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

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

American Rum: Thirsty Settlers

It is not easy for us to understand the significance of alcoholic beverages in XVII Century’s British Colonies. Today, we drink alcohol for our pleasure, not because we need to. We drink spirits for the sake of the taste, of feeling exhilarated, of being in good company, etc. but we do not actually need spirits. They are an extra, a little luxury that we treat ourselves to. But back then, things were very different and alcoholic beverages actually fulfilled a far more important task.


As Hewson L. Peek writes in his delightful “ Americana Ebrietatis” first published in 1917, “At the time when America was settled, no European people drank water as we do today for a constant beverage. The English drank ale, the Dutch beer, the French and Spanish light wines, for everyday use. Hence it seemed to the colonists a dangerous experiment to drink water in the New World.”


We have to remember that in XVII century’s England water was something to be wary of. It was not advisable to wash oneself too much, or to drink water on a regular basis. Many, both doctors and common people, considered it dangerous for the health. There was certainly a grain of truth in this belief: water-pipes and sewers were non-existent, and water was badly stored in wooden casks, therefore it was often polluted, and always of poor quality. To drink, to quench one’s thirst, one had to resort to beer and, for those who could afford it, to the more expensive wine. Beer and wine were considered the most suitable drinks for everyday life, and probably they really were, since the alcohol in them clearly had an antiseptic function. They were also nutritious. In a world perpetually on the brink of starvation, beer was an important addition to the everyday diet of the lower classes. Teetotalism would have been quite unintelligible to the farmer or burgher of those healthy days of breezy activity out of the doors” (Peek).


Why would a grown man in a civilized society drink water? It was something odd, noteworthy: It was not accounted a strange thing in those days to drink water; thus, in a book published in London in 1654, a colonist recounts the hardships of the first days. Then, after recalling the shortage of food and the bitter cold too, he adds and most began to repent when their strong Beer and full cups ran as small as water in a large Land”.


For some time, also distilled beverages had come into common use, and they were considered as wholesome and nourishing as wine and beer. Moreover, to distilled beverages were attributed healing, medicinal properties, useful to treat many diseases. Besides, they provided warmth in the long, chilly winters. And then, of course, people drank for the feeling of intoxication, in order to experience a moment of joy and oblivion in an otherwise hard, drab and dangerous life. In short, for the colonists alcoholic beverages were an absolute necessity. And at the beginning it was necessary to take them all the way from England, or get hold of malt to make them.


As early as 1643, in Virginia colonists were already distilling. We know it because that year, worried by the general scandal of heavy drinking, the local authorities decided that “no debts for wine imported nor for strong waters distilled and made in the colony should be recoverable in any Court in the Colony”. And also archeological work conducted in Virginia corroborates the documentary records. But in spite of this early start, commercial distilling did not develop in Virginia during the colonial period. The American distilling industry started instead much further up North, in Puritan Boston, Massachusetts Bay.


Even in the preparation stage of the first voyages, Puritan leaders advised the colonists to take with them an adequate supply of alcoholic beverages. Reverend Francis Higginson, the first Minister at Salem in 1629, wrote:

“Therefore be sure to furnish yourself with things fitting to be had before you come: as meale for breads, malt for drinke, woolen and linnen cloath …”

His ship, the Talbot, carried a cargo of 300 tons, among which 9 tons of water, 45 tons of beer, 20 gallons of brandy and 20 gallons of Spanish wine.


In the same year, the Massachusetts Bay Company sent Rev Samuel Skelton there too, whom they supplied with food, clothes and the wherewithal to live, including “one gall. Aquavite” and “five qu. of stronge water”.

Incidentally, I thought that the terms aquavite (water of life), strong water, hot water and similar were the same thing at the time, but it seems that I was wrong because two different words in the same list must have meant two different things. However, the stocks were bound to run out sooner or later, and it was extremely expensive to have beer, wine etc. brought over from Europe; therefore, from the very beginning the colonists tried to produce alcoholic beverages themselves using fruit, grain and also imported molasses to brew beer.

