The Golden Age of Rum

As I have already written, many today in the rum world seem to feel nostalgia for the good old times,  when, in their opinion, the quality of rum  (indeed, often the quality of quite everything)  used to be better than it is now: more natural, authentic, artisan, and  healthier too, a veritable Golden Age of Rum.

Unfortunately I have to disappoint them. Historical sources show us that, at least as regards rum, in truth there is nothing to be nostalgic for, and that the good old times were not so good after all. Obviously we can’t know exactly what rum tasted like in the past, but I think it can reasonably be said that it was generally bad, often disgusting and probably undrinkable for today’s taste. And in many cases it would be prohibited today by all the health authorities on the planet.

I haven’t done any dedicated research on the subject, simply I came across some interesting texts when researching for my books about the history of rum. Therefore I do not claim to make an organic speech about this issue (maybe in the future), I’ll just present some thought-provoking sources.

Let’s begin with the very first English and French ones, dating back to the 1600s

In 1647 Richard Ligon, a Cavalier, a Royalist, ruined by the Civil War, left England and sailed to Barbados to seek his fortune. He would spend 3 years there. He didn’t achieve what he had set out to do, so he had to go back to England, where things continued to go wrong for him, to such an extent that eventually he was imprisoned for debt. While in prison, he wrote a book on his journey, “A true and Exact History of the island of Barbados”, published in 1657.

Here is one famous excerpt from it.

“The seventh sort of drink is that we make of the skimming of sugar, which is infinitely strong, but not very pleasant in taste; it is common and therefore the less esteemed; the value of it is half a Crown a gallon, the people drink much of it, indeed too much; for it often lays them asleep on the ground, and that is accounted a very unwholesome lodging.”


Few years later, another much quoted English visitor to ( or settler in)  Barbados described rum in  the following, not exactly enthusiastic way: “the chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill.Divil, and this is made from sugar cane distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”

At the end of the 1600s, the French Dominican priest Jean-Baptiste Labat, usually known in the rum world as Père Labat, volunteered to leave the convent for the colonies in order to replace deceased missionaries on Martinique. He wrote a big book about his experience “Noveau Voyage aux Isles de l’Amèrique … (“New Voyage to the American islands ..”)  published in 1722. Here are some excerpts

“The spirit we make on the Islands with mash & sugar syrups, it’s not one of the least used drinks, we call it Guildive or Taffia. The Savages, the Negros, the lowly settlers & craftsmen are not looking for another one & they lack self-control with this item, it is enough for them that this liquor is strong, violent & cheap; it doesn’t matter whether it’s harsh and unpleasant.”

“The spirits we pull from the canes are called Guildive. The Savages & the Negros call it Taffia, it is very strong, with an unpleasant smell & acridness, a little like grain-based spirits, which we have trouble taking away from them.”

In the second half of the 1700s rum became a widespread commodity. Consumers were well aware of the different geographic origins of rum, Jamaica, Barbados, Martinique, New England  etc. and some rums were considered of far higher quality than others, with significantly different prices. In short, a proper international rum market already existed. Well, according to Guillame’s “Le Rhum sa Fabrication et sa Chimie”(1939) , in 1777 the “Encyclopédie” says:

“Rum is refined by distillers and traders who often blend a large quantity of low-priced liquor with coarse rum containing large quantities of essential oils which wipe out those of other fermented liquors. There is a lot of refinement in England. Some people are not ashamed to do this refinement with grain spirits or molasses. It’s very difficult to uncover this deception.”

At the end of the 1700s, John Bell served as a military surgeon in Jamaica. Back to England, in 1791 he published “An Inquiry into the causes which produce, and the means of preventing diseases …”. Bell was shocked by the mortality rate in the ranks “in some of those regiments, two thirds, and in others upward of a half, died, or were rendered unfit for service before they had been a year, or at most a year and a half, in the island of Jamaica.” In his opinion, the excessive daily consumption of rum was the primary cause of illness and death among the soldiers. The daily allowance was half a pint and was usually diluted with water, we do not know in what ratio. But soldiers bought much more undiluted rum, “large quantities of which of the most execrable quality” from private sellers at a cheap price. Actually, planters and distillers produced for the soldiers a kind of rum that only needed to be strong and cheap. It was fermented and distilled very quickly, saving on costs, without any regard for quality. As far as we know, the heads and the tails were not removed and in all likelihood in rum there was methanol, fused oils and bad congeners. And lead powder too, because lead and pewter were largely used in sugar and rum-making machinery. We know of soldiers who died immediately after they had drunk, or who fell to the ground in a state of torpor. Of hardy young men who declined rapidly. Of excruciating pains, ulcerated organs, illnesses …. The reports of the military surgeons of the time, and the first scientific post-mortems, tell us a terrifying story.

In the middle of the 1800s, France had become a major producer and consumer of rum. In 1864, the “Dictionnaire Francais” by B. Dupiney de Voupierre, writes:

“Under the names of Rum or Taffia, we designate two alcoholic liquors which are obtained from sugar cane; but the first is the product of the fermentation of molasses, a residue from the cane juice, while taffia is removed from the debris of sugar cane delivered to fermentation.  Rum is naturally colourless and endowed with a flavour similar to that of the spirit, but it is given the golden colour and the particular flavour which pleases the consumer by infusing cloves, tobacco tar, and especially scraping of tanned leather; usually a little caramel is also added.”

Time goes by, but the quality of rum does not improve much. In his preface  to Pairault’s  “LE RHUM et sa fabrication”(1903) , Dr. A. Calmette, writes:

“It is enough that we protect it by an intelligent regulation which obliges the importers to definitively state the inconceivable fraud which consists of making a litre of authentic rum into three or four litres of a product sold under the same name. This product is a mixture of beet alcohols and wonderfully combined sauces to give the consumer the illusion of true rum perfumes. This fraud is not only detrimental to the interests of rum makers, it can also be harmful to consumers’ health.”

And now let’s read again some parts of the report of the “Royal Commission on Whiskey and other Potable Spirits”

Twenty-sixth day. Monday, July 20th, 1908.

Mr. Frank Litherland Teed, recalled

  1. Have you any reason to think that this imitation rum is being sold in this country? – I have no means of knowing. Of course, you might get the import numbers from the Customs, but I do not see how you are to get the quantities that are actually manufactured in this country. If you take the patent still grain spirit which I believe is now called patent still Scotch Whiskey, and put some of these ethers to it, it becomes rum. We have heard this morning that it becomes gin under certain circumstances, but, of course, if you put in other essences it may become brandy.

