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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Sugarcane, slaves, empire-toppling — the story of rum The history of rum

Rum is a popular spirit all throughout the world and is probably best known for its association with pirates and the Caribbean. But its history extends far beyond these waters, and the men and women that sailed them. Not all of it is nice and happy, but it’s definitely an interesting story. So let’s dive right in.

Image via Pxfuel.

First off, while there is broad agreement on what exactly constitutes rum, there is no universally accepted ‘proper’ way of producing this drink. Different communities or areas of the world will have their own styles of distilling rum, some based on traditional approaches, some designed more with economic practicality in mind.

With that being said, there is relative consensus (and customer expectation) on what rum should be. Chief among these is that the liquor is produced through distillation from sugarcane molasses or, much less commonly, from fresh sugarcane juice; this latter one is distinguished as ‘rhum agricole’. Rums vary in color from clear or light amber to heavy brown and even black, depending on how it’s produced. In very broad terms rum doesn’t have a powerful taste, but it does carry over the flavor and aroma of the sugarcane plant that it comes from.

Most rums are used in mixers or cocktails, although some are meant to be drunk neat. Due to its flavor, it is often used in cooking as well — where I’m from, rum and rum essence are very popular ingredients in cakes and sweets, especially as a companion for chocolate.

How it all started

Rum is intrinsically tied to the sugarcane plant so, unsurprisingly, its story starts in the areas where sugarcane evolved naturally. This mostly means Melanesia (today’s New Guinea), the Indian subcontinent, and parts of Southeast Asia corresponding to today’s Taiwan and southeast China.

People living in these areas likely drank one type of rum-like alcohol or another ever since they first found the plant. As we discovered a long time ago, alcohol is pretty easy to make, actually; all you need is some organic material rich in sugar or starch. It’s actually so easy to do that it happens naturally, as microorganisms in the air or soil break down ripe fruit. In fact, one hypothesis holds that humans developed the ability to resist much higher quantities of alcohol than (most) other animals because this allowed our ancestors to chow down on spoiled fruits in our evolutionary past. Alcohol as a molecule contains a lot of energy, so it’s quite advantageous to ingest it, as long as your liver is able to handle its toxicity.

But back to our story. I call these rum-like drinks because although making alcohol is easy, distilling it into spirits is not. The earliest evidence of distilling we’ve ever found comes from 12th century China, so around 800-900 years or so ago. On the other hand, we have evidence of deliberate alcohol brewing, in pottery containers, almost ten thousand years old.

So for most of history, sugarcane alcohol was more similar to a modern beer or wine than a bottle of cognac or whiskey. Brum, a traditional alcoholic drink from today’s Malaysia, is a good example of how these would have looked and tasted. Marco Polo, the famous Italian explorer, claimed that he was offered a “wine of sugar” in today’s Iran and that it was “very good”. This sugar wine was most likely Brum or a close relative of Brum.

Now for context, up through to most of the Age of Sail, sugar was a pain to process. Refining sugar out of sugarcane by hand is an incredibly time-consuming and labor-intensive process, so even in areas where sugarcane grew naturally, it had always been expensive. In all other areas, mainly Europe, it remained unknown for a long time, and people just used honey instead. But even after it was introduced to Europe, it wasn’t just expensive — it was laughably expensive.

Sugar-producing areas throughout the world by year. Image via Wikimedia.

To give you an idea of just how expensive it was, take Cyprus, an otherwise not particularly rich island in the Mediterranean. During the middle ages, after the crusaders lost Jerusalem, Cyprus was one of the last places where Europeans could acquire domestic sugar. All other supply was controlled, either directly or indirectly, by “the Saracens” — Muslim peoples in Arabia and the Middle East. There were other sugar plantations and processing sites in Europe, geographically speaking, but in areas that were under Muslim control, such as the southern stretches of Spain and Sicily. This meant that they were politically not really accessible to Europeans. Rhodes, Malta, and Crete would also eventually produce sugar, but Cyprus became the main supplier of sugar in Europe for a few hundred years.

