The photograph above is of the historic Morgan Lewis sugar mill, built in the early 1700s on the island of Barbados. It is one of only two intact sugar mills remaining in the Caribbean. As noted in the history of sugar (Jan. 21 post), with the rise of coffee, tea, and chocolate in Europe, the demand for sugar led to an explosive expansion of the sugar trade. Sugar plantations spread like wildfire through the French, Spanish, Dutch, and English colonies in the Caribbean (or West Indies, as they were then known), as well as in South America, especially Portuguese Brazil.
As always in history, the rise of one thing led to the rise of something else. Processing sugar leaves byproducts, most notably molasses, and what better thing to create from molasses than some form of alcohol (the only thing that remained more in demand than coffee and tea)? Distillers were close on the heels of the growers, and the colonies of the West Indies were soon cranking out copious amounts of a new beverage made from molasses. And so rum was born out of the sugar trade. However, rum was more than just a nice way for a Caribbean pirate to blind himself at the end of a successful day of pillaging. For a few hundred years, it became a surprisingly important part of international economics, politics, and events.
There is some disagreement as to the origin of the name of rum, but the most common etymology given is that it comes from “rumbullion,” which means “a great tumult or uproar”—which seems appropriate. Though fermented sugar-based beverages date back millennia in the southern regions of Asia where sugarcane had its origins, rum was purely a New World creation. The first mention in written record of the distilled drink we now know as rum was in Barbados in about 1650. Not knowing how to treat the various fevers and blights that affected Europeans in the tropics, rum became the cure-all for every problem, from Yellow Fever to disappointment.
Distillers and plantation owners offered rum at low prices to European navies, with the express purpose of keeping the military close to shore. The spread of sugar plantations meant an explosive growth of wealth in the region, and pirates who had once happily pillaged Spanish galleons carrying gold and silver from mines in Mexico and South America now turned to wealthy plantations and island towns. The presence of the odd naval vessel offered a degree of protection.
The British Navy rather liked this easy access to rum. In fact, the British Navy began specifying a daily ration of rum by the 1730s—a half-pint per day of 160-proof rum for each sailor. Alas, on those occasions when sailors pitched in parts of their rations to help one of their mates celebrate a birthday, the death of the celebrant was not uncommon. The ration was eventually diluted with an equal amount of water, which produced the drink called “grog.”
Not too surprisingly, giving rum to guys in boats made the spread of rum both easy and swift. By the late 1600s, a thriving export trade had developed. Rum punches began appearing at parties in Great Britain, and rum replaced gin as Britain’s dominant spirit in the 1700s.
When Britain passed laws forbidding the direct trade of spirits between colonies (a law designed to protect British distillers), the New England colonies began trading lumber and salt cod for molasses from the West Indies, and then built their own distilleries. New England’s rum became a key element of international commerce and an essential part of the notorious “Triangle Trade.” Slaves were brought from Africa and traded in the West Indies for molasses. The molasses was carried to New England, where it was distilled into rum. The rum was then sent back to Africa to trade for more slaves.
However, it wasn’t all sent overseas. Rum became the drink of choice throughout the North American colonies, surpassing the previous beverage staples of cider and beer. In fact, it became such an important item of colonial trade in the 1700s that it was among the factors uniting the soon-to-be-independent Thirteen Colonies. Not that they were simply united by drinking the stuff, but as trade intensified, with goods moving among the colonies, the colonists simply got to know their neighbors—and their neighbors’ trade goods and foods. And finding their needs met through trade with other colonies, the colonists became increasingly independent of the Old World.
Rum became the major liquor distilled during the early history of the United States. From the time of the American Revolution until President Andrew Jackson squelched the practice in 1832, American servicemen were all given rum as part of their rations. (Surgeon General John C. Calhoun had been lobbying against rum for some time, noting that sobriety was generally desirable among people who were being given guns.) Jackson specified that the military receive coffee and sugar instead. British sailors, on the other hand, continued to receive regular rations of rum (or, rather, of grog) until 1970!
Even as rum distillation spread to other countries, the Caribbean remained one of the two major producers, along with Australia, which began producing rum shortly after settlement began in the late 1700s.
Rum played a different part in the early days of colonial Australia than it did in the Americas, but it was still a mighty significant part. You can check out Australia’s early association with rum on my Waltzing Australia blog: Rum Rebellion. (The photo below is a replica of an illegal floating still from Australia’s early rum history.) While no longer the key to the country’s economy, rum remains an important product in sugar-rich Australia.
Rum is still a popular drink worldwide. It is often drunk neat in the hot countries where it is produced, but it is widely used in mixed drinks and cocktails, as well. It is also a popular flavor for cakes, sauces, and other sweets. I rather fancy it in the form of hot buttered rum, a New England tradition that makes cold winters more amiable.
Copyright ©2010 Cynthia Clampitt