Twenty-seventh day. Tuesday, July 21st, 1908

Mr. James Monro Nicol, called

  1. You are exporters of Scotch whiskey, West Indian rum, British rum and compounded spirits, and you are proprietors of Customs bonded warehouses? – Yes.
  2. You wish to make some remarks to the Commission about a certain practice of mixing rum and plain spirit for exportation? – Yes.
  3. It has been suggested by one witness that this practice should be prohibited? – That is so.
  4. I understand that you take a different view: Will you kindly explain to the Commission exactly what that view is? – As stated in my précis, my present company and its predecessors have carried on that business for almost 40 years in accordance with the regulations of the Excise and Customs.
  5. That is the business of mixing Demerara rum with plain spirit in bond? – Yes. We therefore feel that it would be very unfair to us now to have that permission taken away not only on account of our own loss but we feel that it would be to the loss of the trade of the country, and there is no doubt about it that other countries would step in and do the trade if we did not do it.
  6. Under what designation is this mixed rum exported by you; how is it described? – It is ordered first of all from us as a rum and we invoice it as a rum. We use the term “rum” in our correspondence ourselves, but in the Customs, of course, the name “rum” is not recognised. The casks do not bear on them the name “rum”. They have to be marked “mixed”: That is certain.
  7. Not “rum” but “mixed” by itself? – Yes, the word “mixed”, which I suppose is a sufficient indication, or at least it meets the requirements of the Excise and Customs, that is a mixed spirit.
  8. That is, mixed for foreign use? – Yes.
  9. But is there any further mark on the cask that is exported? – That depends entirely on the market that the article goes to.
  10. Take Australia, for instance? – For Australia it is now necessary to add the country of origin on the casks and therefore they are marked: “The product of Great Britain and the West Indies”: There is no objection to putting on the word “British rum”, and as a matter of fact in exporting to Australia these two words do appear over and above the statement as the country of origin.
  11. You have on that cask when sent to Australia, have you not “British Rum”, the produce of Great Britain and the West Indies, in addition to the word “mixed”? – Yes, that is so.
  12. How do you invoice those mixtures? – It is invoiced as “rum”.
  13. Where does the bulk of that spirit go to? – It goes to Australia, New Zealand and the Australasian islands as well as to different parts of Eastern Europe.
  14. Would you regard that as a legitimate trade in this country? – I would.
  15. To sell that as “rum”? – Yes. I consider that there is no monopoly in the word “rum”.
  16. … What is the smallest amount of rum you can get in the cheapest article you send out? You must have a cheap trade as well as anybody else. What is the smallest amount of rum you would put in? – That we use, or that might be used?
  17. That you can put in? – I should say if you use one gallon of Demerara rum with your British spirit it would have to go out as mixed spirit.
  18. One gallon of Demerara rum to how many gallons of plain spirit? – One gallon of Demerara rum to 100 of plain spirit.

Mr. F.W. Percy Preston, called

  1. What is the nature of the business of your firm? – We are distillers and also exporters.
  2. Distillers of what? –What do you distill? – British plain spirit.
  3. Is that grain spirit? – Molasses spirit mostly. There is a little grain, but the bulk of our trade is molasses spirit.
  4. You are proprietors of Excise bonded warehouses? – Yes, and also of a vatting establishment over the top.
  5. You wish to give evidence before the Commission as the desirability or otherwise that the mixing of rum and plain spirit for exportation should be prohibited? – Yes.
  6. What do you wish to say in reference to that? – I simply say that if that is taken away from this country, the Germans take the trade and we lose it. They would send it direct from Hamburg to the West Coast of Africa, where I should otherwise send it, and they would simply take the trade off us, and our trade is ruined.
  7. What you export is a mixture of West Indian rum and British plain spirit? – Yes, made from molasses, which I call plain spirit.
  8. How do you invoice it? – It is really a trade term. A merchant writes to me and he says, “What is your price for African rum”, and I tell him what the price is. Another man from Manchester, from where most of the Mediterranean trade is done, writes and says, “What is the price for your Mediterranean rum”, and an Australian writes and says, “ What is your price for Australian rum”, and I tell them. The Excise know the proper thing to put on the cask. We do not work under the Customs, but we work under the Excise.

Finally, in 1946, D. Kervégant  in his great book “Rhum et eaux-de-vie de canne”    writes:

“Most countries, however, tolerate the sale, under the name fancy rum or imitation rum, of mixtures of natural rum and neutral alcohols, and even rum imitations obtained by merely adding the alcohols of dyestuff and aromatic compounds (improvers).”

I think this is enough. To sum up, the good old times of rum never existed and the Golden Age of rum is right now.

Marco Pierini

PS: It might be interesting to read carefully the rum labels of the past. I guess that few, if any, would  comply with  our contemporary requirements of transparency and education.

PPS: I published this article on December 2020 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

A Journey to Barbados: the Synagogue and the Jewish Cemetery

A few years ago, I formulated the hypothesis of the Dutch/Brazilian origin of rum which I described in my previous articles,  by speculating on what Richard Ligon writes.

But Ligon was not enough. So I read many other books about Barbados, the West Indies and rum  trying to unearth further proof. And I have found plenty of leads, but they are clues rather than conclusive evidence.

And I decided to go to Barbados to continue with my research.

The thing is that very few have carried out real historical research on rum and noone, as far as I know, on its origin.

On the one hand, most of the books on rum are excellent books, but not scholarly publications, they are written by journalists and experts, not by professional historians.

On the other, there is plenty of solid historical research on sugar, on the colonization of the Americas, on the Atlantic economy, etc. Very little on rum. So, we must get to what interests us, rum and its origins, by studying books which mainly deal with something else.

In the space of an article I can’t mention all the clues I have found. But you can trust me: (nearly) all the sources underline the importance of the Dutch and of Pernambuco in the English settlement of Barbados and later in the development and production of sugar. And rum was born as a by-product of sugar. But I would like to share with you some of the most intriguing ones, though.

“Some Dutch vessels, which were specially licensed by the court of Spain to trade to Brazil, landed in Barbados on their return to Europe, for the purpose of procuring refreshment. On their arrival in Zeeland they gave a flattery account of the island, which was communicated by a correspondent to Sir William Courteen, a merchant of London, who was at that time deeply engaged in the trade with the New World.” So writes Schomburk’s in his classic History of Barbados, published in London in 1847. It is worth remembering that Sir William Courteen is the merchant who promoted and financed the first English settlement in Barbados. And then: “It is asserted that previous to the revolution the Dutch possessed more interest in the island than the English, which they gained by their liberal spirit in commercial transactions.” The “revolution” is the Civil War which brought to power Oliver Cromwell and put an end to the friendly relations between Holland and England.

“The Dutch, their control of the sugar industry at Pernambuco threatened, proved the island’s salvation. They taught the Barbadians how to grow, harvest, and process sugarcane, loaned them the capital to build plantations, sold them the slaves to do the work, shipped the product across the Atlantic, and marketed it in the major European trading centers.” This is what Russell  R. Menard, the well- known economic historian, wrote in 1993.

In Barbados I also visited the Synagogue and the Jewish Cemetery and the adjoining Museum, solid evidences of the historic importance of  Jews in the Caribbean. I also bought a little book, Monumental Inscriptions in the Jewish Synagogue at Bridgetown Barbados.

In the Introduction, among other things, we can read:

“[…] the founder of the Bridgetown Synagogue, Joseph Jessurum Mendes, alias Lewis Dias, was active in the Pernambuco (Recife) Synagogue from 1649 to 1652”… .

Marco Pierini

From Apothecary to Tavern

As  far as we know, large-scale commercial distillation of alcohol, that is, the practice of distilling wine to produce aqua vitae, water of life, in sufficient quantities for regular sale and consumption began in Modena, Italy at the beginning of the 13th century. The distillation of wine became common throughout Europe after this.