Let us see some verses from the 1630s:

“If barley be wanting to make into malt,

We must be content and think it no fault,

For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,

Of pumpkins, and parsnips, and walnut-tree chips


They also tried to grow vines, but without success.

In one case they were immediately successful: apples were not native of North America, but grew well in New England. Apples naturally fermented at about 7% abv to make hard cider. As Georg Francis Dow writes in “Every Day Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony” (1935):

“Cider mills were found on a great many farms where the apples, which were mostly natural fruit, were made into cider. This was a common drink and found a place upon the table three times a day with each meal, and was carried into the fields to quench thirst forenoon and afternoon. The men of those days assumed to be unable to labor without a liberal supply of cider, as water seldom agreed with them.”


They also distilled cider to make the so called “applejack”. And in the Southern colonies also peach brandies were popular. But the colonists were accustomed to drinking much better stuff in England, and they were not prepared to give it up. With part of the grain of the first harvests they soon started to brew beer and to distill grain-spirit, whisky, even though at the time the word had not come into common use.


The Mayflower arrived in 1620 and as early as 1648 Emmanuel Downing, Governor John Winthrop’s brother-in-law, claimed that his spirit was better than the imported one. But he had a big problem: shortage of raw material. The local production of grain was scarce, and it constituted the staple diet of the majority of the population. Giving up part of the grain crops to distill it was costly, dangerous and, in any case, there wasn’t enough. His wife Lucy gets to the heart of the problem in a letter to her brother, written on 17th December 1648:

Our stillings might be pritty strong but that all the rye was eaten up allmost before the Indian [corn] was gathered. Could you but teach us to kern [i.e. To make] rye out of the sea watter, that invention, I question not, would quicklye make the still vapor as far as pecoite [i.e. Pequot], and the Indians I beleev would like that smoake very well for the English here have but 2 objections against it, one it’s too dear, 2 not enough to it. Cure those, and we might all have implayment enought at Salem to make liquors, and as it is we could have custome ten time more than pay.”


Of course Lucy Winthrop couldn’t know it, but before long the solution to the shortage of grain to distill would come right from the sea. It wasn’t rye, wheat or another kind of grain. It was instead a dark, thick liquid, sticky and cloying. It had an exotic name: molasses.


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 Barbados Connection

After 1650, Barbados was a big producer of sugar and therefore the richest colony of the rising English Empire: “the most flourishing Island in all those American parts as a contemporary wrote. Barbados and the other little islands of the West Indies were far richer than the mainland colonies! Just to give you an idea, the wealth deriving from sugar can be compared to the wealth given today – or maybe better some years ago – by oil.


The profits made from sugar were so high that nearly all available land was devoted to sugarcane cultivation. As a consequence, Barbados had to import everything. Not only luxury goods for the élite of the planters, but also the daily food for the mass of the poor white farmhands and the slaves. Moreover, they needed plenty of timber for the buildings, the barrels and the fires necessary to process the sugar. And all the products had to be purchased in big quantities and at a low cost; it was unthinkable to get them from Europe. Luckily there were the Mainland Colonies. They were much closer, covered with enormous forests, with large fertile fields and some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, the Grand Banks. From the very beginning, there was a flourishing trade between Barbados and the Mainland Colonies.


 “… pleased the Lord to open to us a trade with Barbados and other Islands in the West Indies, which as it proved gainful, so the commodities we had in exchange there for our cattle and provisions, as sugar, cotton, tobacco, and indigo, were a good help to discharge our engagements in England” writes John Winthrop in 1647.


And as early as 1660 a mariner declared before the English Privy Council that Massachusetts Bay had become:

“… the key to the Indies, without which Jamaica, Barbadoes, and the Caribbee Islands are not be able to subsist, there being many thousands tons of provisions, as beef pork, peas, biscuit, fish, carried to Spain, Portugal, and Indies every year, besides sufficient for the country’s use”.