Cyprus, at the height of production, exported a few tons of sugar every year, maybe a few tens of tons on a good harvest. Even this low export quantity made Cyprus the de-facto center of trade in the region and ensured the livelihood of locals from serfs to king — although the former didn’t get very much, if anything, for their work. It was the main money-making industry on the island and was so profitable that it warranted the construction of stone factories and investments into research and improved technology such as mechanization. It printed so much money for Cyrpus that they tried to automate the process in the middle ages.

“But wait,” you may ask, being the inquisitive bunch that you are. “What does all this have to do with rum?”. Well, an argument can be made that the very high price of sugar was, through some pretty tragic circumstances, the catalyst for the invention of rum.

How it continued

Around the late 15th century, the Portuguese had colonized São Tome (Saint Thomas), an island in the African Gulf of Guinea, and Madeira, off the West coast of Africa. The climate here was suitable for sugarcane, so plantations started popping up on the islands.

It would be on São Tome that the Portuguese changed the European sugar game from the ground up. Sadly, the way they did that was by employing slave labor. Processing sugarcane is hard, arduous, and definitely dangerous work. It’s also time-sensitive since a whole harvest can rot if it’s not turned into sugar quickly enough. And the end product was extremely expensive, so there’s a lot of pressure not to waste any cane.

If you were a medieval peasant, this haul was definitely worth more than your income. Probably worth more than you were, frankly. Image credits Jah Cordova.

Exploiting slaves was a way to reduce expenses on labor and other inconveniences, such as basic worker safety. To quote the Pirates of the Caribbean, it was “nothing personal, just good business”. They definitely did lower expenses, as Portuguese sugar managed to out-compete Cypriot sugar during this time. I haven’t been able to find reliable records of just how bad slaves on São Tome had it. However these were, essentially, the precursor days to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, so they definitely didn’t have a good time.

Since there was money to be made, the system was copy-pasted in European colonies in the new world where sugarcane could grow. The Caribbean became an extremely important region economically, in no small part due to the cheap sugar slaves would produce here. The work was harsh, and due to its time-sensitive nature, it was common for slaves to be sleep-deprived, working multiple shifts. Since the whole point of the slave system was to bypass costs associated with regular workers, they also didn’t live in good conditions or get much healthcare.

All in all, a pretty bad life. And, like countless people living bad lives both before and after them, these slaves turned to boozing. But being slaves, nobody would just give them alcohol, and they didn’t have any money to spend, either. What they did have was molasses, a thick, sweet, syrupy by-product left over from the processing of cane. So they started brewing their own alcohol using this molasses which, at the time, was generally considered a waste product by sugar manufacturers.

Now, one piece of this puzzle that is missing is exactly how the rum-like drink the slaves brewed transitioned to actual, distilled rum. The main issue here is that slaves as a group don’t tend to own stills. So it’s probably safe to assume that they were not singularly responsible for the development of rum. Whether or not they received help from sympathetic free people on the islands, or whether their masters took the practice up for themselves and then tried distilling the product, however, we don’t know.

What we do know is that by 1650 or so, we have written evidence of a drink called ‘Rumbullion’ or ‘Kill-Divil’ being produced on the island of Nevis in the northeastern stretches of the Caribbean Sea. Rumbullion is the name of a modern drink that is based on rum, but it’s very doubtful that this is the same Rumbullion noted in historical documents. Rum was also produced in Brazil around 1620, likely accompanying local production of sugarcane.

How it toppled an empire (sort-of)

Bottle of molasses, the base ingredient used in making rum.
Mmmmm, molasses. Image credits Marshall / Flickr.

