The History Rum, Pt. I

By Matt Ray |

The Cocktail Renaissance ushered in a golden age of rum in the Twenty-Teens, but the spirit’s peak popularity actually dates back centuries. For generations, the sweet spirit was not just a base or a sipper, but a key element in geopolitics and the world economy, as well as the history of the United States. Over the next few months, we’ll take a look at the history of rum. This week, we begin with the early days of the colonial New World.

Thirsty Colonists

Charles Taussig wrote that rum had “an astonishing influence on the history United States. Throughout our history, from Columbus to the Civil War, we are constantly confronted with rum or its social, political and economic byproducts”. He also noted that rum was the “currency of the slave trade, which in turn was the backbone of New England commerce.”

In an era when land transport was expensive, intensely laborious, and difficult, distilled drinks were a transportable and value concentrated commodity. And, molasses was the most portable of fermentable substances. Likewise, New England’s ample supply of timber for fuel and barrels as well as their technical and metalworking skills, made the region the logical locations to base production.

Wealthier colonists drank Caribbean imports, but those with less income opted for the cheaper, locally distilled rum. For example in 1740 Philly, domestic rums fetched one shilling and eight pence a gallon compared with two shillings and five pence for West Indies rum. When prices from the early 1700s are adjusted for inflation, a penny would’ve provided over a quarter pint of rum. Of course, the cheaper stuff tasted—like cheap booze.

The colonies contained 143 distilleries producing almost 5,000,000 gallons of rum per year to support this habit.

On the eve of independence in 1770, there were only 1.7 million colonists. But they managed to knock back 7.5 million gallons of rum a year domestically and exported an additional million gallons annually. The colonies contained 143 distilleries (Massachusetts alone boasted 50) producing almost 5,000,000 gallons of rum per year to support this habit. Even so, the colonists were importing almost 4,000,000 gallons of rum, worth 338,000 British pounds, When you tweak population stats to account for women and children, these figures imply that the adult, white males drank quantities amounting to three pints of rum week.

Slavery, Molasses, and Cod

By the 18th century, European hegemons, led by England, had colonized most of the West Indians. By design, these island colonies were totally dependent on their neighbors for survival. Food supplies relied on complex currents of trade across the globe, especially other outpost farther north.

To pay for the molasses that their distilleries were consuming and the West Indian rum that many colonists drank, the colonies fished the Grand Banks. Just as the molasses was itself a byproduct, it was paid for with a spoiled portion of the dried and salted cod. The cheap portable protein could then fuel the energies of the slaves who toil produced the sugar in the Caribbean islands.

“Rum was the moving agent in these various summer voyages” William Weeden concluded in his Economic and Social History of New England. “And whatever branch of trade we find ourselves we are impressed by the immense prevalence and moving power of rum, Negroes [slave labor], fish, vessels, lumber, inter-colonial traffic in produce, all feel the initiative and moving impulse of rum”

Rum bound the otherwise separate (and disparate) interests of the 13 colonies with their widely different basic economies, into a trading system. It also prepared the way for a common grudge against anyone who interfered with the feedstock they needed for their stills– molasses. By the middle of the 1700s one out of every eight gallons was exported. Rum made up 80% of the export trade of New England, and almost all of that was for barter in the slave trade.

In moral and geographic dimensions, there was indeed a triangle – slaves, rum, and sugar. The rum that was made from the molasses. The molasses was traded for cod. Cod was bartered in West Africa for more slaves. The slaves were taken to the Caribbean or Southern mainland colonies.

Even at the time, there was some taboo surrounding the slave trade in New England. For example, Capt. David Lindsay of Newport called the vessels engaged in the trade “rum ships” rather than slave ships. Another slaver captain referred to “us rum men”. Even the rum earmarked for the slave trade was euphemized into “Guinea rum.”

Native Americans, Rumbullion, and Revolt

The Native Americans were not immune to rum’s place in the machinations of European politics. The liquor served as a weapon in the struggles between the rum-boozing English and the religiously driven French. The latter group futilely attempted to seduce the Indians with Catholicism and temperance. However, rum ultimately proved itself as a potent tool of ethnic cleansing in the same fashion that the English tried to subdue the Chinese with opium.

English traders routinely supplied rum to the Native Americans. The traders rationalized that if they did not supply rum, the dreaded French would provide brandy or the Spanish would supply liquor or sherry. The logic, while flawed, invoked a great deal of patriotism in the colonists.

It was bad enough that the colonists’ expansion was halted by a distant monarch, but preventing rum from flowing west was also a major problem.

The chauvinistic fervor subsided when the Seven Years War and the French threat, along with it, ended. At that point, His Majesty escalated a tense situation. George III, loyal to his former Indian allies, instituted the in the Quebec Duty Act. This decree inflamed traders by making it illegal to import rum into the western territories except through Quebec–with duty paid. It was bad enough that the colonists’ expansion was halted by a distant monarch, but preventing rum from flowing west was also a major problem.

Amongst others, John Hancock rallied against the Quebec Acts. The law nurtured grudges reflected in the Declaration of Independence wording which railed against “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world.”

Rum was as valuable to the motherland as it was to her satellites. The British profited five times as much from Jamaica’s trade as they did from direct American mainland commerce. The period’s great naval battles between the French and English occurred, more often than not, in and around the Caribbean. The Europeans sent hundreds of thousands of troops and sailors to the islands. The islands’ importance was such that London lost more troops in the Caribbean than died in the war to chase the French out of Spain. Indeed the British sent more troops to Haiti than they sent against 13 colonies during the American Revolution.

Commodity imports offer governments unrivaled revenue raising opportunities. It’s much easier to tax goods and services at the ports than anywhere else. Sugar, rum, and molasses were readily taxable- just as oil is now.

But, that valuable revenue stream faced a competitor as discontent with the Crown grew. Smuggling molasses and rum by the hogshead was much more profitable than importing it by the ton on a huge ship [a Hogshead was between 62 to 140 gallons, and then later standardized to 63]. Rum smuggling generated huge amounts of money that guaranteed local influence and certainly instilled the locals with a healthy disrespect for laws and governments. The effects of smuggling were pretty corrosive to the colonies. Every cent a smuggler made in the colonies was money that didn’t make it to Britain, or into the Bank of London to pay off the sizeable debts that England owed its creditors for the Seven Years War against France. We see time and again in American history that debt not only funds wars, but also causes them.

While the North American mainland colonies were populous and had their own economic success stories, they did not have direct representation in the Houses of Parliament – like the powerful sugar barons did.

The American colonies were supposed to provide England with commodities that the global power didn’t already have. Originally, the New World was valued only for the fur trade, but New England broke the rules. The local labor and capital involved in distilling and in manufacture of barrels on a huge scale for molasses and rum broke all the spirit of imperial rule from-a-distance by developing a large value-added manufacturing business. This in turn, stoked independence from Britain.

Rum was about to drive revolution. Next week, we’ll take a look at the spirit’s role in the war for independence.

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