Historians speak about a British America which stretched from Barbados in the South as far as Canada in the North. The ties between Barbados and the future US were not only commercial. The young Englishmen who left for Barbados as indentured servants did so because they hoped to be able to buy a small piece of land at the end of their service. But the high profits from sugar caused the price of land to increase rapidly, and as early as 1650 it had become impossible to buy good land without having large amounts of money. Many decided to emigrate again and thousands went to the Mainland Colonies. Therefore, vessel traffic was intense, families and individuals were always on the go and many strong relationships, based on family, friendship and business connected the Mainland Colonies with the West Indies and first of all with Barbados.

It is perhaps no coincidence that all along his life, George Washington left North America just one time, for a voyage to Barbados in 1751. The central importance of plantations, the massive resort to slavery, the development of a local gentry of planters, possibly even the title of “President” for its ruler, are some of the distinctive features that the US owe to those far-away, today almost forgotten ties with Barbados.


But back to trade – what did Barbados give in exchange for the many goods it bought from the colonies? Barbados offered letters of credit, which were used to buy from England the commodities the colonies needed. It offered also slaves, sugar, molasses, which was used at the beginning as a cheap sweetener, and rum. As early as the middle of XVII century, when it was still unknown in England, the American colonists commonly drank rum. A lot of it. As well as drinking it, the colonists used rum as a trade commodity with the Indians, who loved it. They used it also as a currency. Money was chronically scarce in the colonies and the colonists largely relied on barter, but they needed something fit to be a reliable unity of measure of the value of the goods. And rum was perfect: it was always in large demand, easy to add and divide and relatively easy to transport; moreover it did not deteriorate with the time In short, rum was a sort of lubricant which oiled the wheels of American economic and social life. And of the political life too, as we will see in the next article.


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: a British spirit

In the second half of the XVII century, when rum started its triumphal march, leaving Portuguese Brazil in its relative isolation, three great colonial Empires divided up most of the Americas.

The Spanish Empire dominated most of mainland South and Central America – the so called Spanish Main – with the main Caribbean islands, Cuba, Portorico, part of Santo Domingo. To the North Spanish power was firmly established in Mexico and its influence reached up to modern day Georgia. In Mainland America, the French Empire kept New France, which roughly corresponds to modern day East Canada, and in the Caribbean Martinique, some smaller islands and part of Santo Domingo (now Haiti) under its tight control. The English Empire occupied Virginia, New England and other Mainland colonies and in the Caribbean Barbados, Jamaica and other smaller islands. Sugarcane was grown everywhere in tropical areas, therefore rum could be produced by all the three empires. But the choices of the three European countries were completely different.


Let us start from the oldest, the Spanish Empire. Spain was a major producer of wine and brandy. A significant part of this production was exported to the Spanish colonies in America and to Northern European countries, among which England. The Spanish producers of wine and brandy saw rum as a threat to their interests and got the government to discourage the production of alcoholic beverages in the colonies with all the means at its disposal. Bans on growing grapes, bans on the sale of alcoholic beverages to the natives, prohibition to sell local alcoholic beverages in the towns, and so on.


Over time, a long succession of laws were introduced, which forbade distillation, with the most brutal punishments. These laws were not always fully enforced (through and through), but surely they negatively affected the development of rum production. To this we must add the decline of sugar production, which has not yet been fully explained by historians, and a diminished fondness of Spanish people for strong distilled beverages. As a result, rum production in the Spanish colonies was, for a long time, limited and of low quality.


France too was a great producer and exporter of wine and brandy and French producers too feared the competition of rum. But things went slightly differently. In the second half of the XVII century there seems to have been extensive rum production right in France, by using the syrups which were the by-product of the refining of Antillan sugar, which took place largely in France. Then, brandy producers struck back and succeeded in obtaining various bans and restrictions on the production of rum and other distilled beverages. In 1713 they even obtained a Royal Decree which forbade the use of any raw material other than wine for the distillation of spirits. I have not pursued this matter and there is no general consensus among the sources, but anyway, after 1713 rum production and sale were really forbidden in France, but de facto tolerated in the colonies. In particular, great quantities of rum and molasses were later exported, indeed often smuggled, into the English colonies of North America.

Moreover, in the French colonies sugar production was thriving and the French were fonder of strong liquors than were the Spanish. Therefore, rum production in the French colonies of the Caribbean was always significant and of relatively good quality.


