Holiday 'Home': Rum Punch and the Diaspora
Updated: Jun 17
Rum punch - not a paradise cocktail to be sipped poolside but words inextricably linked by seafaring merchants on a devastating colonial quest that created the condition for the emergence of capitalism.
Rum is made from molasses, a thick black byproduct from the process that turns sugarcane into crystal gold. The process, almost alchemical, had historically proved extremely difficult
and was only made possible and crucially profitable by the exploitation of black and brown bodies. The exploitation came in the form of the Transatlantic Slave Trade that shipped enslaved African’s across the sea, the Middle Passage, and into sugar plantations.
Punch came from the English word ‘puncheon’, the large wooden barrels the British navy used to store their mates’ half-pint-a-day rum rations. The navy’s primary work in the Atlantic would be to protect British interests in the region. The enablement, finance and security the British (and other European countries) offered the ‘private’ traders and enslavers formed the historic legacy for any drink appended by ‘punch’.
All of that is horrible and distant. What about the brilliant culture that exists in the Caribbean today, a culture that is famed for its delicious rum punch? How can I and others who identify as British Caribbean both embody this cultural artifact while being acutely aware of the colonial history of our country of birth?
My story starts with my dad and Grenada - a small mountainous island, along a volcanic arc in the Caribbean sea and a place my family calls home. It is a complex story about a home that I didn’t know and an identity that would change forever.
The journey had started months before, in the coolest darkest corner of my dad’s house where he had stored three gallons of rum punch in anticipation of my first trip to Grenada as an adult. I was met not only by the wet heat that sparks you in the face as you step off the plane, but by Raymond ‘Maboat’ Pilgrim’s big white minivan - my dad’s tourism business on wheels. The inevitably awkward journey through the capital, St. George’s, past the absolutely beautiful Grand Anse Beach and up the near vertical ‘Golf Course’ Hill was punctuated by an offering of an ice cold drink from the cool box he had specially prepared for this moment.
This was no normal drink, this came with a name - ‘Maboat’s Rum Punch’, a self-portrait of my dad’s younger self. Most men on the island have a nickname. I recognised this from my friends back in London, who would free their teenage identities from the Christian names given to them by their parents in order to spit bars and draw girls. In Grenada a nickname is bestowed and usually not flattering! My dad, aka Maboat, aka My Boat, was a show off, who would not stop talking about his latest boat.
The drink was and is an extension of his identity, one which he cultivates with tender loving care. I had already experienced this from his visits to my grandma’s home in Dalston for big family occasions - always managing to smuggle through customs more local rum than humanly possible (a pan-diaspora* tradition). He would set mammoth batches of rum punch in the middle of her kitchen. The flair and abandonment with which he created his masterpiece was a sight to behold. In that kitchen he made it clear, only Maboat could make rum punch in this family.
The process, although completely by eye, is meticulous. Specific Trinidadian canned orange juice and pomegranate syrup had to be obtained, demerara syrup reduced to a particular dark brown hue and cooled so as to not cook the other ingredients, nutmeg–the most special ingredient and Grenada’s national spice– grated along with drops of Angostura Bitters both mixed into the punch to the point just before it becomes bitter. Then the rum - Clarke’s Court Pure White 69% ABV… Citrus is added to finally balance the sweetness. Although limes grow abundantly by the roadside, are delicious and free, their juice is not stable and bottled lime juice is used.
Preservation and preserved ingredients are at the heart of Caribbean cuisine. Take the spice rubs used in Jamaicain jerk or the continuous-one-pot Guyanese Pepperpot, that uses the magic of Cassareep** to ensure the pot never goes bad.
Rum punch is no different - dad drew from these techniques and would rest his punch in the cupboard for at least a month. The result of what he called ‘curing’ was a silky smooth taste and mouth-feel, that was the result of flavour molecules melding together over time. The drink’s ample body came from the demerara sugar which was then balanced by the imported bottled lime. Beneath it all, the overproof rum ignites a warmth that seeps down to your chest like molten lava.
Planter's Punch This recipe I give to thee Dear brother in the heat, Take two of sour (lime let it be) To one and a half of sweet, Of Old Jamaica pour three strong, And add four parts of weak. Then mix and drink. I do no wrong – I know where of I speak.
- a recipe for Planter's Punch as published in 1908 in The New York Times
I would take small rations down to the beach each day. It didn’t take long to realise that this was the finest drink I’d ever tasted! It turned the beach into a sort of memory box. Even once I had returned back to the UK I could feel the sun disappearing past the horizon, turning the sky from light blue to fiery yellow and orange. Behind my head the moon would appear amongst deep purple that stretched across the sky to create the most incredible colour spectrum. With Grenadian Soca music playing from someone's phone, the anticipation for the night’s lime would vibrate with every sip.
Rum punch now meant more to me. The taste now takes me back to the island and the people I met, it solidifies my Grenadian identity and links my encounters back home to the heritage I’d only been told or read about. These recollections and expressions of culture are so important to British Caribbean people. In fact, all diaspora communities experience an evocation to a distant place they call home through the recipes they hold close.
