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.

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 www.gotrum.com

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 www.gotrum.com

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 www.gotrum.com

And if it were the French Caribbean the first Craddle of rum? Adam’s will

In the first article of this new series dedicated to the role played by the French in the origins of rum, I published some documents according to which a commercial production of rum may have started in Saint-Christophe, Martinique and other French islands a few years before it did in Barbados. I hope to be able to publish other documents in the next articles.

But in order to understand historic documents properly it is not sufficient to just read them. We have to contextualize them, that is, put them in their proper historical period. In this case, we are referring to texts written in 1600s by French missionaries and travelers who wanted to tell about, and often actively promote, the colonization of the Caribbean. Both they and their readers were interested in American nature, the natives and their costumes, the new society arising on the islands and in the riches that could be amassed from those lands. The production of spirits was a matter of little interest to them and they gave it only scattered observations, not specific reflection.

Let us say, yet again simplifying, that it is up to us to do some precise thinking. The first step is to understand how much the French knew about and how often they went to America in the 1620s and 1630s, at the time of their first permanent settlements in Saint-Chritophe, Martinica, Guadalupe etc.

Let’s see. In 1494, just two years after Columbus’ first voyage, Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas under which the newly discovered lands would be divided between the two signatories. But France never accepted this Iberian monopoly and, from the very beginning, French seamen, merchants, privateers and pirates showed a keen awareness of the opportunities and wealth that could be derived from the new discoveries.

Later, after the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru, the sensational news of Aztec and Incan treasures whetted other European appetites, especially those of Spain’s enemies. First of all France, which was at war with the Spanish Empire for roughly all the first half of the 1500s. Wars are expensive. The fleets coming back from America loaded with treasure were vital to ensure the wealth and consequently the military power of the Spanish empire; for this reason the Spanish towns and ships of America became subject to constant attack by the French.

As Philip P. Boucher writes in his seminal work FRANCE AND THE AMERICAN TROPICS TO 1700,  “The French king François I (r. 1516 – 1547) vociferously refused to honor Iberian pretension to monopoly on America. In an oft-quoted anecdote, he reputedly asked the Spanish ambassador to produce Adam’s will leaving the Americas to Iberians. He insisted that legitimate claims to areas overseas depended on de facto occupation, not on grandiose papal grants.  … Not only did François support voyages searching for a northwest passage to the Orient, the expeditions of Giovanni da Verrazzano, Jacques Cartier, and Jean Roberval, but during these years of almost continuous war, he unleashed privateers in the Caribbean.”

French privateer attacks achieved spectacular success, one of the earliest being the 1523 capture of Spanish ships carrying the stolen treasures of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan off the coast of the Azores by Jean d’Ango, a wealthy  ship owner from Dieppe. Later, in 1555, the French privateer Jacques de Sores captured Havana and burned it to the ground. Only the terrible religious and civil wars that tore apart and bled France dry in the second half of 1500s prevented the French Crown from establishing enduring colonies in America.

This it enough for the French connection with America in general; now let’s focus on Brazil, which roughly from 1550s to 1650s was the biggest producer of sugar in the West world.

French captain Binot Paulmier de Gonneville, in 1504 onboard L’Espoir, visited Brazil and traded with the natives. He also brought back to France a Native American person named Essomericq. Gonneville stated that when he visited Brazil, French traders from Saint-Malo and Dieppe had already been trading there for several years.

We know from contemporary sources that from the very beginning of the settlement, the Portuguese were worried about the presence in Brazil of other Europeans, first of all the French. Let me quote Schwartz, S.B.  EARLY BRAZIL. A DOCUMENTARY COLLECTION TO 1700:  “The Portuguese Crown made efforts to clear foreign competitors, especially Norman and Breton ships, from the coast, and to that end Martin Alonso de Sousa captained an expedition in 1532 that sought to ensure Portugal’s control of the new land.”

France continued to trade with Portugal, especially loading Brazil wood, for its use as a red dye for textiles.  The fascination that Brazil and its inhabitants exerted on the French was very strong, to the point that in 1550, during the great celebrations for the royal entry of King Henry II  at Rouen, about fifty men disguised as naked Brazilian natives staged  a battle between the Tupinamba allies of the French and their enemies, the Tabajaras.

The French ambitions on Brazil were not limited to trade, they also tried  to colonize it.

