The epic story of the spirit commonly known as rum, naturally begins with the story of its base ingredient, sugarcane. A perennial grass of the genus Saccharum, prior to cultivation sugarcane grew naturally throughout tropical SE Asia from Burma to central China & Pacific. While there is evidence to suggest cultivation as early as 4000 BC, the earliest record of human consumption can be found in an ancient Indian Sanskrit manuscript called the Mānasollāsa (c. AD 1129) where a fermented cane beer called Asava is mentioned.
For this common ferment to evolve into the spirituous liquor we know today, three things would be required – the pot still, slaves and bloody competition. Over the next 500 years the world would play a religious tug of war between the might of the old Islamic world and the emerging strength of the Christian West. And sugar would ride the tides of trade between both worlds adding to an already global obsession for spice with an all too human addiction for anything sweet.
The story of rum begins in earnest with the turn of the 16th century, a period historians commonly regard as the birth of the modern world. In 1492, while searching for a route to the trade rich lands of the Indies, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, landing in the Caribbean Bahamas (which he initially thought was Japan) claiming it for the Spanish Crown. The discoveries of Cuba, and Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic) quickly followed as did the first European encounters with tobacco, chilli, pineapple and even that sailors favorite, the hammock – a much loved gift to future sailors. While he may not have succeeded in locating a route through to India, Columbus had opened the gates to The New World and paved the road to global discovery. Ten years after this historic discovery, Vasco De Gama completed the first successful return voyage between Europe and the East Indies followed two decades later (1522) with the first global circumnavigation by Ferdinand Magellan’s crew. In short, the world became very small very fast and everyone wanted their piece of it. By the start of the 17th century, Islamic powers were dwindling. Spain had kicked out the Moors from Andalusia, Hungary had beaten back the Ottomans in Vienna and trade was quickly becoming the key to the new superpower. To remain competitive, nation’s established merchant conglomerates focused on trade with two newly opened frontiers – the East Indies of Indonesia and the West Indies of the Caribbean. The game was on, the board was set and the players – England, Holland, Portugal, Spain and France.With Spain having made first landfall in the West Indies thanks to Columbus, naturally they had a head start. For their Eastern counterpart, it was the Portuguese who first located and established trade with the Spiceries, however both would loose control due to the bloody mights of the Dutch and English India Companies. Aside from discovering the chilli pepper for the first time, the Caribbean had little to offer in the way of Western resources and yet showed huge potential as a greenhouse for introduced plants such as fruit trees and dye woods. But nothing grew better in a tropical climate than sugarcane and no one was better to work the heat and back breaking harvest than the indigenous natives.
The earliest recorded Caribbean sugar mills were established on Hispanola in 1516 followed by Brazil in 1520 (Porto Seguro) and Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1595. The Portuguese used the lessons learned in Africa during their attempts to Christianise the continent, by implanting African slaves into their Brazilian plantations. Initially manned by slaves from local populations, it was discovered that displaced native workers from other continents were less likely to escape and blend into a foreign wilderness and culture than local natives. And they were right. With the precedent now set, Spain, Britain and France followed suit buying slaves off African and Arab traders to work their own new plantations. The doors for modern slavery were now fully open. Large sums of money could be made on the sweaty backs of black flesh and thanks to common Christian belief that “blacks” had lost their souls and therefore were already living in sin, immorality became common and humanity missed an evolutionary step. By 1595, Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico had all established large sugar plantations where there was almost as much money to be made in slaves as there was in sugar.
A common sugar plantation would consist of a lavish Casa Grande or Manor House while workers resided in Senzalas, rows of attached huts commonly centered around a big stake or tree called a Pelourinho used for both the hanging and beating of disorderly slaves. The slave huts were typically overcrowded with little to no furnishings and occupants almost always sleeping on straw or the hard ground.
Despite this dark history, the slave’s would supply the final key in the establishment of rum. The earliest recorded documentation of a sugarcane distillate can be found in 1552 in a report from Governor Tome de Souza of Bahia, Brazil. The report mentions that the slaves were more amenable to work if allowed to drink cachaço (or “cachaça” as known today). The spirit made from unprocessed cane juice quickly became popular amongst the slave populations largely due to the availability of the cane and ease of production. So popular was the spirit that in 1639 the Portuguese Government attempted to suppress any manufacture of the spirit in fear of it’s competitive commercial sale. Eight years later the government added further restrictions by prohibiting anyone who was not a slave from drinking cane spirit. Needless to say, this did little to halt the spread of cachaça, a spirit which in 2007 saw 1.5 billion litres consumed in Brazil that year alone (USA Today Report, 2008). While cachaça is a rum by base definition, modern interpretation defines a spirit distilled from the bi-product of crystal sugar production – molasses.
