Historic Sugar Mill, Barbados
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. Continue reading
Piracy itself is ancient of days. The word pirate comes from the same Greek root as “peril” (which seems appropriate)—and you don’t get Greek roots like that without having been around for a long time. It seems likely that piracy in some form dates back to the beginning of transportation by water. There have been Ancient Greek, Roman, Phoenician, and Carthaginian pirates, post-Renaissance pirates, the Vikings, Chinese pirates, Russian pirates, Indonesian pirates, and of course the famously dangerous Barbary pirates—those Muslim marauders who swept out of ports across North Africa for a few hundred years, making the Barbary Coast a byword for danger.
Of course piracy is not relegated solely to the past, as we’ve learned from recent attacks on ships along the coast of Africa. But face it, when we think of pirates we’re probably not thinking of Asia or North Africa or even the current spate of piracy on distant shores. We’re thinking of the New World, and we’re probably thinking pirates of the Caribbean (and we would more than likely have thought of these even before the appearance of those Johnny Depp movies). The era of the New World/Caribbean pirates in fact constituted a “golden age” of piracy, dotted with such legendary figures as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and Henry Morgan. It inspired its own genre of literature, the best-known example of which is, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The explosive growth of wealth in the New World from the 1600s through the 1800s, along with trying to ship it all back to the Old World, created unparalleled opportunities for those willing to face the downside of this lifestyle. (The average life expectancy of a pirate in those days was about two years.)
So what possible connection could there be between those Caribbean pirates and cooking? Glad you asked. Continue reading