England did not produce wine or brandy. On the other hand, English people drank heavily, they had always done. They imported wine and brandy mainly from France and Spain. And they paid good money for them, it was a constant flow of wealth which left the English shores to boost the coffers of foreign countries. For centuries it had not been considered a problem and anyway there were no solutions. But then things changed. After the Act of Union of 1707, Great Britain was one of the great European and world powers. Its foreign policy had two fundamental objectives: to strengthen its global role, by defending and expanding its colonial, commercial empire, and to maintain the balance of powers in Europe, in order to prevent a single country from becoming so strong as to dominate the whole continent. (It may be thought that this general approach underlies British foreign policy even today). Both objectives brought Britain to fight numerous wars and especially to clash with France, its only real competitor in the fight for supremacy – many different wars that, according to some historians, were different phases of a new Hundred Years’ War, fought between 1689 and 1815.


It became therefore increasingly intolerable for the British Government to finance the enemy through massive imports of wine and brandy, bought especially from France and Spain. An alternative to wine was soon found. Trade agreements were signed with Portugal, and Portuguese wine largely replaced French wine, thanks to the fondness of English people for sweet wines. But brandy was a different kettle of fish, the English ruling classes loved it and did not want to do without it, while the lower classes consumed enormous quantities of a new drink, gin. And that was a big problem too, both because consumption was excessive and destructive (we will get back to this point) and because gin is made from grain, much needed to make bread, the staple diet of the lower classes.


Motivated by the need to curb the massive spread of gin and drunkenness of the lower classes, and the danger of famine due to shortage of grain, Parliament intervened with various laws and measures that greatly limited the production and consumption of gin. Then someone discovered rum. Rum was produced in the English colonies, consequently the wealth which went into buying it stayed at home. To make rum you do not need precious grain, but the by-products of sugar production, useless, cheap and available in huge quantities. It is therefore the perfect spirit to replace both brandy and gin.


But at the beginning of 1700 rum consumption was very low, and British people still did not know it. Moreover, the upper classes did not consider it suitable for themselves: it was rough, not refined enough, too cheap. In order for it to be able to replace brandy it necessary to make people acquainted with it, to get them used to drinking it, but at the same time also to enhance its image and its price. It was not an easy task, but West Indian planters, Parliament, Governments and civil servants in general joined forces to launch what today we would call a massive, aggressive campaign to promote rum. The readers who should be interested in this can read my articles in the magazine GOT RUM?.


Anyway, they made it. Here are some figures: in 1697 England and Wales imported (legally) only 22 gallons of rum. In 1710 22.000 gallons. In 1733 500.000 gallons! And, from 1741 on rum imports regularly exceeded those of brandy. It was not just a temporary increase, it was much more: rum penetrated deeply the daily life and the culture of British people, who learnt to perceive ita s though it was their own, a sign of identity. Until yesterday, maybe even until today. An unqualified success. A lesson in marketing compared with which modern promotional campaigns pale.


The British Empire became the most important producer and consumer of rum and in the eve of the American Revolution, rum was usually considered something typically British.

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: Martinique

The first real account of rum production in Martinique can be found in the book “Histoire Generale des Antilles Habitèes por les François” written by Jean Baptiste Du Tertre and published in Paris in 1667. Du Tertre was a Dominican friar and a man of science. In 1640 he was sent as a missionary to the French Antilles and he stayed there until 1658. He also had the makings of an anthropologist, curious and attentive to the customs of the natives, a very French thing actually. Ligon had drawn a scale technical map. Du Tertre, on the contrary, draws a real picture, with attention to the aesthetic aspect and an evident interest in the natural environment and the people.

On the top left-hand side, under a rectangular wooden structure, you can clearly see the mill for the squeezing of the cane. The mill has three vertical rollers and it is powered by the push of a pair of oxen yoked to a long beam and led by a driver.

From the mill, through a pipe, the juice goes down towards a hut without walls where it is put to boil in the coppers heated by a fire. Some slaves are at work here.