The first French settlement in Brazil was called France Antartique.  In 1555, French vice-admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, a Catholic knight of the Order of Malta, led a small fleet of two ships and 600 soldiers and colonists, and took possession of the small island of Serigipe in the Guanabara Bay, in front of present-day Rio de Janeiro, where they built a fort. In 1560 Mem de Sá, the new Governor-General of Brazil, received from the Portuguese government the order to expel the French. With a large fleet he attacked  the French colony. The strong religious tensions that existed, in the colony and at home, between French Protestants and Catholics, weakened the defense and delayed the dispatch of reinforcements from France. In January 1567, the Portuguese inflicted a final defeat on the French forces and decisively expelled them from Brazil. In the place, the Portuguese founded the city of Rio de Janeiro.

A second settlement was France Équinoxiale, started in 1612, when a French expedition departed from France, carrying 500 colonists. They arrived in the Northern coast of what is today the Brazilian state of Maranhão where they soon founded a village, which was named “Saint-Louis”, in honor of the French king Louis IX. The colony did not last long: a Portuguese army defeated and expelled the French colonists in 1615. A few years later, in 1620, Portuguese and Brazilian colonists arrived in number and São Luís started to develop, with an economy based mostly on sugar cane and slavery. Actually, it was largely in response to the attempts of France to trade with the natives and to conquer new territories that the Portuguese crown decided to expand its colonization efforts in Brazil.

French traders and colonists tried again to found a colony further North, in what is today French Guyana, in 1626, 1635 and 1643. It was only after 1674, when the colony came under the direct control of the French crown and a competent Governor took office, that France Équinoxiale became a reality. To this day, French Guyana is a department of France.

To sum up, according to W.J. Eccles in his THE FRENCH IN NORTH AMERICA, “For a century, French traders had challenged the Portuguese hold of this vast region, with little or no aid from the Crown. But for the religious dissensions at Rio de Janeiro, and the unfortunate character of Villegaignon, France rather than Portugal might have established a vast empire in South America.”

Therefore, in the 1620s and 1630s, when the French began to settle in the Caribbean, they knew America and its resources well. In particular, they had a long experience of  travelling to and trading with Brazil, a great producer of sugar and where, at least from the beginning of 1600s, rum was produced too. This part of the historic context of our documents is sufficiently clear.

What remains to be seen now is whether the French already knew alcoholic distillation, sugarcane cultivation and sugar making.

See you again in the next issues.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on december 2018 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

And if it were the French Caribbean the first Craddle of rum? Saint Cristophe, Martinica and eau-de-vie

The first clear evidence of rum production – that is, a strong alcoholic beverage made from the fermentation and then by the distillation of the products of sugar cane – in the West, can be found in Brazil at the beginning of  the 1600s.

However, it is common knowledge in the rum world that if not the very birthplace, the cradle of rum was the English colony of Barbados round 1650. There, it is claimed, a real commercial production of rum started. This common knowledge relies mainly on the book of Richard Ligon “A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados” published in 1657. Ligon visited Barbados from 1647 to 1650 and described the new distilled beverage as “the drink of the island, which is made of the skimmings of the Coppers, that boil the Sugar, which they call Kill-Devil”.

But, after thorough research on the Early French Caribbean, a subject little studied by scholars and well-nigh unknown to the public at large, I have come to the conclusion that things may have gone otherwise. According to some documents, a commercial production of rum may have started  in Saint-Christophe, Martinique and other French islands, a few years before it did in Barbados.

It would seem that everything started in Saint-Christophe, present-day Saint Kitts. The English settled there in 1623, whereas the exact beginning of the French colonization is uncertain, around 1625. What is certain, albeit forgotten, is that the French had been sailing in the Caribbean, had fought against the Spanish and had temporarily inhabited some islands right from the beginning of 1500s. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that they had arrived immediately after Columbus and before the English.

They partitioned the island, with the English in the middle and the French on either end. At the beginning, relations between the French and the English were good, and together, a little while later, they exterminated the Carib who lived on the island. Then their relations worsened and the island was disputed for years between the two powers, until the final victory of the British in 1783.

In 1626, at the instigation of Cardinal Richelieu, the Company of  Saint-Christophe was founded in France to promote the colonization of  Saint-Christophe and other islands. More French settlers arrived and they started to develop a society in many ways similar to the one, much better known, that was developing in Barbados in the same years.  In 1635, the Company was re-founded under the new name Company of the Islands of America and it started the colonization of Martinique and Guadalupe. The Company got from the French Government a monopoly over trade, land ownership and various rights over the settlers. Like the English, the French too were looking out for land where to grow the tropical products so in demand all over Europe. At the beginning they grew tobacco, then they tried with other staples, among which sugarcane.

Also the French settlers drank a lot and wine and brandy were among the most sought-after goods. The Company endeavored to get sufficient quantities through, but they failed, so the wine and brandy imported from France were not enough and they were costly. The settlers resorted to contraband, buying from the omnipresent Dutch, but the prices stayed high. So, they tried their hand at producing in loco something to drink which was strong, plentiful and cheap.

