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25 August 2021

The cruel history of rum – and why we drink to forget it

Rum’s colonial past is proof that even the sweetest of hard liquors has a bitter backstory. 

By Nina Caplan

Bribing electorates pre-dates democracy: after all, those with no hope of expressing their will at the polls can still elect to murder their rulers. Move towards universal suffrage and you lessen the probability of politicians meeting untimely ends, but increase the likelihood of them being judged on their capabilities – which can, for the incapable, be nearly as much of a problem.

Distraction has long been the solution. The ancient Roman poet Juvenal complained that the people no longer cared about their civic duty, preferring to focus on the food and entertainment that were made freely available to prevent them from becoming restive and, maybe, starting to hunger for change. His phrase, translated as “bread and circuses”, is still current, and leaves out only one important element: alcohol.

For Romans, that would have meant wine, which even slaves received in some degraded form. By the time George Washington was looking to enter politics, in 1755, landholders were the constituency and their preferred tipple was rum. Washington decided not to dispense any and lost the election, badly. Three years later, he doled out around 200 gallons of alcohol to just 391 voters, and won. He never fought dry again, nor lost another election.

If, as Benjamin Franklin once said, wine is “proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy”, then rum has been, through the ages, proof that while our rulers may not care about us at all, they understand that our happiness, or at least befuddlement, is crucial to their survival.

[see also: Wine is born from hardship – and few have had as much to overcome as port]

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Rum was first made in the 17th century, probably in Barbados, from fermenting then distilling molasses, or in Martinique, from doing the same with sugarcane juice. Its inventors were almost certainly slaves forced to work the Caribbean cane fields, driven to dull the pains of servitude by transforming sugar by-products into a panacea. America’s East Coast became part of the triangular trade that took slaves from Africa to the sugar plantations, molasses from there to New England and the resulting rum back to Africa via American slave traders, to exchange for human cargo.

If it seems strange that this sweetest of hard liquors should have such a bitter backstory, consider that our grim understanding of human capacity for bad behaviour is one of the main factors driving us all to drink. Lift a mojito or a daiquiri to your lips and you are ingesting a sea of sorrow that began with enslaved Africans but flowed out to encompass sailors press-ganged into the Royal Navy, pirates’ victims and Native Americans exchanging their birthright for more of the Europeans’ poison. “Let us candidly admit that there are shameful blemishes on the American past,” wrote the historian Bernard DeVoto in his marvellously curmudgeonly anti-cocktail book, The Hour, “of which by far the worst is rum.” DeVoto may have won the Pulitzer Prize, while I simply ponder our liquid obsessions, but I must correct him here. Americans, like the rest of us, manufacture their own blemishes, and rum is just the by-product.

At least today we can drink it without compromising our souls, although our livers may not appreciate that as progress. The dangers of distraction remain, however. It’s tempting to allow sweet elixirs to blur our blemishes and deflect us from our duty – but no amount of rum will drown the resulting sorrows if we do.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

[see also: In the kitchen, my ingredients do as I command. If only life came with a recipe I could follow too]

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat