On the Quest again: neglected Brazil

Got Rum? readers may remember that I began my collaboration with the magazine with a series of articles entitled “The Origin of Rum – A Quest”. Starting from Richard Ligon’s book and reasoning on  the history of the Atlantic World, I concluded “My hypothesis is that the commercial distillation on a large scale of that by-product of sugarcane which today we call rum was started by Dutch settlers in Brazil during the first decades of XVII century. The origin of rum, therefore, is to be found in Brazil. Rum was born in Brazil, but it grew up in Barbados, and thence it has conquered the world.” (January 2014)

Then I wrote about my research in Barbados  where “I found many clues that support my hypothesis, but not the final proof, not the real smoking gun. In order to unearth it, it would be necessary to work on inventories, share purchase agreements, accounting records etc of the sugar plantations in Brazil under Dutch occupation.” (April 2014)

In May 2014, thanks to the late Brazilian scholar Joao Acevedo Fernandez, I did find the first real evidence: “ … sources do not mention stills or any distilled beverages throughout the sixteenth century. The first concrete reference to the existence of stills comes from a 1611 Sao Paulo Inventory and Will … . In 1636 …. the production of aguardente was already commonplace, because many stills existed …” (June 2014)

Next, I devoted myself to the history of rum from its origins to the end of XVIII century, and I am going  to continue until we get to the present.

But I have certainly not given up my Quest.

I looked into the birthplace of rum, Dutch Brazil, and I discovered its great historical importance. I learned that many scholars consider it a defining moment for the making of the Brazilian nation and that for a long time the Dutch regretted  its loss as a great, lost opportunity. A full century later, a Dutch poet still remembers it thus:

Neglected Brazil, O fertile grounds,

whose nature is diamonds and gold;

I hear them proclaim your surrender

Scholars have written  a lot  about these events..Its economy, policy, wars, arts and sciences have been studied in depth. But nobody has concerned themselves with rum.

And yet, digging deeper and deeper, finally I did find something. Something VERY interesting.

I’ll tell you about it in the next articles.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on June 2015 in the “Got Rum?” magazine. If you want to read my articles and to be constantly updated about the rum world, visit www.gotrum.com

American Rum: Cachaça and Rum

Now I have to say some words about the relation between cachaça and rum. I am aware of the efforts of Brazil to defend and promote cachaça as a national product, with its own characteristics, different from rum. And I think that it makes sense to defend the originality of cachaça in today’s world market. But as regards to History, cachaça and rum are the same product: a distilled beverage whose raw material comes from sugar cane.

However, for the sake of completeness, it is fair to say that there is quite a different story circulating in the Rum Community (the net of websites, books, festivals, experts and aficionados) about the origins of cachaça. It usually begins in 1532, when the Portuguese started to cultivate sugar cane in Brazil. Some say that the distillation of sugar cane products began almost immediately, others few decades later. Someone adds that the Portuguese learned distillation from the Arabs, others stress that in contemporary documents the word “cagaza” or something like that, can be found. Therefore, the origins of rum would appear to be almost a hundred years before what I indicated.

As often happens, this story is bouncing off from books to websites, from websites to festivals, and the other way round. And for the sheer fact of its diffusion, it is growing in prestige and authority. But its sources are not clear. Some do not quote any sources at all, others quote not clearly identified written documents.

But in order to predate the origins of rum back to round 1550, we need reliable sources provingthe early distillation of sugar cane products. And these sources can only be of two types: archeological finds (stills) or written texts of the time. For instance, “Historia Naturalis Brasiliae” is one such source. No one, as far as I know, quotes archeological sources and the references to contemporary written texts are vague. Moreover, documents written in the Portuguese language of the XVI Century are not easy to understand, because, like English, Portuguese has changed greatly over these 500 years and the meaning of the words is not always clear to us. Actually, we find the word cachazo or similar in many documents of the XVI century, but during most of the colonial period, the word cachaça was commonly used for the foam of the cauldrons where sugar cane juice boiled, and not for the spirit.

Moreover, we know that commercial distillation was not common in Europe before the second half of 1500, andit is unlikely that in Brazil it should have happened earlier.

Therefore we have to conclude that the story which places the origins of cachaça in Brazil before or round 1550 is as yet unfounded. If in the future someone discovers new, trustworthy, sources about early distillation in Brazil, I will be happy to change my opinion but at the moment I must confirm that the earliest commercial production of rum took place in Brazil only at the beginnings of the XVIIcentury.

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: the Dutch Empire

Present day Holland is quite a nice country. Civilized, tolerant, rich, peaceful: European civilization at its best. Few remember that in XVII century Holland built a vast colonial empire with sword and fire. While at home they were fighting a long, bloody war of independence against the Spanish armies, the Dutch threw themselves into the conquest of the seas. In Asia they overwhelmed the Portuguese and secured the control of the Indian Ocean and of the spice trade. In Africa they built fortresses and trading posts along the coast and they became the main slave traders. In America they were the first to colonize Manhattan, occupied several Caribbean islands and some mainland territories and acting as middlemen they almost monopolized the trade among the English colonies and between the colonies and Europe. Their merchant fleet was by far the largest in the world and Amsterdam was the center of world trade and finance. And of sugar refining.