Colonial USA was actually a pretty large producer of rum in the late 17th century and that rum would start being used as the exchange good for slaves in Africa (before rum, French-made brandy was used). New England, in particular, would develop a sizable and profitable rum-distilling business. Although sugarcane couldn’t grow here, the area had the benefit of skilled metalworkers, coopers, and significant resources of lumber.

This pool of know-how and resources meant New England could produce and feed sophisticated stills and had the barrels it needed to export their rum. In the end, all these developments led to a secondary “triangular trade” forming in the new world: merchants would trade American rum for African slaves, sell them to plantation masters in the West Indies (the Caribbean islands) for sugar and molasses, which would then buy them fresh rum in the colonies.

Putting that aside, the colonies did have a significant hand to play in shaping modern rum. From what we can tell, the rumbullion produced on sugar plantations was quite different from today’s rum. American breweries, which had the weight of whiskey-making tradition behind them, naturally made rum that more closely resembled whiskey. This seems to have been lighter both in taste and in alcohol content than the original concoctions, and is by all accounts very similar to the rum of today.

But, as it tends to always happen in history, everything changed again. Around the 18th century, at the height of the triangular trade, French authorities banned the production of rum in their offshore colonies — rum was competing with brandy for market share, and the French didn’t like that one bit.

Although this very likely didn’t factor into the decision, I’m sure the French would have been delighted to know that their ban would end messing up English affairs monumentally. The ban led to a massive drop in molasses prices from French colonies, so distillers in the New World started buying from them, instead of from English holdings. Compounding the issue was the fact that British colonies didn’t really trade in what the Americas had to sell — raw resources such as fish, lumber, skins — while French, Spanish, or Dutch colonies would accept a wide range of goods.

Naturally, people shifted towards the more convenient and affordable option. American rum then suddenly became much cheaper than English rum, with no drop in quality. This caused massive outrage in England, the kind of outrage a crown can never ignore — outrage from people with plantations, stills, and ultimately, wealth. This led to the implementation of the Molasses Act in 1733, which attempted to levy a hefty tax on the import of molasses to the colonies from non-British plantations. The point here was to make non-British molasses too expensive to realistically purchase, not necessarily to make money.

Naturally, the colonies had no love for nor real interest in enforcing an act that would cripple one of their main and most sophisticated industries. Smuggling became the unspoken rule, as producers didn’t want to pay the tax, and authorities didn’t want to force them to pay it either. Where common interest didn’t prevail, bribery and intimidation provided the lubrication needed to keep the American rum business going.

Seeing the utter and abject failure of this law, British Parliament then passed the Sugar Act / American Revenue Act in 1764. This reduced the original tax from six pence per gallon of molasses down to three per gallon, but much more effort was expended by Parliament to actually collect the tax.

Still, the damage had already been done since the Molasses Act. Political authority is a fickle thing. A large part of being in power is people believing that you are in power. The rampant evasion of the molasses tax — one that everyone could see and was part of — together with the resentment of the colonies towards a measure they perceived punished them unjustly, shattered the illusion of British supremacy over the Americas.


This crack would eventually grow and help shape the events and sentiments that made the American colonies seek out their independence.

The British empire itself outlived the loss of the American colonies by quite a large margin. But the event did mark the end of its golden days, and sent the single largest empire the world has ever seen into decline.

Can rum thus be said to have toppled the British empire? Not exactly. Misrule and, arguably, our innate human need for freedom and autonomy, did that job. But rum, and the interests of those making money on all the stages of its production chain, certainly helped foster the conditions needed to topple an empire.


I’m personally prone to thinking in and understanding the world around me through metaphors. I can’t help but see the symbolism in a drink, initially brewed by slaves seeking some measure of escape from their lives, lending a hand in giving a country its independence. I know it’s just a spirit distilled from sugarcane. But reading about its history, the honestly tragic roots it grew from, it’s impressive to see how many people lost, sought, and found a measure of freedom through rum. Maybe some of those slaves’ dreams were distilled down into the rum alongside the molasses.

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