In the Nordic countries, where grapevines would not grow and wine had to be imported and was therefore expensive, someone began to distil alcohol from grains. In Gaelic this was known as uisgebeatha, meaning the water of life, later to become whisky.

Let’s read our Forbes again: “It seems that the apothecaries were the first to produce alcohol on a large scale. …  That they were the principal tradesmen in alcohol is clear from early police regulations such as those of the Town of Nurnberg of the thirteenth and fourteenth century, in which ‘ gebrannter wein, bernewin, brandwin, etc.’,  that is, brandy, is specified as their special product. There is no doubt that brandy was not an expensive drink used by the higher classes only before 1500 as some authors have claimed. It was consumed by all classes and its spread can be read from the regulations cropping up from time to time, for instance in Frankfurt, where we find regulations of 1361, 1391, 1433, 1456, 1487, etc. which intend to cope with the spread of drunkenness and unruly behavior of intoxicated burghers.’  … Gradually the preparation of alcohol passes from the hands of the apothecary to those of specialists like the vintner or the ‘water burner’ (Wasserbrenner), the distiller…”

Forbes also writes: “Towards the end of the fourteenth century or the beginning of the fifteenth the manufacture of spirit from corn was discovered, which meant a cheaper product in those countries where wine had to be imported such as the Low Countries, England and Northern Germany. At the same time the use of sweetened alcoholic beverages spread again from Italy, where we find recipes as early as VILLANOVA [1240-1311]. These ‘liqueurs’ and the secret of their manufacture were brought to Paris by Italian distillers in 1332. In general liqueurs consist of alcohol, sugar or syrup and some flavouring matter. … The most beloved liqueur which the Italian brought to France was ‘rosoglio’, a liqueur with the smell of roses. From France the habit of drinking liqueurs spread, and though the amount consumed grew it remained rather a luxury.  … In the wake of the liqueurs, brandy and aquavit came to France. The art of the distillers of Modena travelled along the same road as their product to Germany, where wine spirit came into vogue in the mining industry. At the end of the fourteenth century strong spirits were drunk all over Europe …”

Moreover, we know that at the court of the Popes in Avignon, writers addressed the question of preserving the health with the water of life in the early decades of the 14th century, and that in 1330 Pope John 22nd had an alembic made to produce it. We know of the existence of a true professional corporation of distillers (ayga ardenterius) in Provence as early as 1411.

As we know, there were two basic types, right from the start: water of life simple (aqua vitae simplex) made of distilled wine alone, practically nearly pure alcohol; and water of life composite (aqua vitae composite), in which plants, roots and medicinal herbs of all kinds were added to the distillate. As well as their curative properties, these also often added flavour.

One of the most unusual of the many types of liquor produced, at least in terms of today’s tastes, was Aurum potabile (which, more or less, we may translate as drinkable gold), a great success among the wealthiest. It was made from an infusion of gold bars or foil (or even just gold filings) in wine and then distilling it. Distillation had to be repeated to extract all the (supposed) medicinal virtues of gold and transfer them to the resulting liquor, which was universally viewed as a very powerful drug. People were convinced that drinking it regularly had numerous beneficial effects, including preservation of the body against the corruption of time. And of course its high price made it available exclusively to the upper classes.

People had been drinking fermented beverages, above all wine and beer, for thousands of years for their flavour and nutritional value, but above all for the effect that the alcohol contained in them has on our minds, alcoholic intoxication. Conviviality, relaxation, joy, forgetting their daily troubles… people sought this and more in alcohol, which is why it has found such an important place in the culture and everyday lives of so many peoples.

In the early 14th century, though it was now widely available and consumed in fairly large quantities, aqua vitae was still taken primarily as a medicine, not for the effect of the alcohol it contained. But both doctors and patients soon realised that aqua vitae (or rather, the various different types of aqua vitae that were becoming available) was much stronger than wine and beer and could produce the same effects more rapidly and effectively.

We don’t know, and perhaps will never know, exactly when, where and how aqua vitae stopped being a medicine and became a drink enjoyed for pleasure, but the overall picture is clear.

Where did it happen? On the basis of what we have seen so far, we may say that consumption of aqua vitae for pleasure probably became widespread in Italy first, then in Germany and France, before spreading to the rest of Europe.

When? It’s impossible to date this event precisely, as it was a process rather than a sudden change, but we may say that aqua vitae came out of the pharmacist’s laboratory and onto the innkeeper’s table at some point in the 14th century, following the success of Taddeo Alderotti’s works and after aqua vitae from Modena became common.

Lastly, how did the custom of drinking aqua vitae for pleasure, along with or in place of the traditional beer and wine, originate? The merit lies with the doctors and their prescriptions: Alderotti and other physicians of his age prescribed aqua vitae not only for rubbing onto painful or diseased body parts, but above all for drinking. Physicians not only prescribed it to treat a number of illnesses, but, fascinated by its virtues, recommended drinking it regularly, every day, even when healthy, not to cure but to prevent illness, stay healthy and – dulcis in fundo – ward off old age. Drinking aqua vitae became a habit for many well-intentioned patients, and we may well imagine they quite enjoyed it. In Tuscany, an anonymous fourteenth-century author wrote a treatise entitled Ars operativa medica in which we may read of aqua vitae: “And its goodness acts not only on the body, but on the soul: it causes us to forget our sadness and anxiety, makes us merry and refreshes the intellect when we dedicate ourselves to the study of difficult and subtle matters, gives courage, helps to lessen the effects of pain and fatigue, and has many more properties of this type.” And here we are coming very close to consumption for pure pleasure.

Lastly, fear made a significant contribution to the spread of the practice of drinking aqua vitae, or rather, liquor and spirits. The Black Plague made its appearance in 1348: one of the greatest pestilences in European history, the disease killed about a third of the continent’s population, and other lesser but still terrible epidemics continued to strike all over Europe in the centuries that followed. Physicians were practically powerless, and recommended the terrified population drink aqua vitae (which many of them called aqua ardente, that is, burning water) every day not only to treat but to prevent the Plague.

Franciscan friar Giovanni di Rupescissa wrote in his “De consideratione quinta essentia” around the year 1350: “A little good aqua ardente must be taken every morning, as much as may be contained in an eggshell; and as much may be contained in a walnut or hazelnut shell, four to six times a day, if desired. In this way, corrupt air cannot harm.”

And many people continued to drink it after the Black Death was gone. Of course, tavern keepers were only too happy to have these new products to serve to their customers.

Marco Pierini

A Journey to Barbados: Drax Hall

Between the end of January and the beginning of February 2014 I spent two weeks in Barbados.

I was full of expectations. After reading and writing so much about Barbados, at last I would be able to see the cradle of rum directly. I can now say with pleasure that Barbados has lived up to (almost) all my expectations. The two weeks were full of meetings and experiences. It’s impossible to tell everything.

But there are some things which I’d really like to tell, things that I still remember with excitement even after 7 years. I’ll start from the most exciting: one morning I asked a taxi driver to take me to Drax Hall.

