After the first successful American colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, a group of Anglican separatists known today as Pilgrims, established the rival Plymouth Colony on the Southeastern tip of modern day Massachusetts.
Unlike the hardships encountered by the first Virginians through trade and cultivation, the Pilgrims met with greater success largely thanks to an early treaty with the local Indians, an exchange of fir, cod and timber with nearby colonies and trade in molasses from the West Indies. Used in everything from cooking to medicines and distillation, molasses played a major role in colonial life and thanks to a new influx of settlers from Scotland and Ireland the pot still was quick to follow.
In 1655, the first recorded rum ration was granted to admiralty sailors by the experienced Vice-Admiral William Penn (later founder of the province of Pennsylvania). While on a quest to claim the West Indies for England, Penn captured the sugar cane rich Spanish island of Santiago renaming it Jamaica after the local name Xaymaca meaning “rich in springs”. With this new addition to the British Empire also came a locally distilled cane spirit known as aguardente de cana (sugar cane spirit). Penn’s decision to replace his sailors already spent beer supplies with this new liquor, began a trend that would see rum established as a part of a British sailors daily rations for over 300 years [See: A British Sailors Tipple].
With the pilgrims of New England and colonials of Virginia now trading in Molasses, the earliest record of rum distillation in the Americas began as early as 1657 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Dutch had also established a small colony of their own on modern day Manhattan Island called New Amsterdam, were they traded with their English counterparts and in turn distilled spirits from molasses as early as 1664 under the name of brandewijn (“brandy-wine”). While cane spirits were widely consumed by colonists of all nations, it was more respected for its medicinal benefits rather than its social ones. Whether ailments of digestion, scurvy, dropsy or flatulence, rum was regarded equally an antiseptic, anasthetic and antifogmatic (“a cure for the effects of fog and other inclement weather”). Such credit was given to the medicinal qualities of rum that when Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar almost 150 years later, the ship’s doctor aboard the HMS Victory was heavily criticised for preserving his body in a barrel of brandy for the return voyage to Gibraltar instead of rum [see: Admiral Nelson Preserved in Brandy].
With the Caribbean trade playing such a major role in New England life, many early colonial recipes and remedies called for the addition of molasses, such as the popular Newfoundland drink Calibogus comprising of a mixture of cider, spruce beer, molasses and a local rough-as-guts Newfoundland rum named Screech (for the noise one makes upon first draft). When in winter the drink was renamed King Cali with the addition of a whole egg to the mix and served warm from the fire or charged with a hot poker. But the pilgrims and colonials were not the only ones enjoying spirits. Thanks to Henry Hudson introducing alcohol to local natives when he discovered Manna-hata in 1609 [see – Manhattan: The island of general intoxication], rum had also made a friend amongst the local Indians. Despite the passing of a law in 1633 strictly prohibiting anyone trading alcohol with natives of New England and Virginia, the authorities themselves commonly used the spirit as parley in peace treaties and as tribute to tribal leaders. The natives embraced rum to such an extent that Benjamin Franklin later wrote, “If it be the divine of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable to that rum may be the appointed means [that had] already annihilated all the tribes who formally inhabited the sea-coast”.
Despite the volume of rum produced in New England, it was something closer to the French and Dutch namesake “Killdevil” than the spirit we associate it with today. If you had discerning tastes, it was Barbadian rum you bought. With so much alcohol available throughout the colonies, penalties for disorderly acts of drunkenness included anything from a night in the stocks to wearing a “D” around your neck for a month in public ridicule. When the first British colonists first landed on Australian shores at Sydney Harbor in 1788 with a fleet of 11 ships, it was rum which played the role of currency in the building of the nation’s first hospital (aptly named Rum Hospital) and church (St Philips). By 1850 there were still no licensed inns in Australia yet rum was still easily purchased where it was served in any number of creative ways. One such creative exemplar was the aptly named “Blow My Skull Off”. At a cost of half a crown a wine glass, you could receive this rudimentary cocktail comprising of a poisonous berry named Cocculus indicius, brandy, Turkish opium, cayenne pepper and rum – all mixed together with 5 parts water. The reference this recipe came with includes the statement that;
“One good stir and it was ready for the table. A couple of good swigs and the mounted police turned out, hit everyone they could see, before the brawl reached the proportions of a riot”.
By the beginning of the 18th century, rum and molasses were Britain’s main source of trade income and the most profitable traded commodities throughout the entire West Indies. At the root of this success was a perpetual system known as The Triangle Trade. Molasses would be traded from the Caribbean to New England for rum. This molasses would be converted into more rum and traded with modern commodities (guns, cloth, copper etc) to West Africa for black slaves which in turn would be shipped back to the Caribbean to work the cane plantations producing molasses, for New England. The system was designed for merchants to work each leg, outfitting their ship at each port ready for the next stage. A total round journey of about a year. The Atlantic crossing, while at times challenging, relied on the natural trade winds first successfully used by Columbus during his discovery of the New World in 1492.
