Rum: History and Myths
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
This is part of a 2-part series on the colonial narrative of Rum. Read Classic Daiquiri or Canchanchara? here for a little more rum history and a couple cocktail recipes.
In a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, a bottle of rum rolls upon the shore of a white-sand beach. The character Jack Sparrow announces, “Welcome to the Caribbean”. The scene portrays a questionable history of the long-standing and persistent association that assumes the history of rum starts with colonisation.
This history has been perpetuated by the narrative rum companies use to market the spirit. These campaigns usually emphasize the years-old existence of the rum-producing industries in the Caribbean and its connection to imperial trade. The association has extended to contemporary media where Disney’s Jack Sparrow echoes a by-product of modern entrepreneurship, a complex historical blend of realities linked to colonization, slavery, and a built international classist image.
Historically, the image of rum connoted a lower class of spirits. Scotch and wine were viewed as “gentleman’s” drinks, unlike the pirate juice (another nickname) drank by enslaved people, workers and pirates. Rum was essentially a byproduct of the imperial sugar trade and because it could be made and produced cheaper than scotch or wine, the social culture of rum was considered to be low class and unrefined.
Rum was, and is, made in the colonies unlike wine or other spirits and liqueurs made in metropolitain Europe to be drunk by the elite. As Aimé Césaire wrote in Discourse on Colonialism, “...colonisation works to decivilize...to degrade” the practices and culture of the colonised. Rum never was seen as a valuable spirit because the technology to make it was created by enslaved people on sugar plantations. Under colonial rule, rum-drinking was a sign of vice, the rum drinker, unrefined.
Following the gradual dissolution of colonial rule in the Caribbean, rum underwent a narrative transformation. Many producers tried to change the classist perception of the spirit. At the 1882 Agricultural Expo in Ponce, Puerto Rico, rum-makers compared their añejos with cognac and noted the use of European techniques, such as aging in sherry barrels, to appeal to Western “high standards.” Unfortunately this new narrative still rooted rum’s origin story against a colonial backdrop and appealed to classist structures of taste to drive sales.
The true origin of rum is as uncertain as its name, which is commonly believed to be derived from rumbullion, meaning “great tumult” but it may also be derived from the Latin word saccharum (sugar). What is certain, the first time the word rum was documented came from a description written by a visitor to Barbados in 1647, who woefully reported, “The chief fuddling they make in the Island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, and this is made of sugar cane distilled, a hot, hellish and terrible liquor.”
There are a myriad of variables that can differentiate one style from another including time spent in oak barrels and the variety of oak the barrels are made from; what type of still is used; whether flavors or spice are added in the distilling process, and whether the rum is made from a base of molasses, cane syrup, or the freshly extracted juice of the sugarcane.
Ninety percent of rum is made from molasses which produces light, soft rums in the Spanish style, such as those pioneered in Puerto Rico, and dark, pungent rums of the English style, such as the style of rums made in Jamaica and Barbados. The rest of the rum market uses sugarcane juice to produce the spirit. These fall under the distinction of AOC Rhum Agricole [appellation d’origine contrôlée, the French certification of origin], therefore most rhum agricole is from the French West Indies. There is now one from Puerto Rico, Ron Agrícola, which is produced from the fresh juice of sugarcane after it’s pressed.
Styles of rum vary not only between countries, but often within counties. One example of this can be seen with “ron caña” in Puerto Rico; these styles are homemade and handcrafted, made unique by the town or family tradition. Rum, unlike other spirits, doesn’t have rules or international laws that determine from where and how it should be distilled unlike spirits such as Bourbon, Scotch or Champagne. This allows for rum to exist in many forms.
Many advertisements and rum companies echo the myth that rum was made first in Barbados by the British in 1647. But records show that Sir Francis Drake drank “agua ardiente” in 1596 as a remedy to cure his dysentery while on expedition in Cuba. This far predates the British conquest of Jamaica in 1655 and there is evidence of distilled sugar spirits since 1509 when Jamaica was under the rule of the Spanish crown. Evidence from first-hand accounts detailing the expedition of Sir George Clifford to the islands also show rum wasn’t first made by British, or even that it originated in the Caribbean.
Sugarcane spirits can be traced back to Southeast Asia, where, by the year 800 BC, scribes in ancient India wrote about a strong beverage made from the residue of sugarcane juice. Records also show Egyptians distilled molasses into a crude spirit. The art was passed to the Arabs, who employed distilling techniques since the ninth century A.D. to create perfumes and cosmetics. The Arabic word ‘al-kohl’ is the origin of the word ‘alcohol. Though Islamic tradition banned alcohol distillation for consumption, the process was introduced to Spain, along with sugarcane and molasses during the rule of the Al-Andalus kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492. These same techniques were adopted and improved upon in the American colonies during colonization and have continued to evolve in contemporary rum production
Saccharum Officinarum (sugar cane) arrived in Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1493, and in the 16th century, an enslaved workforce tilled its fields and produced alcoholic drinks fermented from its juices. Spanish Dominican Friar Bartolome de Las Casas wrote of the conditions people enslaved by Spanish plantation owners faced in his 16th-century account of his visit to the region: “once they [enslaved people] were sent to the mills, they die like flies from the hard labor they were made to endure and the beverages they drink made from the sugarcane.” This sugarcane drink doesn’t specifically qualify as rum but by the end 16th century there is evidence of rum distillation. Still rum isn’t named as such until 1647 where it is physically recorded. The British did not invent rum, but they did record it and were the first to demand and export it in vast quantities. Pot-still distillation techniques were exported from Barbados to the French in Martinique, who created the process for Rhum Agricole.