But the most interesting thing for us is the structure indicated by the number 4, to the left of the coppers. Du Tertre calls it vinaigrerie. The drawing shows only one pot still, in the open air, with a simple pipe which channels the vapors of alcohol through a wooden barrel filled with water to cool them, into a cistern for the distillate. I haven’t been able to find the fermentation wash. The pot still is similar to those drawn in the books of distillation of the time. The presence of just one pot still suggests that the technique was less advanced and possibly the product worse, or anyway that the French colonists of Martinique devoted less attention to rum than the English colonists of Barbados did.

In our modern world, Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony is a fact. Another irrefutable historical fact is that for centuries the English, or better the British, were by far the biggest producers and consumers of rum all over the world. All this explains why the attention of academics, popularizers and enthusiasts has focused on Barbados and much less on Martinique. But the facts are clear: the cultivation of cane, the production of sugar and the distillation of rum, on the two islands, happened at the same time.

Or maybe it was Martinique that arrived first. According to Prof Bertie Mandelbatt in her “Atlantic Consumption of French Rum and Brandy and Economic Growth in the Seventeenth – and Eighteenth –Century Caribbean”(2011), “ In 1639, as the first sugar mills were being constructed on Martinique and Guadeloupe and a mere four years after the French had arrived on the two islands, the exclusive privilege to produce and trade ‘sugar cane brandy’ from Martinique and St Christophe was granted to a M. Fague by the Compagnie des Isles d’Amerique, the chartered commercial company responsible for French colonization in the Caribbean during this period.” So it seems that we have evidence that in Martinique they produced rum in 1639, 8 years before the arrival of Richard Ligon in Barbados, and 18 years before the publication of his book.

It is outside the scope of this series of articles, but the contemporary origin of rum production in English Barbados and French Martinique, and even more the possibility that it began in Martinique a little before that in Barbados, could also shed new light on the thorny issueof the origin of the very word Rum.

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.

On the Quest again: Vinum Adustum

“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 wrote.

Piso had to understand what he saw, then he had to explain it to his European readers. And explain it in Latin. But the ancient Romans, whose language he wrote in, did not use 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 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 far, nothing new: we already knew that a fermented beverage obtained from sugarcane, here called Garapo, had been widely drunk in Brazil, for more than a century, by  slaves,  natives and poor white people. What additional information Piso gives us is that, sometimes, it was deliberately aged. But why? Did its quality improve through ageing? I don’t understand, I would entreat all of you to enlighten me.

He then goes on:

“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 isGarapo. Acetum is raw juice mixed with water, after a few days it went sour and was used in medicine. Cooked sugar is molasses. And sugar is sugar.

So, what is vinum adustum? The literal translation is “burnt wine”. Evidently, another beverage, besides Garapo, was obtained from 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.”

But in the 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, which means, more or less, burnt wine. Better known 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 cane juice was then burnt, that is, distilled in a still, as they did for Brandy, resulting in a strong new beverage.

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 its real name: Rum.

Marco Pierini

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

American Rum: a rum distillery in the XVII century

On this picture you can see the plan of a sugar factory in Barbados in 1647 drawn to scale by Ligon. As far as I know, it is the first known plan of a rum distillery. It is not easy to understand. And it would take a knowledge of the production techniques of the time which I don’t have. But the essential things are quite easy to grasp.

The three black dots at the center of the circle at the bottom are the three vertical rollerswhich crushed the cane. They were powered by the strength of the animals tied to the spokesconverging towards the center. Ligon calls this part of the structure with the Spanish word ingenio. The juice squeezed went directly into the Cisterns I and K higher up on the right.

Then the juice was put to boil in big coppers. These are the 5 big black circles on the top. First, the juice boiled in the biggest copper, then in the smaller ones until it became sugar. During the boiling the skimmings, that is, the scum and the substances floating on the boiling copper, were taken away and they were first fermented and then distilled.

The distillery is the rectangle in the top left  corner of the drawing. You can see the rectangular washfor the collection and fermentation of the liquid, X. The two white circles at the sides of the wash are the pot stills. A bigger one for the first distillation of the fermented liquid and the production of what Ligon called “Low Wines”. The smaller one probably still distilled the Low wines again and produced the final drink.

