Rum is the “demon” beverage favoured by pirates, slavers, buccaneers and, as the French historian Alain Huetz de Lemp once declared, “all the vagabonds who scoured the New World”. The Nation correspondent Ian Williams’s micro-historical journey looks beyond this reputation to uncover a heady past at the very heart of world trade.
From its Caribbean-Creole origins to its significance in Castro’s Cuba, Williams traces the drink’s biography with a connoisseur’s nose for a striking anecdote. The Kennedy dynasty made its fortunes “supplying Yankee thirsts during Prohibition”, while America’s Pilgrim Fathers were “a bunch of weird cultists” who thought nothing of waylaying a Quaker ship for its cargo’s value “in rum and sugar”.
But its darkest secret is its importance to the transatlantic slave trade. Rum was a “double enslaver”: it both depended “on the toil of slaves to make” and was “the main trade item to buy slaves in West Africa”. The Sugar Rush, as malicious and as maddening as the Gold Rush, pioneered the Middle Passage to the Americas. There, rum’s high market value helped to justify the use of an “industrial-scale” slave force. Williams’s headlong dive into “rumbalia” is an overproof treat.