According to some historians, the first molasses rum to be produced was from a Dutch emigrant named Pietr Blower in 1637. Settling in a new British colony on Barbados, Pietr introduced the island to both distillation and sugarcane having arrived with both the seedlings and a pot still required. While previously residing in Brazil, Mr Blower had practiced distillation encouraging the locals to extend the value of each canes harvest by distilling the molasses left over after sugar production. A decade prior, Barbados had been settled by England where they attempted to utilise the tropical climate in growing indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), a shrub like plant from which the highly prized indigo dye was produced. With little success from manufacturing the dye, the islands colonists turned to cane from the seeds supplied by Blower to produce sugar lumps for exportation. Following his lead, locals began distilling a spirit from the rich molasses which remained. The story of Blower is well supported in records found two years after his arrival when a visitor to the island noted that Barbadians were, “Devourers upp of hott waters [sic] and such good distillers thereof”. By 1651 rum was widely imbibed on the island as recorded by another visitor who wrote;
“The chief fuddling they make on the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil [sic], and is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”.
A similar situation was recorded on the French island of Martinique when in 1644 a Dutch Jew named Benjamin Da Costa introduced distillation and a sugar mill to the islands colonists. While both references are historically sound, sugarcane spirits had been produced at sugar mills for more than a century prior to the arrival of Blower and Da Costa under the names of both aguardente de cana (1533) and cachaça (1552). As such, it would be surprising if a molasses based spirit had not already been produced prior to this period.
Despite Cuba establishing their first cane plantation in 1595, the first mention of rum consumption wasn’t found until 1643 when Cuban Chancellor Alvaro de Luces recorded, “In almost all the sugar mills they make aguardiente de cachaza [cachaca] and in others aguardiente de caña [rum] which they sell in their bars”. With the cane spirit regarded as a drink of the slaves, the spirit would have to wait a further century before we would find the first written mention of “rum” in print. The English favoured the name Barbados Liquor while the Dutch and French stuck with the early (and albeit accurate) reference of Kill Devil (written Keelduivel and Gueldive respectively). Regardless of it’s name in trade, the cane spirit would remain the drink of scallies and slaves for a further two centuries before gentlemen of fashion would be seen to enjoy a drop. As stated by famous English writer Samuel Johnson c.1750;
“…claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy”.
Our adventurous liquor finally made popular print in 1751 in the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métier (Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts). Published by Diderot and Alembert, the collection consisted of an enormous 17 volumes of popular 18th century French diagrams and terms including our first reference to a spirit formally known as “rhum”. While the French may have printed the earliest definition of the term, it’s exact etymology would be more contested. Some argue that the word rumbullion (“temult” or “uproar”) is the names source while others suggest it is an old English term for “excellent” (e.g. Having a rum time). Further claims offer scrum (“to fight”), rumbustious (“noisy”, “undisciplined”), Saccharum (the Latin name of sugarcane), rummers (Dutch seamen), roemer (a Dutch drinking glass), iterum (Latin for “again”, “a second time”) even arôme (French for “aroma”)…the list goes on.
Regardless of rums slow rise to the drawing rooms and banquet halls of high-class society, the new world was undeniably built on it. With such ample supply and ease of production, it is no surprise that it became the life blood of the poor, corrupt and lawless Caribbean where the only difference between a pirate and a privateer was who you shared your rum with.
[For further reading see: Story of Rum – Part 2 ]
- Rum: A Global History – The Edible Series. Richard Foss, 2012
- Spirituous Journey – Book One: From the birth of spirits to the birth of the cocktail. Jared Brown + Anistatia Miller, 2009
- And a Bottle of Rum. Wayne Curtis. Broadway Books – 2007.
- Pepper Trail – Blog: Treasures from the past. “Manasollasa: Refresher of the Mind by King Somesvara III (1129 A.D.)”
- History of Indian Science and Technology – Blog: “Traditional Fermentation Technology”
- Sua Pesquisa – Brazilian History Blog: “Senzala” (translated)
- USA Today – Online: “Cachaça: It is the essence of Brazil in a bottle”, by Kelly E. Carter – Feb 2007
- Heritage Patrimoine – Heritage Website: Dictionary of Newfoundland English, “Calibogus”