On the other hand, Spanish colonies in the Caribbean faced penalties for making rum because of the Crown’s interest in protecting its own alcohol production. Spanish wine enjoyed a revered status and was widely consumed in Europe and its colonies by local elites or peninsulares —the European that lived in the colonies. This resulted in decreasing the number of sugar mills in Spanish colonies which restricted the sugar industry and the possibility of industrial rum production. Locals were pushed to keep making clandestine rum and ran well-organized illegal commerce with Non-Hispanic Caribbean rum producers for most of the 17th century, turning the rum into the spirit of resistance and that belonged to criollos—people born in the colonies.
Despite the Spanish Crown’s best efforts, restrictions and penalties did not halt illicit rum production. When Field Marshal Alejandro O’Reilly made his inspection of Puerto Rico in the 1760s, he found illegal commerce flourished throughout the entire island and even involved high ranking officials. When the Spanish crown recognized the economic potential of rum production in their colonies new measures were adopted, the production and commercialization of rum was authorised and the immigration of people able to invest and stimulate rum production was encouraged. The legal industry grew strongly in the 19th century, but so did resentment among the locals against rich foreigners who took over the production and imposed their own techniques, like the “Solera” a Spanish aging-blending method, upon production. Seen as a “low-class” survival income, rum production was now dominated by bourgeois wine drinkers who had shunned it a few generations earlier.
The 18th century saw a big change after the independence of two major sugar-producing colonies: the United States and Haiti. This caused the economy of the UK and France to tremble as the empires’ remaining colonies capitalised on their economic value and began to initiate their own independence. The US flourished and turned to Cuba and Puerto Rico as its new customers for sugar but did little to create more equity within rum production. Rum trade with the US included a chain that exchanged cheap rum for enslaved people. The result was a dehumanising and vicious cycle of profit at the expense of the very people who laboured to grow and distill sugar cane into the newly profitable spirit.
Puerto Rico, still under Spanish rule at this point, had emerged as a new strong rum producer and saw its social economy change dramatically until the invasion of the United States in the Spanish American War in 1898. Under US colonial rule, Puerto Rico saw a revival of clandestine rum production with the passage of the 18th amendment to the US constitution in 1920 which prohibited consumption of all alcohol in the US and its territories. Without the competition of industrial rum production, demand for handcrafted (cañita) rum increased in Puerto Rico – as did its status as a drink of rebellion.
Cañita was never a crime until it was officially outlawed by Prohibition. Ron cañita producers and local consumers considered themselves defenders of an old tradition, an image of workers and culture against an intrusive government. After Prohibition ended in 1933, local companies saw the commercial potential of this spirit and invested a lot of money in publicity for the drink. Rum was pushed as a tropical vacation party spirit — a conception that has been assimilated internationally. The party-going narrative of rum appealed to the tastes of colonising forces that saw a commercial opportunity, not only to market the spirit, but to market the Caribbean as a place of escape.
This not only erases the violent colonial history of rum, it also runs counter to how rum was consumed locally during Prohibition. This can be seen in the way ron cañita was consumed within Puerto Rico. Cañita continues to be the spirit of locals, while industrial rum was viewed as a spirit “de allá” (over there or for outsiders) during the early years after the end of Prohibition. Gradually, the pervasiveness of colonial rum advertising altered this and its use in local cocktails.
Rum is a spirit that embodies many sentiments and histories but the international understanding of that history has been unfortunately appropriated by contemporary marketing campaigns rooted in the colonial gaze. Advertising campaigns by major rum producers have continued to consolidate the international image of rum into a tropical vacation spirit. Many, like Captain Morgan, continue to portray rum as a pirate drink and stamp it with non-European connotations that undervalue the spirit’s cultural significance. This spirit, originally made in the Caribbean by the indigenous people has for too long been disrespected, but the time for rum to be taken as seriously as Scotch won’t arrive until people are willing to reconcile with history and engage in decolonisation.
Israel Meléndez Ayala is a Historian and Anthropologist from Puerto Rico with a Master’s in International Relations and a World Class 2019 finalist bartender in Puerto Rico.
Editors note: Wix does not currently support footnotes but we'd be remiss not to share the research behind this piece, please find below the list of works cited by the author.
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