The Story of Rum

When is a drink not just a drink? When it plays a pivotal role in history. And perhaps no beverage has shaped broad patterns of history more significantly than rum. Find out how.

That’s a lot of responsibility for one little beverage. But such was the power of rum on the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Of course, it was sugar, not rum, that Europeans were after when they first began to cultivate sugarcane in the West Indies. Christopher Columbus carried sugarcane (a giant grass native to India) to the New World. The environment of the Caribbean proved perfectly suited for growing cane, and Caribbean sugar quickly came to satisfy Europe’s prodigious sweet tooth. This, then, is where our story really begins.

Converting cane into sugar is an industrial process that produces byproducts: cane juice and molasses. Caribbean islanders soon began converting these byproducts into cheap liquor, known first as Kill-Devil, then later as Rumbullion, and then simply as rum. This was powerful stuff. An early critic referred to it as “hot, hellish, and terrible.”

Not much of a tagline, perhaps. But no matter, there was an eager market for rum just north of the Caribbean. In the fledgling American colonies, precious few alcoholic options existed. Wine and beer often spoiled en route from Europe. And neither beer-making grains nor wine-making grapes grew well in the soils and climate of the original colonies. Rum from the islands was cheap and plentiful. For American colonists, it was “never mind the terrible, just bring the heat!”

However, cheaper than importing barrels of rum into the colonies was simply importing molasses and then converting it into rum themselves. Soon rum distillation became a substantial part of the New England economy.

Rum’s Dark Side

The story of rum is not all tiny umbrellas, cheap thrills, and challenging hangovers. It is also the story of incomparable cruelty and tremendous suffering. The Caribbean sugar industry condemned thousands of Africans to slavery in the Americas.

For a labor intensive industry, slaves ensured maximum production and maximum profits for the plantation owners. And the currency used to buy these additional slaves was rum.

Like three points of a triangle, islands of the Caribbean sent molasses to New England; in turn, New England shipped barrels of rum to Africa, where it was used to buy slaves; and finally, slaves were taken to the New World to produce more sugar and molasses, further fueling the Triangle Trade.

There’s Gonna be a Rumble

In the American colonies, meanwhile, trouble was brewing with Mother England. Rum production was enriching the colonies, and the crown wanted its cut. Not only that, but much of New England’s molasses was being purchased from French sugar plantations, not English, at a time when France was England’s dearest enemy.

In 1733, the crown levied a tax on all molasses imported from French islands. Though the colonists mostly ignored the decree, it nevertheless began a series of conflicts over taxation between the colonies and England that would become increasingly heated and eventually result in outright rebellion. “Molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence,” John Adams would later remark.

Rum and the Limeys

It was not all bad news for England. For decades, the Royal Navy had kept sailors’ spirits seaworthy by plying them with rations of brandy or beer. But as rum production picked up on English islands of the Caribbean, the Royal Navy switched to the home team’s tipple: rum.

Rum, of course, is more alcoholic than beer. The name rumbullion means “rowdy brawl.” As melees and bad behavior undermined naval discipline, commanders soon hit upon the idea of cutting the booze with a bit of sugar and some lemon or lime juice.

The unintended genius of this move went well beyond salvaging a measure of shipboard sobriety or hitting upon a tasty new cocktail. Without knowing it, the Royal Navy had solved a problem that had been endemic to long-distance sea travel: the ravages of scurvy. The vitamin C in the citrus juice added to the rum helped stave off this wasting disease, making English sailors, the limeys, a far healthier fighting force. In 1805, the English scored a decisive victory against a combined French and Spanish force at the Battle of Trafalgar. A simple choice of refreshment might well have contributed to England’s continued dominance of the seas.

Decline and Rise

The Royal Navy would continue to give rum rations until 1970. But overall, rum would begin to lose traction back in the 1800s. In America, westward expansion away from the Eastern seaboard into the heart of the continent lent itself more to whiskey production and consumption. The French Revolution led to the abandonment of slavery on humanitarian grounds. Gradually, all the nations of Europe would abandon this cruel practice. Sugar, molasses, and rum production would go into decline.

Today, however, rum is once again on the upswing. Modern rum production employs thousands of islanders and contributes to local economies. Sales of rum have been sparked by a renewed American interest in cocktails. Of all the liquors, rum is perhaps the most cocktail friendly. As the Royal Navy figured out two centuries ago, a bit of rum, a splash of lime, and a taste of something sweet makes a great drink, with or without tiny umbrellas.