A diaspora community
Diaspora was a word that was everywhere. I understood that British Caribbean people were part of a diaspora community but I didn’t know what that actually meant. My trip home would only be the first step towards changing in the way I understood my identity.
Inspired, I read the works of scholars like Stuart Hall, needing a way to understand how my new Grenadian passport was now going to interact with my British nationality. His words on race and culture entered my consciousness and combined with my first-hand experience of home prepared me for the community I was about to enter in London.
To better understand the meaning of diaspora, I turned to the British Library and found the work of social-scientist Robin Cohen. Who describes diaspora as a community who satisfy all or some of his framework:
Common features of a diaspora
Dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically, to two or more foreign regions;
Alternatively, the expansion from a homeland in search of work, in pursuit of trade or to further colonial ambitions;
A collective memory and myth about the homeland including its location, history and achievements;
An idealization of the putative ancestral home and a collective commitment to its maintenance, restoration, safety and prosperity, even to its creation;
The development of a [literal or mythic] return movement which gains collective approbation;
A strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time and based on a sense of distinctiveness, a common history and the belief in a common fate;
A troubled relationship with host societies suggesting a lack of acceptance at the least or the possibility that another calamity might befall the group;
A sense of empathy and solidarity with co-ethnic members in other countries of settlement;
The possibility of a distinctive yet creative and enriching life in host countries with a tolerance for pluralism.
That taste of Maboat offered something tangible, a ‘cultural expression’ for me to own.
With Cohen’s framework in mind, I could rationalise and understand my grandma Hagar’s journey [1-2] to the UK. I could speak to and ‘right the world’ with members of the community and started on my journey to understand Britain’s role in Caribbean history [3-4].
I was able to both initialise and consolidate a place for myself within the British Caribbean community and from that my place within society as a whole. I developed an ‘ethnic consciousness’  and rationalised some of the experiences of growing up as a person of colour in the UK and again I was reminded of the passage from Caryl Phillips that played in my mind on my flight ‘home’ [6-7]:
The question. The problem question for those of us who have grown up in societies which define themselves by excluding others. Usually us. A coded question. Are you one of us? Are you one of ours? Where are you from? Where are you really from? And now, here on a plane flying to Africa, the same clumsy question. Does he mean, who am I? Does he mean do I belong? Why does this man not understand the complexity of his question? I make the familiar flustered attempt to answer the question. He listens and then spoils it all. "So my friend, you are going home to Africa. To Ghana. " I say nothing. No, I am not going home.” - Caryl Phillips, The Atlantic Sound
Eventually I wanted to share and express these feelings of culture and identity. I formed a night called ‘Everybody’s Rumshop’ with my cousin, where we played modern reggae, dancehall and soca music, imported Grenada’s Clarkes Court rum - mixed it with the skills I had learnt from my dad and created a British Caribbean shebeen*** in and around Hackney. Eventually it led to co-creating a restaurant with British Caribbean chef Marie Mitchell called ‘Island Social Club’ where we continue to deep dive and serve food and drink inspired by recipes and stories of the Caribbean.
There the cocktail menu was an opportunity to talk about the Black and Caribbean British experience. The cocktails transfigured Jeffery Boakye’s beautiful analysis of black masculinity, paid homage to Haiti’s revolutionary spirit and amazing artisans, and joined in on the black British obsession with plantain.
Holiday Home was most personal to me. Inspired by William Safran, a scholar of diaspora, who wrote that the idea of home is shared between diaspora members not so they can prepare for a return to their homeland but to 'make life more tolerable by holding out a utopia' of the homeland.
There exists a complex duality for the idea of home. It lives inside the subconscious and our ideas of self are deeply entwined with it. Home for a diaspora community can be literal or mythic.
My journey started by traveling to a place where I knew nobody and very little felt familiar or homely. Little did I know, the moment I stepped into my dad’s minivan and accepted his offering of Maboat’s rum punch, I would be on a journey that would make the “home” that my family spoke of tangible for me.
Clarke’s Court Pure White (20ml)
Coconut Bacardi (50ml)
Fresh Orange Juice (50ml)
Fresh Pineapple Juice (150ml)
Coconut Cream - ideally Coco Lopez (50ml)
Cacao / Nutmeg (dusting) - garnish
Lemon or Orange Wedge - garnish
Holiday Umbrella - garnish
Combine all (non-garnish) ingredients in a blender with 3 ice cubes.
Pour into tall glass.
Top with ice cubes to fill glass
Garnish with citrus slice, grating of nutmeg and umbrella
*pan-diaspora is used here to signify that the British Caribbean diaspora does not exist as a monolith and is as varied as the islands British Caribbean people know as home
**cassava extract with antiseptic qualities used in cooking and medicinal remedies.
***clandestine bar which sells beer, spirits and provides music
Sidney Mintz, Sugar
Robin Cohen, Diasporas and the State: From Victims to Challengers
Caryl Phillips, The Atlantic Sound
William Safran, Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return
Joseph Pilgrim is a diaspora food explorer/interpreter, coder and co-founder of Island Social club. You can follow him on Instagram @nice_toobad