The presence of two pot stills and the double distillation show a rather advanced technique and a certain attention to the quality of the product.

Ligon was also skilled at technical design and his is a scale map. So we know that the washcould contain several hundreds of gallons. And the stills?

Prof. Frederick Smith in is magisterial book “Caribbean Rum”(2005) writes:

Although Ligon did not mention the exact capacity of the stills illustrated in the still house, his plan showed that one still was slightly more than four feet in diameter and the second … was slightly less than four feet in diameter. Both stills fit into a still-house room no larger than 16 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 20 feet high. The capacity of the two stills probably reflected contemporary trends in Europe and held less than100 gallon each.”

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.

On the Quest again: Historia Naturalis Brasiliae

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 alredy 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 entered  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 on American nature.

But 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 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.

Very interesting, you’ll say. And, as ever, a bit of culture won’t do any harm, but what does  this have to do with us rum aficionados of the XXI° century? It does, and a lot.  Because in this book I found the smoking gun that I was looking for: the first historical evidence that in Dutch Brazil, before Ligon’s Barbados, they commonly distilled a strong spirit from sugar cane, our rum.

In my article “Wills, provisions and stills” published in the July 2014 issue,  I wrote that, as far as I knew, the first undisputable source about the presence of stills in Brazil is  in a Sao Paulo Will of the 1611. Well, the latin worlds destillatus ( destilled) and alembicum (still) clearly appear in the book, in a chapter dedicated to medicine and, specifically, to the treatment of worms. From the context,  it is quite clear that the use of stills was something normal,  and we already know that  Brazil was the largest sugar producer of the age.

This is very encouraging for our Quest, but it is not nearly enough. The use of stills for medical purposes is not the clinching evidence yet. It does not prove without the shadow of a doubt that stills were used also for distilling on a large scale the fermented juice of sugarcane, to be consumed for pleasure.

For this reason, I entreat you to be patient until the next, and last, instalment.

Marco Pierini

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

American Rum: Barbados

Even though Brazil is its birthplace, in order to conquer the world rum had to leave Brazil and go and grow upin the Caribbean, particularly in Barbados. And the voyage from Brazil to Barbados made a new detour to Holland.

In Brazil, with the so called “War of Divine Liberation” that began in Pernambuco in 1645, the Portuguese made up the lost ground and finally forced the Dutch out of Brazil in 1654. Some of them relocated to Barbados and Martinique.

Barbados is a small island. It is 34 kilometers long and 23 kilometers wide at its widest, for a total of a little more than 430 square kilometers It’s the easternmost of the Lesser Antilles. It’s low and flat and not easy to sight, but due to the prevailing winds it was often the first island which ships sailing from Europe came upon. It’s an independent country, a member of the British Commonwealth. But let us look into the history of its colonization from the very beginning.

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”. Thus R.H.Schomburk writes in his “History of Barbados” published in London in 1847, and then he adds:

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 English Civil War). Not all modern historians entirely agree with Shomburk and some maintain that the role of the Dutch was more limited. Anyway, the English settled there in 1627 and the first voyage was funded by that very Sir William Courteen.

They were looking for a tropical land where to grow some lucrative crops. They tried cotton, tobacco and other crops, but with little success. Then they tried sugarcane cultivation. The English colonists did not possess the technical knowledge necessary to grow sugarcane and then produce sugar in an efficient, profitable way, so for “two or three years their attempts had extremely poor results.

In 1647 Richard Ligon, a Cavalier, a Royalist, ruined by the Civil War, left England and sailed to Barbados to seek his fortune. He will spend 3 years there. Back in England, he will write a book on his journey, “A true and Exact History of the island of Barbados”. This book, published in 1657, is (possibly) the first true mention of the existence of rum in the English language, even though it was not called rum yet. Here it is:

We are seldom dry or thirsty, unless we overheat our bodies with extraordinary labor, or drinking strong drinks; as of our English spirits, which we carry over, or the French Brandy, or the drink of the Island, which is made of the skimmings of the coppers, that boil the Sugar, which they call Kill-Devil”.