The French called vin, wine, the grape wine itself and also other fermented beverages, so vin de canne, cane wine, is a fermented beverage made from sugarcane. On the other hand, they called eau-de-vie, water of life, every distilled beverage. So eau-de-vie de canne is water of life from sugarcane, that is, rum. For the sake of correctness, I believe it is fairer to show the original French documents first, then their English translation.

Minutes of the “Assembly of the Company’s Stakeholders”, 13 August 1639: “Sur la demande faite par Jean Faguet à ce qu’il plût à la Compagnie lui permettre à l’esclusion de tous autres pendant six ans de faire faire dans l’île de la Martinique  et de Saint-Christophe de l’eau-de-vie soit de vin ou de tous autres fruits ou légumes qu’il pourra faire ou recouvrer par son soin et industrie dans lesdites îles, offrant de payer XX livres de pétun pour chacune barrique d’eau-de-vie qu’il fera,  à la charge que nul autre ne pourra faire pendant lesdites six années sous peine qui seront ordonnées.

A été accordé audit Faguet de pouvoir faire pendant six années à l’exclusion de tout autre dans lesdites îles de l’eau-de-vie de ce qui croîtra en icelle, a la charge de payer à la Compagnie le XX° de l’eau-de-vie qu’il fera, avec defense à tous autres d’en faire dans lesdites deux îles pendant ledit temps à peine de confiscation de celle qu’ils feront et de mille livres de pétun d’amende.”

“Regarding the request made by Jean Faguet in order that the Company grant him for six years an exclusive licence 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, offering to pay  XX pounds of tobacco for each cask  of water of life that he will produce, on condition that during the aforementioned six years,  nobody else is allowed to make it under the penalties which will be determined,

the aforementioned Faguet is granted exclusive licence 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.”

  1. L. Mims in his “Colbert’s West India Policy” published in 1912 writes:” It is possible and even almost certain that it is a question of the manufacture of brandy from sugar cane” that is, rum. We cannot be completely sure, though. It is clear from the text that they meant to use local plants. Even before the Europeans arrived, the natives made various fermented beverages and the settlers drank them for want of anything better; the most widespread ones were Masbi, made from sweet potatoes and Oüicou , made from cassava. Perhaps Faguet meant to distill these beverages but, given the traditional production systems, the quantities were probably meagre. In any case, I have found no clear evidence. On the contrary, cane wine was relatively plentiful and cheap. It makes sense to think that M. Faguet wanted to produce also a spirit from sugar cane, that is, rum.

From “Relation de l’establissement des Francois depuis l’ann 1635” (more or less: “Report on the settlement of the French after the year 1640” ) published in 1640 by Jacques Bouton:

Ils aiment fort l’eau de vie, qu’ils appellent du brusle ventre”  “they [the slaves] are fond of a strong water of life that they call stomach burner”.

Later, the Company decided to start making sugar in their own right in Guadeloupe, where a few settlers had already been growing sugar cane for years. Here we can read what the Assembly of the stakeholders deliberated on 7 January 1643.

Sur les requêtes présentèes par le capitaine Flament, serà écrit en sa faveur au sieur Aubert en l’île de Guadeloupe et au sieur de Leumont, intendant génèral des affaires de la Compagnie pour Saint Christophe. Lui serà expédié permission de faire de l’eau-du-vie durant trois ans, sans préjudicier à la liberté publique d’en faire à l’ordinaire, et d’en porter de France aux îles”

“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.

It appears clear from these documents that  in the French Caribbean producing spirit drinks was common practice. But there is an even more interesting document.

From Voyage des Isles Camercanes en l’Amérique” by Maurile de Saint-Michel, published in 1652: “Je n’ay jamais veu pays où ils se trouvent quelquefois plus de diverses sortes de boissons, qu’à S. Christophe: plus antée & francisée de mon témps eque la Martinique; Car les Hollandois y aportent de sa Biere; les Normans du Cider, mais il ne s’y conserve pas long temps; les Maloüins s’ s’arrestent a Madere, & en retirent du Vin qu’ils y apportent, & le vendemt bien cher; les Rochelois du Vin de Gascogne, que i’ ay veu y aigrir bien-tost; mais le vin-aigre s’en debite bien; tout le monde met peine d’y apporter de l’eau de vie, & c’est la vie de ce pays. Les uns du Rosossol; d’autres y font du vin de cannes de sucre, ie diray tantost comme il est fact; d’autres du Oüicou; d’autres du Masbi.”

“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. And his book was published 5 years before Ligon’s.

This is all for now, see you again in the next issue.

Marco Pierini

PS: I published this article on November 2018 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