It wasn’t easy. The beautiful Jacobean house that James Drax built in the early 1650’s to celebrate his wealth and power is now a private residence and it is outside the tourist itineraries. The taxi driver had never been there. The map helped us, but we had to ask for directions several times to the few human beings we came across.

At the beginning of the colonisation of the island, most colonists obviously settled on the coast, but  James Drax pushed into the interior and even now the area is almost uninhabited. Eventually we got there. There wasn’t anybody. The house seemed empty, with a few low outbuildings around. All in all, it looked like a farm. A few trees around, and  gently sloping hills covered  with sugarcane swaying in the wind, as far as the eye can see.

It is right here, perhaps, that everything started in Barbados.

Here, on a distant day of the early 1640’s far from prying eyes, James Drax started to grow a new, strange plant imported from Brazil: sugarcane.

It wasn’t easy. At the beginning he made mistakes. The first crops were bad, the first sugar he produced was of very low quality. But, as well as capable and clever, James Drax was strong and determined and at last success crowned his endeavors. The crop went well, the refining process too and his sugar was sold at very good prices in Europe.

It was the beginning of that Sugar Revolution that would change forever the face of Barbados  and of all the West Indies. And the destiny of millions of human beings.

I was moved. I got out of the car and I enjoyed the solitude, the silence and the wind. Then I took some photos. I don’t know how much time passed, not much, anyway. Then a car arrived, some dogs barked and I saw someone moving.

The magic moment had passed. I got back into the taxi and we went away.

Marco Pierini

American Rum: The Cradle of American Rum

It is common knowledge that molasses can be transported easily, even over long distances, and this is the reason why it has always been possible to produce rum in countries where sugarcane did not grow, like the Continental Colonies.

This is basically true, but not entirely. Actually, when molasses is left in its natural state – low sugar – it ferments, producing alcohol but also gas and heat, and its volume increases. The first attempts to take barrels full of liquid molasses from the West Indies to the Colonies must have been a miserable failure. It was soon understood, though, that if it was made to concentrate, molasses – now high sugar – would not ferment. Thus the way was opened.

We don’t know with certainty who started to produce rum commercially in the Continental Colonies on a regular basis. I like to think that it was Thomas Ruck, from London, who arrived in New England in 1638. He was an enterprising merchant and then distiller too, about whom we know that in 1648 he was sailing to and from Barbados and had direct commercial relations with James Drax, that very James Drax who had played a crucial role in the so-called Barbados Sugar Revolution a few years before.

But let us stick to the facts. A thriving activity of grain distillation flourished in New England as early as the 1640es, alongside other manufacturing enterprises. The growth of distillation found a limit soon in the scarcity of the raw material, grain. In the meantime, however, New Englanders had developed close, direct trading relations with the West Indies – the relations between Boston and Barbados in particular were extremely strong – and they operated also as intermediaries in the thriving trade with the other colonies on the continent. And, as we know, they knew rum well.

Limited quantities of imported molasses reached the colonies perhaps as early as the 1640es, but it was not until around 1660 that New Englanders started importing it on a regular basis. For instance in the Inventory of the estate of a merchant of Boston in 1660, we read: “30 hhds. mallasses at 3li., 90li [and]3 hhds. Rum, 30li. A small part was sold as a cheap sweetener, for those who could not afford sugar, and as food; it was in fact used as an ingredient in many dishes of the time. It was used to make beer too, even though it seems it was not very good. But most of it was distilled to make rum.

Therefore, in conclusion, we can safely say that, while the birthplace of American Rum remains as of today unknown, its cradle was surely Massachusetts Bay towards 1660. From this cradle the baby grew up to become a veritable giant. Figures, from such remote times, have to be taken with a grain of salt, but it is widely believed that in 1770 the Mainland Colonies, with maybe about 1.700.000 white inhabitants had more than 100 rum distilleries and a production of more than 4 million gallons of rum a year! Other more or less 4 millions of gallons were imported from the West Indies.

The consumption of rum and other alcoholic beverages became immediately high and many drank too much, until they were in a state of intoxication. So, local authorities soon started to worry and intervene heavily.

As early as March 4th, 1633 in Boston we can read:

“The court orders that Robert Coles, for drunkenness by him committed at Roxbury, shall be disenfranchised, weare about his necke and soe to hange upon his outward garment a D made of redd clothe and set upon white; to contynue this for a yeare, and not to leave it off at any tyme when he comes amongst company, under penalty of X £s for the first offense, and V £ for the second, and after to be punished by the court as they think meete; also he is to weare the D outwards, and is enjoyned to appear at the next general court, and to contynue thise until it be ended.”

Maybe it is because I have just read “The Scarlett Letter” again, (what a great book!), but certainly it makes you shudder. But let us read our Peeke again:

“The prison found little occupation compared with the pillory and the whipping post. The latter was the common corrector of drunkenness. We have an amusing description of what constitutes drunkenness, from Colonel Dodberry: ‘Now for to know a drunken man the better, the Scriptures describes them to stagger and reel to and fro; and so when the same legs which carry a man into the house cannot bring him out again, it is a sufficient sign of drunkenness’.”

And, in addition to punishing the consumers, the inn-keepers were threatened with a number of laws and restrictive rules, among which one in particular struck me: as early as December 1661, an Act of the General Court of Massachusetts:

“Upon complaint of the great abuses that are dayly committed by retaylers of strong waters, rums, and &, both by the stillers thereof & such ad have in forraigne parts, this Court does therefore order, that henceforth no person or persons shall practise the art of stilling strong waters, nor shall sell or retayle any by lesse quantity than a quarter caske, and the same to be delivered, not at severall times or in severall parcells, but at one time …”

Here, from the very beginning of the history of present-day USA, we can notice the watchful imposition of one-sided moral values which manage to become the Law for everybody: “Promulgating laws had already become an American remedy for the ills of society and the weaknesses of the Flesh, as the wise Charles W. Taussig wrote in the middle of Prohibition.

I may be wrong, but I think that the marks of this imposition can still be seen in the oddities, rules and regulations of American legislation on alcoholic drinks which quite astonish us Europeans. For example, the fact that many craft rum producers cannot sell their bottles freely to those who visit their distilleries frankly does seem incomprehensible.

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

American Rum: John Josselin’s Vojages

John Josselyn was born in Essex, England, in 1608. We know little about him, but surely he was from a well-off family because he had received a good education and he could pay for the expensive voyages to America. He traveled to New England for the first time in 1638, for more than a year. Then he returned there in 1663, for eight years. We ignore the exact purpose of his voyages, but we know that a brother of his was an important planter in the colony.

Back in England Josselyn wrote a book, “An Account of Two Voyages to New England”, published in 1674. He was a keen naturalist and observer, particularly interested in medicine and botany and the Account is one of our fundamental sources about New England in this early phase of settlement.

Josselyn’s is also a handbook, a guide for settlers. In the description of his first voyage, he advises the colonists to take a number of things with them: food, medicines, weapons and various tools and he even quotes their prices. And “One gallon of Aqua vitae”. This is very interesting and would deserve to be examined further, starting from the word he uses, Aqua vitae, that is, Water of Life, the first name for distilled spirits in Europe. We don’t know what spirit it was, at the time, maybe brandy. But it tells us that in 1638 England the consumption of distilled beverages was already common, and this is an important contribution to the social history of alcohol.

