the journey.
Elsewhere rum was stirring up still more trouble. In the colony of New South Wales currency in the form of notes and coin was in short supply so a barter system was developed, controlled by those who had access to goods such as food, clothing, and alcohol. Men in the military were quite frequently paid in goods and the most popular form of payment was rum. Several governors tried and failed to get a handle on the military’s monopoly on trade and drunkenness in the colony until governor ‘Bounty’ Bligh arrived and completely shut down the trade. This among other (less entertaining) factors which led to a power struggle between the military and the governing elites culminating in 1806 in Australia’s one and only military coup: The Rum Rebellion.
In 1830 Facundo Bacardi y Maso from Spain arrived in the Cuban port city of Santiago de Cuba and at 14 began tinkering with the formula for rum. Nearly a hundred years late Bacardi rum rose to prominence during the dry years of the American prohibition, during which Bacardi USA sold sixty thousand shares and distributed its assets (sixty thousand cases of rum) to its fortunate shareholders. In these years company order books would suggest that unprecedented amounts of bacardi rum had been ordered to Shanghai, the Bahamas, and Newfoundland but of course these shiploads of Bacardi went to rendezvous with ‘rum-runners’ as soon as they left American waters.
In 1959 Bacardi was one among many rum manufacturers to support the rebels and were subsequently blindsided when Castro nationalized their operations and the company was expelled from the country. For the next forty years Bacardi would engage in an immature and complicated legal battle in attempts to get revenge on Castro and the Havana Club which the country purchased the rights to in 1976. This was the beginnings of Bacardi, as history’s first true transnational corporation, using its monopoly over the rum trade to push other brands and in particular genuine local Caribbean brands out of the market. As a result the Caribbean islands are losing a real chance for economic development.
And so our epic tale comes to incomplete ends! But not to worry, from New Guinea to the Caribbean, from evolutionary survival tactics to national revolutions, the history of rum has never been a boring one and now the torch has passed to us to keep the tradition alive. So the next time you drink your way to a near comatose state choose rum and remember the proud heritage that you get to be a part of.
For more information:
Bacardi, exiled from Cuba in 1960, is hopeful for change
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