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"Hot, Hellish, and Terrible" 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.

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.

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              Nov. 1, 2009 6:25 am
              i drink run once in awhile . and love rum. i thank you for the history
              Nov. 14, 2009 7:24 am
              Thank you for the history, particularly as it relates to the American Colonies -- guess the school boards steered away from this logical but provocative link to early colonial economy and slavery trade.
              Nov. 30, 2009 12:32 pm
              I too enjoy history, and of course the rum also.
              Dec. 22, 2009 7:04 am
              A brilliant history, thank you! Most people don't realize that until the second half of the 19th century, the United States was a nation of alcoholics. The reason: agricultural surplus was converted into cider, beer, or whiskey, rather than being left to rot. Children would be introduced to hard cider by the time they were five!)It was the coming of the railroads that changed everything by making it easier for farmers to get their crops to market in a timely fashion.
              Dec. 22, 2009 7:05 am
              A brilliant history, thank you! Most people don't realize that until the second half of the 19th century, the United States was a nation of alcoholics. The reason: agricultural surplus was converted into cider, beer, or whiskey, rather than being left to rot. (Children would be introduced to hard cider by the time they were five!)It was the coming of the railroads that changed everything by making it easier for farmers to get their crops to market in a timely fashion.
              Dec. 22, 2009 4:30 pm
              Very interesting history from the above "history buffs". Thanks. I too enjoy a wee bit of rum on occasion.
              Feb. 13, 2010 5:42 pm
              I remember the lessons now on the Triangle, though as an adult I had forgotten about the link to the Caribbean Islands. Thanks for the updated history lesson, as I sip my Rum and Diet Coke.
              Mar. 19, 2010 6:29 am
              I had no idea of the history of rum...Thanks!
              Apr. 30, 2010 4:31 am
              Rum and Coke and Lime! Cuba Libre Rocks! Oh, the history was nice, too.
              Jul. 5, 2010 6:03 pm
              As they say in the Islands: TIME FLIES WHEN YOU'RE HAVING RUM!
              Sep. 10, 2010 5:10 pm
              I've sailed the seas with Captain Morgan a few times and have enjoyed the cruise.
              Sep. 14, 2010 4:07 pm
              My Mother (God rest Her Soul) loved Goslings Black Label Rum (I think that is how it is written) also Cocksbury is REALLY good
              Oct. 8, 2010 5:36 pm
              I loved all the comments on Rum. I know that all alcoholic beverages can be destructive to families and individuals. Moderation -- that's the key. Autos kill - but used sensibly they are very valuable to the economy of our country. Drive and drive responsibly. patoc
              Dec. 8, 2010 12:33 pm
              I come from an island in the Pacific discovered by the Spaniards and rum is the most popular drink followed by beer. The Anejo rum is "it". There is a jingle that says "We are all about Anejo" I drink it and make rum cake with macadamia nuts and walnuts in it. Rum makes the best cocktails. You can eat the rum or drink the rum. RUM rules!!!!! The history of it is so true.
              Mar. 11, 2011 4:52 pm
              I did not know what rum was until 2004. I was sick with the flu and high temp. The rum was rubbed from my head to my chest. I must say my temp dropped and I began to heal.
              Jul. 2, 2011 3:22 pm
              Although I don't drink rum, I enjoy baking with it. For apple cake, I marinate the apples in a bit of spiced rum. For carrot cake, I mariante the carrots with a couple tablespoons of rum. It gives cake a really nice flavour.
              Jun. 8, 2012 11:37 pm
              Interesting. Unfortunately, rum usually gives me a headache. But, I try a bit of coconut rum on occasion.
              Jul. 13, 2012 10:42 am
              The best rum (and i have tried them all) is Tanduay which is a product from the Philippines. It leaves the rest for dead.
              Sep. 16, 2012 6:51 pm
              by drinking rum, you didn't have to drink the polluted water which was a by product of civilization. Wine,beer and tea also served this purpose. The" history of the world in six glasses " is a wonderful book that explores this subject.
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