But we are here for American Rum, and here it is:

“The fourth and twentieth day [September 1639] being Munday, I went aboard the Fellowship of 100 and 70 Tuns a Flemish bottom the master George Luxon of Bittiford in Devonshire, several of my friends came to bid me farewell, among the rest Captain Thomas Wannerton who drank to me a pint of kill-devil alias Rhum at a draught … .”

As far as I know, this is the first mention of Rum in what is now the USA. Sadly, it is a doubtful one, 1639 is such an early date! We know that sugarcane cultivation in Barbados began probably around 1630, perhaps some years before. But that in 1639 they already produced Rum and sold it to merchant ships seems quite a leap. Josselyn wrote his book more than 30 years after the facts, when Rum was well known in the British colonies, and maybe his memory was playing tricks on him. Maybe, or maybe we have to pre-date the Origins of Rum yet again. We’ll see.

For now, let’s read this sentence again: “kill-devil alias Rhum”. First, it is one of the few pieces of evidence he have that kill-devil and Rum are two different words for the same thing. Secondly, why Rhum with an H? I have never delved into the debate on the origin of the word Rum, the hypotheses that are circulating have not convinced me and I have not verified their sources. Still, there is a consensus in the Rum Community that the first to appear was the English word Rum and that Rhum is a later French version. Moreover, it is widely believed that the letter H was added for the first time in the “Encyclopédie”, possibly to ennoble the word, and only later did it come into common use in the French language. However, the “Encyclopédie” starts to be published in 1751, 70 years AFTER Josselyn’s book. And in an already quoted description of Surinam written in 1651 we read: “Rhum made from sugar-canes”.

But there is more. I haven’t had access yet to a printed edition of the Encyclopedie, I have only been able to look up an online edition. And I have discovered, at least I think I have, that there is no entry “RHUM”. There is, however, the entry “TAFFIA”, well known to those who are into the history of rum. And it starts like this:

TAFFIA … le taffia, que les Anglois appellent rhum, & les François guildive”, that is: “the taffia, that the English call rhum and the French guildive”.

We know almost for sure the French word guildive came from the English word Kill-Devil and the Encyclopedie confirms that “rhum” is an English word, but what about the “h”?

So, what are we to make of it? I don’t know, but after reading Josselyn the real origin of the word Rum is really obscure.

But back to America. In his account of his second voyage, Rum, or better, Rhum, is mentioned several times. Jocelyn speaks of it as a remedy for several illnesses:

The Stone terribly afflict many, and the Gout, and Sciatica, for which take Onion roasted, peeled and stampt, then boil them with neat-feets oyl and Rhum to a plaister, and apply it to the hip”.

It is hardly surprising: even nowadays, in the Caribbean but also elsewhere, Rum is a sort of universal remedy for colds, influenza and so on. Josselyn recommends it for hair loss too:

“For falling off of the hair occasioned by the coldness of the climate, and to make it curl, take of the strong water called Rhum and wash or bath your head therewith, it is an admirable remedie.” Cool, but alas, too late for me! But if I were you, in case of need I would give it a go.

Then, he gives us an example of precocious Yankee entrepreneurial spirit. Local fishermen spent long periods at sea, working hard on fishing grounds in the bitter cold of New England. And, since they couldn’t go to the taverns, the taverns went to them:

“at the end thereof comes in with a walking Tavern, a bark laden with the Legitimate bloud of the rich grape, which they bring from Phial, Madera, Canaries, with Brandy, Rhum, the Barbadoes strong-water, and Tobacco”.

The fishermen drank a lot, with the inevitable corollary of drunkenness, brawls, and wages spent even before they had been received.

In conclusion, now we know that perhaps Rum was known in New England as early as 1639. What we now do know for a fact is that, not later than 1663, the love story between Rum and the colonists had already started: Rum was well known and widely consumed, at the heart of a thriving, specialized trade. And it came from Barbados.

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

American Rum: Why Rum?

Why did the british colonists go to great pains to produce rum? To find the answer, we have to take a step back and, in order to simplify such a complex point, we have to narrow our scope and focus on English colonists in the Americas.

In the England they came from, the consumption of wine and beer was widespread and extremely large. Since the beginning of 1600 distilled beverages had become relatively common too.

The first colonists sailed to the Americas full of dreams and hopes, but what they found was very different from what they had expected. In the West Indies life conditions were appalling. The environment was alien and hostile. New, terrible diseases scourged the settlements. Hurricanes battered men and their things. There was a permanent state of war against the Spanish and the French, and pirates were a constant threat. Poor white people had to work very hard, while the élite, the plantation owners, feared their rebellion. There were few white women. Finally, all white people lived in constant fear of a slave rebellion.

Mainland Colonies were relatively safer, but in the XVII century life was very hard. Clothes, tools, home furnishings, medicines, food, in a word all the ordinary things of everyday life in Europe had to be imported at an exorbitant price and sometimes they did not arrive at all, or they had to be wrung from a still wild, untamed and hostile environment. On top of that, in New England the winters were very long, dark and bitterly cold. And all the colonists had settled on the verge of a big unknown land, with immense dark forests, new animals and plants, Indian warriors… In a word: The Wild.

In order to soldier on, in order not to go crazy, the colonists wanted to drink: drink hard, get intoxicated, escape from reality for a while. In alcoholic beverages they didn’t look for the pleasure of taste, but for the inebriation that only alcohol could give. But wine was expensive and difficult to get on a regular basis. Beer and Cider were more easily available, but their alcoholic strength is low, so its inebriating effect was limited. Spirits are strong, bring to inebriation quickly and give warmth, energy, merriment. But imported brandy was expensive and local distilled whiskey suffered a chronic shortage of his raw material, grain.

Then Rum arrived. The new drink could be produced in great quantity, was affordable, it was cheap and very strong. It had everything the colonists wanted. Sure, it did not taste very good, indeed at the beginning it was really bad, but it guaranteed inebriation cheaply and that was all that mattered.

The elite went on importing wines and brandies, but the vast majority of the settlers began to drink mostly Rum, and Rum became their cheap Stairway to Heaven.

Marco Pierini

PS: if you are interested in reading a comprehensive history of rum in the United States I published a book on this topic, “AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”. You can find it on Amazon.

And if it were the French Caribbean the first Craddle of rum? Conclusion

In this last article I will try to sum up the outcome of my research into the role of the French Caribbean in the first steps of commercial production of rum.

In the 1620s and 1630s, the French began to settle in the Caribbean. In those years, they had known America and its resources for well over a century. In particular, they had a long experience of  travelling to and trading with Brazil, the greatest producer of sugar of the age. And we know that in Brazil rum was already produced, at least from the beginning of 1600s.

When the French settled in the Caribbean, they already had a long and successful commercial experience of producing and exporting eau-de-vie de vin, water of life from wine, on a large scale. Or, to say it in another way, in the 1620s and 1630s the business of distilling had been well established in France for some time.

After this short historic introduction, here are some contemporary French documents.