With such large profits made through the triangle slave trade, it comes as no surprise that Britain was the last nation to abolish slavery when finally passed by the House of Lords in 1833. Although late, all Western nations were guilty at one time or another of exploiting black natives for profit. By the mid eighteenth century the Hispaniola capital Saint-Dominique had become the most wealthy colony in the West Indies with more than 40 percent of all European sugar and 75 percent of all European coffee produced in the colony. Despite France abolishing slavery across their empire from as early as 1794, Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated slavery for one year in 1802 to help support supply shortages made during a slave uprising in Saint Dominique. Needless to say the move added fuel to an already revolutionary fire. Despite the fight for black independence on Hispaniola lasting a long 12 years, it would be disease which would turn the tide after almost half of the French occupying forces died of Yellow Fever (+20,000). Hispaniola officially became a republic in 1804 and renamed Haiti after the indigenous name for Land of Mountains. Even more lasting however would be the strong message sent to the few remaining slave plantations and traders. With new Western mentalities being shaped in favour of black freedom and their role in the modern world, slavery was finally seen more and more as an inhumanity. Despite economic upheaval in the power vacuum after the revolution, Haiti became a symbol of black freedom and retains its status today as the location of the most successful slave revolt in history and the only one to result in the establishment of an independent state.
With Britain’s ban on the export of silver coins to New England, colonials made up for shortfalls in currency with rum. Wages were often topped up with servings of spirit and in some cases entire workforces accepted rum as a form of payment – not to mention its use in bribes, deposits and for the purchase of slaves. Despite the vast volumes of rum produced throughout the Caribbean and Americas, it was always sold and traded as a secondary commodity produced from the left over molasses from crystal sugar manufacture. It would be a late Spanish state on mainland America which would record the first dedicated rum distillery from which sugar took a secondary role. Initially an administrative district of New France named La Louisiane (after French monarch King Louis XIV), Louisiana was briefly traded to the Spanish in 1764 in return for their support during the Seven Years War against Great Britain. In the same year, the Governor of New Orleans would write of the effect of rum on the Southern capital stating that;
“The moderate use of Tafia has stupefied the whole population”
As a popular French colonial term for a rough sugar cane spirit, tafia is believed to be linked with taffy – a sugar or molasses based sweet from where we also get the word toffee. Despite the French having attempted to plant sugar cane in La Louisiane 40 years earlier, one in every three crops were reported to fail due to the frosty winters. The solution came with a Cuban emigrant named Joseph Solis who arrived with a new strain of sugar cane which was both more productive and more tolerant of low temperatures than previously planted varietals. After teaming up with fellow Cuban and local Justice of Peace Don Antonio Méndez, the duo established Louisiana’s first successful sugar production plant and rum/tafia distillery with Mendez producing the sugar and Solis the rum. As such, Solis also gives us the earliest record of a dedicated commercial rum distillery where rum was the primary product and molasses or crystal sugar production the secondary.
Despite the Cubans success, Britain still held the monopoly on rum and molasses production. With such demand for both products by American colonials, smuggling became a big business and real problem for the British authorities. Without the infrastructure to police all 3000 miles of the American Atlantic coast, the British imposed a new tax on all sugar and molasses imported into their colonies under the Sugar Act of 1764. Instead of helping to control local populations, the act lit the fuse to a powder keg of colonial unrest which would finally explode with the American Revolutionary War in 1775. With war also came trade embargoes and economic loss. Molasses from the British West Indies was suddenly cut off and the triangle trade brought almost to a halt. To help support the loss, the Revolutionaries looked to their new French ally who had what was regarded as a “molasses lake” available to them since the French government prohibited rum manufacture in fear of competition against their global trade in Brandy and wine. Despite this both rum and the means to produce it became increasingly difficult to sustain, as such the Revolutionaries looked to the more plentiful and local crops of corn and rye. New American whiskey became not just a cost effective and obvious replacement for rum but also a symbol of independence and patriotism since it was made entirely by local crops. Today these whiskies retain a role in the American identity with Bourbon (named for the French Royal family who supported the Revolutionaries in the fight against the British) declared by the US Congress in 1964 as “America’s Native Spirit“. After the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which seeded the 13 old colonies of England to the new United States of America, rum still continued to play a role in the development of the young nation despite the patriotic zeal for whiskey. Many of the nation’s Founding Fathers enlisted the aid of rum to help pay for new developments, inspire troops and cajole prospective voters [see – George Washington and the tactical use of alcohol]. And politicians were not the only ones. While aboard his pirate ship Adventure c.1717, Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard wrote in his diary;
“Such a day; rum all out. Our Company somewhat sober; a damned confusion amongst us! Rogues a plotting. Talk of separation. So I looked sharp for a prize [and] took one with a great deal of liquor aboard. So kept the company hot, damned hot [drunk], then all things went well again”
Whether known by tafia, killdevil, screech, brandewijn or simply grog – the sugar cane spirit formally known as rum was a key element in the development of both the modern Caribbean, United States, French and British Empire’s alike. Whether a pilgrim, pirate, privateer, merchant or navy man – rum was more than just a “spirituous tipple” that helped soften the daily hardships of colonial life; for a time it was truly the life blood of many nations.
[For further reading see The Story of Rum: Part 1]
[Also see: The Story of the Mojito]
- Rum: A Global History – The Edible Series. Richard Foss, 2012
- The Little Book of the Sea. Lorenz Schrote – p43: Rum and the Revolution
- The South in the Building of the Nation: Economic history, 1607-1865. J. C. Ballagh
- A Turbulent time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean. David Barry Gaspar and David Patrick Geggus, 2003
- Plagues and Poxes: The Impact of Human History on Epidemic Disease. Dr. Alfred Bollet MD and Alfred Jay MD, 2004
- Dictionary of Newfoundland English. George Morley Story, W. J. Kirwin and John David Allison Widdowson, 1982
- And a Bottle of Rum. Wayne Curtis. Broadway Books – 2007.
- Global research – Website: France and the History of Haiti. Gearóid Ó Colmáin, 2010
- History Archives Illinois: The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. Patricia Scott Deetz and James F. Deetz, 2008