Kill-Devil is therefore the first name under which rum enters English language.

Later in his book, Ligon writes:

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.”

And more:

This drink has the virtues to cure and refresh the poor Negroes, whom we ought to have a special care of, by the labor of whose hands our profit is brought in […] It is helpful to our Christian Servants too; for, when their spirits are exhausted by their hard labor, and sweating in the Sun, ten hours every day, they find their stomach debilitated and much weakened in their vigor every day, a dram or two of this Spirit is a great comfort and refreshing.”

But before going on with the “drink of the island”, let’s see what Ligon writes about sugarcane:

At the time we landed on this island, which was in the beginnings of September 1647, we were informed, partly by those Planters we found there, and partly by our own observation, that the great works of Sugar-making was but newly practiced by the inhabitants there. Some of the most industrious men, having gotten plants from Pernambuco, a place in Brazil, and made trial of them at the Barbados; and finding them to grow, they planted more and more, as they grew and multiplied on the place, till they had such a considerable number, as they were worth the while to set up a very small Ingenio, and so make trial what Sugar could be made upon that soil. But, the secrets of the work being not well understood, the Sugars they made were very inconsiderable, and little worth, for two or three years. But they finding their errors by their daily practice began a little to mend; and, by new directions from Brazil, sometimes by strangers […] were content sometimes to make a voyage thither, to improve their knowledge in a thing they so much desired. […] And so returning with most Plants, and better Knowledge, they went on upon fresh hopes, but still short, of what they should be more skillful in: for, at our arrival there, we found them ignorant in three main points, that much conduced to the work […] But about the time I left the Island, which was in 1650 they were much bettered …”

To make room for sugarcane, forests were cut down and other crops were abandoned. But this took labor force, and plenty of it. The cultivation of cane is extremely hard work. First the cutting, appalling toil, under the sun, with tight labor times to take advantage of the short period in which the sugar content is at its highest. Then the cane has to be crushed quickly. Again hard work, and dangerous too. Finally, the juice has to be boiled several times in great coppers, in a scorching tropical climate.

In the first decades, most of the labor force was made up of indentured servants, that is, contract-bound servants. They were poor English citizens who, in the hope of a better life, tried their luck in the colonies. But they had to get there, and travel costs were high. So these poor wretches agreed to give up their freedom and to serve a master for a certain period of time, usually 5 years, in exchange for transport, accommodation and a small final sum, which would allow them to set up their own business. Once the contract had been signed – because it was a proper legal contract – the master could use them as he pleased, treat them as he pleased and even sell them to others. Sometimes they were even recruited by force.

There was also a minority of black slaves bought in Africa. Over the next decades, though, things changed. The white servants left the island as soon as they could and fewer and fewer came to replace them, so planters had more recourse to slaves. Today, the great majority of the inhabitants of Barbados are of African origin.

Then, according to Ligon, British settlers in Barbados learned the know-how of sugar in Dutch Brazil. And we know that in Brazil they commonly produced rum. Therefore, it makes sense to think that in Brazil they also learnt the art of the distillation of the by-products of sugar to produce rum.Ligon lived in Barbados from 1647 to 1650 and he noted that all the important sugar plantations already had their own distillery and some skilled workers and that rum represented a relevant integration of the planters’ income. They used it for the consumption of their black slaves and white servants and also sold it on the island and abroad. So, as early as 1650 in Barbados rum was currently produced, consumed and sold. It was a very strong, not pleasant-tasting spirit. It was cheap and was drunk in great quantities by the lower classes. It could be harmful, but at the same time it was thought to have healthy qualities too. And it was already economically relevant.

The origin of the word “rum” is uncertain, but as far as we know, it was used for the first time right in Barbados. In 1652 (or 1651) a much quoted visitor wrote:

the chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbillion, alias Kill.Divil, and this is made from sugar cane distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”

And some years later it finally appeared in a deed for the sale of Three Houses Plantation recorded in Barbados in 1658, where we can read: “four large mastrick cisterns for liquor for Rum”.

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.