  1. Minutes of the Assembly of the Company’s Stakeholders, 13 August 1639. “Regarding the request made by Jean Faguet in order that the Company grant him for six years an exclusive license to make water of life on the islands of Martinique and Saint-Christophe, both from wine and any other fruit or legumes that he will be able to grow or find through his ingenuity and industriousness on the above-mentioned islands, … the aforementioned Faguet is granted exclusive license to make water of life on the aforementioned islands, using what grows on them, for six years, on condition that he pays to the Company the XXth part of the water of life he will produce, with everybody else being banned from producing it on the two islands during said period under penalty of confiscation of the water of life they have produced and a fine of a thousand pounds of tobacco.”
  2. Jacques Bouton “Report on the settlement of the French after the year 1635” published in 1640. “They [the slaves] are fond of a strong water of life that they call stomach burner”.
  3. Minutes of the Assembly of the Company’s Stakeholders, 7 January 1643. “Regarding the requests submitted by Captain Flament, letters in his favour will be written to Mr Aubert on the island of Guadeloupe and to Mr de Leumont, intendant general of the affairs of the Company on Saint Christophe. He will be granted permission to make water of life for a period of three years without prejudice to the public freedom to produce it as it is common, and to ship it from France to the islands.” In other words, the Company grants Captain Flament permission to produce spirits, but not exclusively. Other colonists are specifically allowed the right to continue producing them, as evidently they had been doing for some time.

We cannot be completely sure, though, that the water of life quoted in these documents was actually rum. Even before the Europeans arrived, the natives made various fermented beverages and the settlers drank them for want of anything better. We know that the Europeans distilled these beverages but it is probable that they also produced a spirit from sugar cane, that is, rum. Because there was sugar cane in the French islands.

  1. Hyacinthe de Caen “Relation des îles de Saint-Christophe, Gardelouppe et la Martinique…”, 1641. “As sugarcane is cultivated in this place, there will be plenty of work making sugar, primarily on the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, that will one day be able to supply France…”
  2. Maurile de Saint-Michel Voyage des Isles Camercanes en l’Amérique”, published in 1652. “Never before have I seen a country where sometimes more diverse kinds of beverages can be found than on S. Christophe: more ancient and longer Frenchified than Martinique; as the Dutch bring their beer there; the Normans their cider, but it does not keep for long; those from S. Malo stop in Madeira and collect the wine which they carry and sell at a hefty price; those from La Rochelle the wine from Gascony which ages and becomes sour very soon; but vinegar sells well; everybody works hard to get water of life to the island, and that is the lifeblood of this country. Some send there [water of life] from rosolio; others produce it from sugarcane wine, and I will soon tell you how it is produced; others from Oüicou; others from Masbi.” Here there can be no doubt whatsoever: Maurile de Saint Michel tells us clearly that on Saint- Christophe several types of spirits were produced regularly, among which one made from sugarcane: RUM.
  3. Jean Baptiste Du Tertre, “Histoire générale des isles de Christophe, de la Guadeloupe, et le Martinique et autres” published in 1654. “Another great bounty is obtained from this sugarcane; because from it excellent water of life is produced, which is sold at a high price in the country.”
  4. Jean Baptiste Du Tertre “Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par los Francois” published in 1667. “Neither the crushed cane nor the scum that is removed from the second and third sugar boiling cauldrons is useless. The scum is reserved in a trough where it is kept to make eau-de-vie, or brandy. The slaves prepare an intoxicating drink from it, and it sells quite well on the islands; sugar syrup also sells quite well because it is used in making spice bread in Europe. I have also seen it boiled together with ouicou which renders a drink even stronger than the best Flemish beer.  As for the crushed cane, it is fed to the pigs which fattens them and gives the meat and lard an excellent flavor. The juice from crushed sugar cane which isn’t tipped quickly enough into the boiling cauldrons, goes sour immediately, and when this is mixed with water the preparation is called vesou, which also sells well on the islands. All these little tricks contribute significantly to a well-run sugar plantation.” (translated by Bernie Mandelblatt in “Atlantic consumption of French Rum and Brandy and the economic growth in the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth- Century Caribbean” 2011) Then, speaking about the slaves, he writes: “They are not given water of life to drink, except when they are obliged to do very hard work, or when they are planting tobacco under pouring rain. Water of life has been a bit more common on the islands since sugar started to be produced there, thanks to the secret which has been discovered of making it from the skimming taken from the cauldrons …”

Therefore, in two different French books, de Saint-Michel’s Voyage des Isles Camercanes en l’Amérique” and Du Tertre’s “Histoire générale des isles de Christophe, de la Guadeloupe, et le Martinique et autres” , both published a few years before Ligon’s, we can find the earliest indisputable evidence of rum production in the Caribbean. Can we then state that the French were the first and that Barbados came in second? No, we can’t, not yet at least. There are other English documents in Barbados, older than Ligon’s book, but less clear, which ought to be studied thoroughly. And I don’t know whether it’s worth it, in any case it would be merely a matter of few years.  But now we can say with certainty that, in the race to grow sugar and produce rum commercially in the Caribbean, the French and the English got to the finishing line together. And that both learnt from Portuguese Brazil.

In our modern world the cultural hegemony of the English language is a fact. Moreover, for centuries the British were by far the biggest producers and consumers of rum. All this explains why the attention of academics, popularizers and enthusiasts has focused on Barbados and much less on Saint-Christophe and Martinique. But the historic truth is that the French Caribbean and English Barbados have been together the first cradles of rum.

But if large scale commercial production of rum started at the same time in the French and English Caribbean, why did rum later become a typically British spirit? In other words, why didn’t the French producers have the same success as their English neighbors and rivals? We’ll endeavor to find an answer to this question through a new research dedicated to French Rum’s Early History.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on April 2019 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

And if it were the French Caribbean the first Craddle of rum? Jean Baptiste Du Tertre

One of the biggest pleasures of historic research is the discovery of some fascinating figures of the past. One of these is surely the French missionary Jean Baptiste Du Tertre, or Dutertre.  Du Tertre was born in Calais, France, in 1610 and in his youth he served in the Dutch army and in the Dutch navy, before hearing the call of the faith and entering the Dominican order in 1635.

According to Doris Garraway in “The Libertine Colony” (2005) “That same year, four Dominican missionaries, including Raymond Breton, departed for Guadeloupe at the request of Richelieu and members of the new Company of the Islands of America. Due to the ill preparedness of the expedition, disease, and famine, only Father Breton remained after five years. To relieve him, Du Tertre traveled to Guadeloupe in 1640 with two other missionaries during that island’s grueling war with the Indians. Returning briefly to France in 1642 to request aid for the mission, Du Tertre remained in Guadeloupe until political differences with the governor forced him to leave in 1647.”