At the beginning of XVII century, Holland was the richest and the most modern and technologically advanced country all over Europe. The Dutch were also the pioneers of commercial distillation onalarge scale, we already know that the very word brandy is thought to derive from the Dutch gebrande wijn. In 1624 the Dutch West India Company occupied the coastal region of Pernambuco, now Recife, in Brazil, then part of the Spanish Empire. Pernambuco was a great producer of sugar and after the military occupation the Company made great investments, bringing from Holland men, capital, technical skills, equipment.

In 1638, Georg Marcgraf and Willem Piso arrived in Pernambuco to join the brilliant entourage of the new Governor, Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen. In spite of their youth, both were already renowned naturalists. The older of the two, Marcgraf, was born in 1610 in Liebstadt, present day Germany. In his university years, he had studied mathematics, medicine, botany and first of all astronomy. The Count built for him a real observatory and, for his astronomical observations, he was later called the First Astronomer of the Americas. The younger Willem Piso was born in Leiden, Holland, in 1611. He had studied medicine in France, then had returned to Holland and joined the circle of the great geographer and humanist Johannes de Laet. Today he is considered one of the founders of tropical medicine. During their stay in Brazil, they participated in many long excursions to collect samples from near and far. Sometimes they were escorted by Dutch military officers, sometimes they joined the Brazilian and Tapuyas military raids against enemy Indian groups.

They discovered animals and plants, drew maps, made extensive observations of nature and also of the men inhabiting it. They also made use of  the scientific institutions that the Count had built in Recife: a zoo, a botanical garden and a museum. The huge amount of information they gathered enabled them to write the first systematic study of American nature. Marcgraf wrote his notes in a personal, secret language that others could understand only with great difficulty. Probably, he meant to translate his notes when he got back to Holland, but he died in 1643, in Angola while he was drawing a map of the Dutch settlements there. Piso, on the other hand, returned safely to Holland and continued to practice and study medicine. Marcgraf’s notes were translated, ordered, united to Piso’s ones, and published in Latin by Johannes de Laet in Amsterdam in 1648 under the title of “Historia Naturalis Brasiliae”, Natural History of Brazil. Latin was the common language of cultivated people of the age, the Republic of Letters, and the book had a big and lasting success, possibly because, from the very beginning, the authors emphasized their own direct experience in Brazil and their great efforts on the field, unlike the many armchair natural historians who never visited the New World and wrote their books at home in Europe, on the accounts of some travelers.

Why am I speaking about an old, half-forgotten book written in Latin? Because in this book I found the historical evidence that in Dutch Brazil they commonly distilled a strong spirit from sugar cane.

Let’s see in detail. “Historia Naturalis Brasiliae” devotes a whole chapter, written by Willem Piso, to sugar. Hardly surprising, since the Dutch had gone to Brazil mainly to take hold of its precious sugar. But, like many of his contemporaries, Piso is also struck by the complexity and sheer spectacle of sugar making. At the time in Europe there were hardly any big factories. Manufacturing took place in many small workshops where often a singlemasterworked leisurely, assisted by few apprentices. In sugar factories, on the other hand, during the harvest, “night and day tongues of fire rise up, terrible in their blaze, around which scores of black, half-naked, sweating men bustle in a frenzied way. The sugarcane is unloaded from the carts, cleaned, cut and squeezed. And the juice gathered is boiled in the cauldrons. All in quick, rigorous succession and hurriedly, breathlessly … a hellish scene, a veritable “Tropical Babylon”, as a contemporary author wrote.

Piso had first to understand himself what he was seeing, and it was not so easy. Then he had to explain it to his European readers. And he had to explain it in Latin. But the ancient Romans, whose language he wrote in, did not know sugarcane, sugar factories, sugar, stills, distillation or spirits. It was therefore necessary tointroduce new words into Latin, such as caldo for the juice of the cane. Or bend old words, born in an entirely different context, to make them express a new meaning; so, vinum, wine, becomes a general term for every alcoholic (fermented) beverage.

After describing how sugarcane was squeezed and the caldo collected, Piso writes: “Thence, mixing some water with it, they make also a wine, popularly called Garapo: local people ask for it greedily and on it, if it is aged, they get drunk. …So, from this first liquid (that is, the caldo), sugary wine, vinum adustum,acetum, cooked honey and sugar itself can be prepared.”

Let us give a good look at this list.

Sugary wine is the Garapo, that is the fermented beverage made from sugar juice (and maybe also from molasses), a word with a long History in Latin America, see for instance modern Spanish guarapo.

Acetum (vinegar) is the raw juice of the cane mixed with water. We know that after a few days it went sour and was used in medicine.

