Much to Learn from the Book Caribbean Rum by Frederick H. Smith
February 28, 2022
I just finished reading Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History by Frederick H. Smith. (Buy it from these links on Bookshop or Amazon and I earn a tiny commission.) The book brought me so much new information, and I strongly recommend it.
Most of the time when we study the history of rum it's usually about the rum trade - the global business of rum. We don't spend too much time "on the ground" as it were in the islands where rum was made, other than to acknowledge the horrors of slavery that were part of the industry. In Caribbean Rum, Smith looks at both, but the stuff happening locally to each island was mostly new information to me.
Below are some notes I typed in from what I highlighted. I often use my own website for a reference to where I found things, so I'm sure I'll come back to it in the future.
- Before the colonizers came, the people of the Caribbean had a drinking culture with locally-made fermented beverages made from cassava and pineapple for example.
- Rum was first made mostly from "skimmings" of the sugar-making process, moreso than molasses.
- 1550 is the earliest mention of use of sugarcane in fermented beverages
- In the 1630s Martinique started making rum
- 1650 in Barbados, first use of the word "rum"
- A portion of rum was set aside for enslaved people (10 percent according to one estimate) - as a source of calories, medicine, and soother of the agony of labor. On the planters' side, this saved money as rum was often given instead of food and it was "free."
- After slavery, some field workers were paid partially in rum. Workers could also purchase rum from an exploitative company store.
- Initially, rum provided a small portion of revenue compared with sugar. It was as low as 7 percent but reached upwards of 20-25 percent depending on the country
- In Barbados, initially local consumption was so high that they only exported about 10 percent of the rum produced
- New Englanders may have been distilling rum from molasses as early as 1648, but definitely by 1684
- The way that people made sugar impacted how much molasses they'd have for rum. Barbados used "claying" that produced higher-quality sugar (though less of it) and more molasses. Jamaica did not.
- Spanish government dissuaded and sometimes prevented their colonies from making rum (and competing with its wines and brandies); this is part of the reason more Spanish producers were late to the industry. Additionally, while the British were able to sell their rum to another colony (the US), the Spanish had no international market and the other colonies like Peru and Mexico made their own booze.
- The American and Haitian revolutions stimulated Cuba's rum industry.
- France also dissuaded its colonies from selling rum and the spirit was called unhealthy compared to wine/brandy. So French colonies sold molasses on the global market (which was often distilled in America) and rum to French territories of North America.
- The Molasses Act encouraging Americans to purchase only British molasses with tariffs on foreign product helped lead to the American Revolution.
- During the American Revolution, the French rum/molasses makers sold tons of stuff to the Americans. They hoped to take the market vacated by the British, but Americans largely switched to whiskey after that.
- Britain didn't have a homemade spirit and imported tons of wine/brandy, so they promoted rum sales at home unlike France/Spain. Even during the Gin Craze of 1700-1750, rum didn't compete with gin.
- The Brits also supported their rum industry by its use in the Navy. Rum punch also helped.
- There are some good quotes on comparing the healthfulness of gin vs rum on page 77.
- But when early prohibitionists took up the anti-alcohol cause in the US, they were mostly attacking rum; perhaps this is the origin of denigrating rum as we would "booze" today.
- There was a pretty big rum market in Ireland, and it was rum from Barbados, while the British home market preferred Jamaican rum in the 1700s.
- As part of trading for slaves in Africa, gifts of alcohol were an expected part of the exchange. This went on before the prime era of slave trading for Caribbean sugar plantation workers. Rum became a (or the) preferred spirit by African traders.
- In addition to rum given to enslaved people instead of food, it was also given as rewards, and as motivation on bad weather days like those of strong rain.
- Alcohol was known to people in Africa, and was used in religious ceremonies, often dealing with ancestors - stuff like "pouring one out," so this translated from other beverages in Africa to rum in the Caribbean.
- Some enslaved people from Northern Africa were muslim and did not consume alcohol.
- "Dry gripes" = lead poisoning due to lead used in distilling rum. At first this was thought to be due to "new rum" unaged.
- The Puerto Rican rum industry was small until the 1930s
- The Coffey still was steam-heated and better to use in the Caribbean where fuel sources were an issue
- Beet sugar, which exploded in the mid-1800s, satisfied most of the needs of the European market. It partially collapsed the Caribbean sugar market, especially by 1900. In response, distillers made more rum and less sugar. But also the odium and phylloxera vine blights made less wine/brandy, which also promoted French rum in particular back in the home country. This made rum more popular there and it remained so.
- Toward 1900, Jamaican rum was used to give flavor to less-quality rum made in Europe (Germany in particular) from sugar beet sugar
- By 1830, Cuba was the world's largest sugar producer, then became a big rum producer toward 1900. As the US didn't have its own major rum producing territories, much of the US's sugar came from Cuba.
- Cuba's more advanced sugar-making technology (I think it had a late start) meant there was less molasses left over to make rum compared with other countries
- WWI's destruction of sugar beet land rejuvenated Jamaican sugar industry.
- After WWII, Britain's grain shortages meant more rum imports
- 1902 Mount Pelee on Martinique exploded, killing 40,000 people and closing the large rum distilleries that were located in the wiped-out city of St. Pierre. This encouraged the smaller rhum agricole producers to increase output. The world wars also hurt Europe's wine production and Martinique benefitted.
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