So Du Tertre visited the French Caribbean settlement from 1640 to 1647. He is relatively well known among rum history’s enthusiasts, because it is commonly believed that we owe him the first clear and exhaustive description of  rum production in the French Caribbean, contained in his much quoted “Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par les Francois …” published in 1667. Here it is:

“Neither the crushed cane nor the scum that is removed from the second and third sugar boiling cauldrons is useless. The scum is reserved in a trough where it is kept to make eau-de-vie, or brandy. The slaves prepare an intoxicating drink from it, and it sells quite well on the islands; sugar syrups also sells quite well because it is used in making spice bread in Europe. I have also seen it boiled together with ouicou which renders a drink even stronger than the best Flemish beer.  As for the crushed cane, it is fed to the pigs which fattens them and gives the meat and lard an excellent flavor. The juice from crushed sugar cane which isn’t tipped quickly enough into the boiling cauldrons, goes sour immediately, and when this is mixed with water the preparation is called vesou, which also sells well on the islands. All these little tricks contribute significantly to a well-run sugar plantation.” (translated by Bernie Mandelblatt in her seminal essay “Atlantic consumption of French Rum and Brandy and the economic growth in the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth- Century Caribbean” 2011)

Further on in the book, Du Tertre writes that the French settlers living in the islands are very hospitable and offer visitors “vin et eau de vie”, “wine and water of life”. Then, speaking about the slaves, he writes:

“L’on ne leur donne à boire de l’eau de vie, que lors qu’on les oblige à qualque travail rude, ou quand ils replantent le Tabac au fort de la pluie. L’Eau de vie estant un peu plus commune dans les Isles, depuis que l’on y fait du sucre, par le secret qu’on a trouvé d’en faire avec l’escume qu’on tire des chauderies ….” That means, more or less,

“They are not given water of life to drink, except when they are obliged to do very hard work, or when they are planting tobacco under pouring rain. Water of life has been a bit more common on the islands since sugar started to be produced there, thanks to the secret which has been discovered of making it from the skimming taken from the cauldrons …”

Let’s pay attention to the timing. Du Tertre travelled to the French Caribbean from 1640 to 1647 and he described sugar cane cultivation, sugar production and rum production as an ordinary part of the life and work of the French settlers. But he got back to the Caribbean again in 1656/57 and published this book only in 1667, ten years after his last voyage. Therefore, sadly, it can’t be used as a sure, reliable, historic source proving without doubts the existence of rum production in the French Caribbean in the 1640s. That is what we are trying to demonstrate with this series of articles.

And yet …

Proceeding with my research into the early French colonization of the Caribbean, I discovered that Jean Baptiste Du Tertre had previously written a first, shorter, relation of his voyages immediately after his return to France in 1647. This first book circulated in manuscript form for some years among his circles of relations. In 1654 he decided to publish the book. The reason for this early publication is very interesting; actually, we found ourselves in the middle of a real XVII century’s literary intrigue. Let’s read again Doris Garraway’s book, “Back in France, he [Du Tertre] circulated his historical manuscript among friends and supporters such as the illustrious Achilles de Harlay, chief financial administrator of the company and longtime counselor to the king. According to his preface of 1654, Du Tertre resolved to publish the work following the mysterious disappearance of one early draft. His Histoire générale des isles de Christophe, de la Guadeloupe, et le Martinique et autres appeared in 1654. Four years later César de Rochefort’s Histoire naturelle et morale des iles Antilles de l’Amérique was published anonymously in Rotterdam and thereafter carried the stigma of plagiarism from Du Tertre’s lost copy. Accusing Rochefort of inauthenticity and misrepresentation, Du Tertre produced an expanded second edition of his work based on research carried out during his final visit to the colonies in 1656-57. Published from 1667 to 1671, the Histoire générale des Antilles habitées par los Francois became a reference for all subsequent historians of the French Caribbean.”

In this first book, as I have said written after his return in 1647 and published in 1654, we find a large and detailed description of the technicalities of  sugarcane cultivation and of sugar production. A complex, difficult, little known skill, Du Tertre writes, a veritable industrial secret which the French settlers at the beginning found it hard to master. But sometimes good fortune lends a hand:

“Monsier de Poincy l’à eu par hazard; car un sucrier Portugais homme fort expert qui le servait, ayant commis quelque crime pour lequel il devoit estre pendu; Monsieur de Poincy lui donna fay grace, à condition qu’il enseigneroit son secret à un de ses domestiques; ce qu’il fit, & depuis on fait quantité de tres-beau & tres-fin sucre à saint Christophe.” That means, as usual more or less,

“Monsier de Poincy got  it by chance; because a highly skilled Portuguese sugar producer who served him had committed a crime for which he was sentenced to hang; Monsieur de Poincy granted him a reprieve on condition that he taught his secret to one of his servants. He did, and since then a great quantity of very nice, very fine sugar has been produced on Saint Christophe.”

Monsier de Poincy was Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy (1584–1660) a nobleman and a member of the Order of the Knights of Malta. He governed the island of Saint Christopher from 1639 to his death in 1660.

And here we find, at last, what we have been looking for:

“On tire encore une autre tres-grande utilité du sucre de ces Cannes; car on en fait des eaux de vie tres-excellents, lesquelles se vendent fort cher dans le pays.”

“Another great bounty is obtained from this sugarcane; because from it excellent water of life is produced, which is sold at a high price in the country.”

A brief description of the fermentation and distillation process follows. Therefore, according to Du Tertre, in the 1640s at the latest, French colonists grew sugarcane on a regular basis and produced sugar. Besides, with the by-products of sugar production they produced  a fermented beverage that called vin de canne (cane wine) and also a strong distilled beverage that they called eau de vie de canne (cane water of life), our Rum.

Finally, we know that nothing of sugarcane is thrown away, but here is an example of usage which would never have occurred to me:

“Au reste, c’’est la meilleure commodité du monde, que ces Cannes de sucre pour les passans; car on en prend tousiours deux ou trois, qui vous servent de b°ton par le chemin, & lors que vous estes fatigué du voyage, & alteré par les chaleurs, en vous reposant vous mangez une partie de vôtre bàton, qui vous rafraischit d’une eau de sucre fort agreable.”

“Besides, these sugarcanes are very handy to wayfarers, because you can take two or three and use them as a walking stick, and when you are weary of walking, and thirsty because of the heat, while you rest you can eat part of your walking stick, which will refresh you very agreeable sugary water.”

Marco Pierini

PS: As I have already written, unfortunately I have never studied French and I don’t speak it. Moreover, these texts are written in XVII century’s French, which is different from contemporary French. However, it is a neo-Latin language so, with the help of some dictionaries and great effort I can read it and, hopefully, grasp the essential meaning. If any readers should find errors or inaccuracies, please let me know and I will be happy to make corrections.

PPS: I published this article on March 2019 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit

And if it were the French Caribbean the first Craddle of rum? Of Mice and Rum

In the three articles already published in this series, we have seen that, according to some contemporary sources, commercial production of rum may have begun in Saint-Christophe, Martinique and other French islands a few years before it got going in British Barbados. Moreover, we have also seen that when the French began to settle in the Caribbean in the 1620s and 1630s, they knew America and its resources well, and that a true distilling industry had been well-established in France for some time.

Now, I wish to go back to a number of contemporary French sources.

The Capuchin friar Hyacinthe de Caen came to Saint-Christophe in 1633 with a brother friar following Pierre d’Esnambuc, the founder of the colony, and participated in the early colonization of Martinique in 1635. He later met Dominican missionary Raymond Breton, the great anthropologist and ethnologist, author of the first Caribbean-French dictionary; he went back to France some years later, and then returned to the Caribbean. He and other brothers of his order clashed with the local authorities in Saint-Christophe, and he was arrested and expelled from the island in 1646. He went ashore in Guadalupe with another friar, and nothing further was heard of them.