Cooked honey is molasses. I am not an expert of philology (sad to say), but it is likely that the English word molasses came from the Spanish melaza or the Portuguese melaço, based respectively on the words miel and mel, honey.

And, of course, sugar is sugar.

So, what is this vinum adustum? The literal translation is “burnt wine”. Evidently, it was another beverage, besides Garapo, that was obtained from the sugarcane. A beverage which was made by burning the Garapo itself. And maybe this is what Piso refers to when he writes “and on it, if it is aged, they get drunk.”

We know that in Piso’s Netherlands a burnt wine was already widespread. It was made by burning, that is, distilling the wine made from grape juice and it was extremely strong. It was called gebrande wijn, better known later as Brandy.

Piso must bend his Latin to describe something which in Latin did not exist and which is similar to brandy. He is telling us that the fermented beverage made from the cane juice was then burnt, that is, distilled in a still, as they did for brandy, resulting in a new beverage, as strong as brandy. He does not have a specific name for it yet and, basing himself on the production process, calls it vinum adustum, burnt wine. But now we can call it by the monosyllabic power of its modern name: Rum.

So, now we know that in Dutch Brazil they produced rum. But there is more. Reading Piso’s description carefully it is evident that this new strong beverage was, in Dutch Brazil, something commonplace, locally well-known and widely-spread. It is hard to think that it was a recent invention of the just arrived Dutch. Moreover, all the sources of the time confirm that the Dutch were not skilled in the growing and processing of sugarcane, which they left largely in the hands of the Portuguese landowners. So it is reasonable to think that it was the Portuguese who started the production of this new beverage, before the arrival of the Dutch.

It is easy to recognize that the conclusions of this research are consistent with Prof. Azevedo’s essay. To sum up, thanks to the documents quoted by Prof Azevedo and in accordance with his analysis, and with the help of a careful reading of Piso’s part of the “Historia Naturalis Brasiliae”, we can conclude that Brazil is the real birthplace of Rum. And that its birth happened probably at the beginning of XVII century.

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: Brazil

Let’s define precisely our field of enquiry. We are trying to understand who started commercial production of rum on a large scale – where it started, and when. I’ll say that again, for the sake of clarity: commercial production on a large scale.

We are not looking for isolated experiments, chance events, home-made distillation which never crossed the local boundaries and then came to nothing. We are trying to establish who started the journey of our rum, that journey which has continued uninterruptedly until today.

For reasons of national and corporate prestige, many countries and some brands claim the right of primogeniture of rum, often basing themselves on sentences taken out of context, ancient documents, sources which are often dubious and difficult to verify.

Actually, sugar production was widespread in Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) as early as 1520, and we know that slaves drank a fermented beverage made from sugar cane. But I have not found any reliable evidence of distillation in Hispaniola nor in the other Spanish colonies in that century. Moreover, the Spanish sugar industry itself collapsed at the end of ‘500 for reasons not yet clear. We know that in XVII Century’s New Spain (roughly modern day Mexico) there was an important production of sugar, mostly for the local market, and we know that in spite of the law that prohibited it, they produced an aguardiente de caňa too, later called also chinguirito, but again only for the local, clandestine, market.

Shortly after Hispaniola, also Brazil became a great producer of sugar and for a long period it was the biggest in the world. As in the case of Hispaniola, we know from many sources that African slaves, native indios and poor whites drank a fermented beverage made from sugar cane.

But in Brazil we have something more: the first clear evidence of distillation in the Americas, at the beginning of the XVII century. To begin, let’s see what the renowned Brazilian scholar, Prof João Azevedo Fernandez writes about cachaça in his seminal essay: “Liquid Fire. Alcohol, Identity, and Social Hierarchy in Colonial Brazil” (2014):

“Aside from the commercial labeling difficulties, the historiographical interest in cachaça is almost nonexistent. … Among the various underexplored themes, thanks to the disinterest of historians, is the very origin of the beverage. Although sugarcane had been established in Brazil in the early 1530s (becoming the principal export good in the colonial period), it is unlikely that the production of aguardente began in this era, because sources do not mention stills or any distilled beverages throughout the sixteenth century. The first concrete reference to the existence of stills comes from a 1611 Sao Paulo inventory and Will. … In 1636, the governor-general of Brazil, Pedro da Silva, released a provision prohibiting sugarcane aguardente. This is a very interesting document because, among other reasons, it shows that the production of aguardente was already commonplace, because “many stills” existed, and numerous people ‘benefited from the trade (that is, sale) of it.” And later in the essay, he goes on:

“It was not always for the slaves to buy the distilled beverage because we know that one of the principal sugar mills in Bahia, Sergipe do Conde, was distributing the drink (called ‘agua ardente’ [burning water]) to the African slaves and the ‘negros da terra’(literally ‘slaves of the land’, meaning the natives) already by 1622 or 1623.”

Moreover, as well as the authoritative Prof. Azevedo’s essay, another independent research path took me to the same conclusions. And for this reason, after Brazil we have to concern ourselves with Holland.

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.