In 1641, de Caen wrote his “Relation des îles de Saint-Christophe, Gardelouppe et la Martinique…”, which was not published until the year 1932. In this work we may read:

 “Les cannes à sucre y étant cultivées, il y avra plus grande occupation à faire les sucres, principalement dans les îles de la Gardelouppe ou la Martinique, qui pourront un jour fournir la France …” That is, more or less:

“As sugarcane is cultivated in this place, there will be plenty of work making sugar, primarily on the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, that will one day be able to supply France …”

So sugarcane was already being grown on the islands, and grew well there, in 1641.

Following a lengthy description of cassava, the ouïcou that was made from it and its uses, de Caen then wrote: “De ce breuvage, se fait encore de l’eau-de-vie propre pour le pays …”  that is, “From this beverage, they even make their own water of life in the country…, while, he wrote, it was impossible to grow grapevines there.


Sugarcane was therefore already being grown on the French islands of the Caribbean in 1641, but not grapevines, and wine had to be imported. So what was the brùle-ventre which, according to Buton, the slaves made much use of; a distillate of ouïcou ? We don’t know.

Now, let us reread, in view of the above, a passage from Maurile de Saint-Michel’s “Voyage des Isles Camercanes en l’Amérique”, published in 1652:

“Never before have I seen a country where sometimes more diverse kinds of beverages can be found than on S. Christophe: more ancient and longer Frenchified than Martinique; as the Dutch bring their beer there; the Normans their cider, but it does not keep for long; those from S. Malo stop in Madeira and collect the wine which they carry and sell at a hefty price; those from La Rochelle the wine from Gascony which ages and becomes sour very soon; but vinegar sells well; everybody works hard to get  water of life to the island, and that is the lifeblood  of this country. Some send there [water of life] from rosolio; others produce it from sugarcane wine, and I will soon tell you how it is produced; others from Oüicou; others from Masbi.”

In 1652 the islanders were therefore already distilling sugarcane wine to make rum, and also distilled Oüicou and Masbi, that is, fermented beverages the natives traditionally made from cassava and potatoes. This was not an isolated case, but widespread practice. As F.H. Smith writes in “Caribbean Rum” (2005), “Before the large-scale transition to sugar production in the 1640s, colonists in the Caribbean experimented with the alcoholic potential of various local plants. … Distilling immediately became a central element of the French Caribbean sugar industry. In 1644, Benjamin Da Costa, a Dutch Jew from Brazil, introduced sugar making equipment and, perhaps, the first alembics, into Martinique. Yet, a manuscript from Martinique dated 1640 when the colony was only five years old, stated, ‘the slaves are fond of a strong eau de vie that they call brùle ventre [stomach burner]’. Although brùle ventre sometimes referred to French brandy, the comparative use of the term hints at a locally made concoction other than imported brandy. In the context of the Caribbean, brùle ventre was likely a distilled sugarcane-based alcoholic beverage and suggested that rum distilling preceded Da Costa’s arrival in 1644.”

Now here is a hypothesis which I cannot prove, but wish to propose anyway: in the early years of French (and British) colonization of the Caribbean, the number of European colonists and African slaves was limited, while the indigenous population was numerous. So the best way to get strong drink cheap would have been to distil ouïcou and other fermented beverages traditionally made by indigenous peoples. Later, however, the number of French colonists and, especially, the number of slaves grew rapidly, while the indigenous population continued to drop as an effect of war, disease and other factors. This may have been one of the factors that led the colonists to ferment and distil the by-products of sugarcane, which was by now widely grown, to obtain an abundant, cheap spirit.

But now let us return to Maurile de Saint-Michel. After describing how sugar is made, he writes: “Quand aux cannes rongées par les rats; ausquels Monsieur le General donne la chasse tant qu’ il peut, avec ses chiés; on en fait un breuvage, qu’ils nommèr Vin de canne; … Monsieur le General en faict remplir des pippes, & en retire grand profit, en les faisant vendre és magazins. Il est plus aggreable à boire, qu ‘il n’est sain.” That is, “When the canes have been gnawed by mice, which the General hunts as much as he can with his dogs, a beverage is made from them, referred to as cane wine … The General has barrels filled with it, and he earns a great profit from it, having it sold in the shops. It is more pleasurable than healthy to drink.”

And so Martinique was not exempt from the plague of mice! These words are reminiscent of Richard Ligon’s description of Barbados. Mice were most likely not native to the islands but brought over on European ships. They had few natural enemies in the Caribbean, and the sugarcane plantations offered them a virtually limitless amount of food. All the sources of the day report that mice were very numerous, infesting the colonists’ homes and plantations, a true plague. The problem was so serious there were slaves whose work consisted entirely of hunting them, who were rewarded  a bottle of rum for every 50 mice they killed.

It is clear that in the French islands, as in Barbados, the production of alcoholic beverages made from sugarcane gave rise to an economically significant trade. And it would appear that in order to make this drink, which we now call rum, the people of the French islands used the worst quality cane, gnawed by mice, and not the skimmings of the cauldrons as in Barbados.

And now allow me a historic digression not strictly linked with rum. The history of the British colonization of the Americas is by far better known than the simultaneous French colonisation. And many of the authors who have published important works on British colonisation tend, whether consciously or not, to treat it as a unique phenomenon. Yet the two colonial enterprises were very similar, as were the societies they created in the Caribbean.

The French and the British were both looking for the same thing: tropical products that would allow them to get rich quickly. Some of the colonists did get rich, even very rich, but the majority of them had very hard lives, and the mortality rate was high for all. They even had similar tastes; both, for example, loved pineapple.

The French and the British also faced the same problems. They had to deal with an alien and often hostile natural world; they suffered the devastation of hurricanes and earthquakes; and they suffered from horrible new diseases and an oppressive climate.

What’s more, they were living in a state of permanent war: English and French fought each other, and both fought the Spanish, the pirates and the Carib. Even during rare times of peace, the rich feared the mass of indentured servants, and all the whites feared a revolt of the increasingly numerous slaves.

To escape from this hell on earth, both English and French settlers sought oblivion in alcohol. When Maurile de Saint-Michel writes “Never before have I seen a country where sometimes more diverse kinds of beverages can be found than on S. Christophe”, we are reminded of Richard Ligon, who, in his much better-known “A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados”, tells us how much the British plantation owners in Barbados drank.

In short, the French colonisation of the Americas was much like the British one. With one important difference: in numbers. According to Philip P. Boucher, in his seminal “FRANCE AND THE AMERICAN TROPICS TO 1700. Tropics of Discontent” (2008), “French migration across the Atlantic in the early modern era was comparatively small. Global estimates suggest a figure of 60,000 to 100,000 leaving for the Americas in the years 1500-1760, as compared to 746,000 British subjects, 678,000 Spaniards, and even 523,000 from thinly populated Portugal. France at the same time had the largest population by far of any European state, some eighteen to twenty million. Only the Dutch, with some 20,000 migrants, trailed France among the big five imperial powers.”

And the low number of settlers may have been the structural weakness in the French colonization of the Americas.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on February 2019 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit