AMERICAN RUM – Introduction

 

For some years I have been studying the history of rum, and in particular its origins. The results of this research are to be found in my articles published in “Got Rum?” magazine, and in some websites about rum. Many articles were about Great Britain and the British Empire, owing to the early, massive diffusion of rum among British people. The very word Rum is generally held to be English, even though its origins are uncertain.

But, around 2014, while I was studying the history of British rum, I came to realize with astonishment the enormous importance that rum had in Early America. More, the very birth of the new American Republic was dripping in rum. As a matter of fact, colonials drank a lot. And they drank mainly rum. Rum was not only a very popular commodity, but a lubricant of social life. Taverns were the focus of political and social life and in taverns most people drank, first of all, rum. And rum was present in all the rituals which mark life: births, weddings, all kinds of festivals and celebrations, funerals. North American colonists imported great quantities of rum from the West Indies, but I discovered that they were also great producers of it.

In the British Colonies of North America, rum was so important that, as money was scarce, rum often replaced it as currency and the real indicator of the value of goods. Rum is also generally thought to have played a pivotal role in the infamous slave trade which enriched the new nation and in the subjugation and destruction of American Indians. And above all sugar, molasses and rum are largely considered among the real reasons of the rebellion of the American colonists against their homeland. Therefore it is not without a reason that it has often been written that rum is the real Spirit of 1776. All this, I was saying, kindled my interest in the role that rum played in the birth of the United States.

At the same time, I had become aware that something extremely interesting was happening in the US around rum.

First of all, for some years rum had been produced again in the US, after a long period of neglect. There were already hundreds of rum distilleries in the US. They were usually small craft enterprises, with a strong territorial bond, which often used locally grown sugar cane. New ones were starting, month after month. Each of them produced small quantities, but all together they already represented a considerable, and ever growing, proportion of rum consumption in the US. It was also evident that there was a substantial growth in the sales of quality rums, with higher prices, the so called Premium Sector, and I think the two things are connected.

This in itself is of great interest to the rum enthusiast. But as a historian I am truly impressed also by the political demands of many of these small producers. To put it simply, and I apologize to them and to the readers for this oversimplification, American small producers of rum come up against the great multinationals and ask for lower taxation and greater freedom of enterprise. And their pressure is growing. And all these trends are increasing day by day.

In short, prompted by the importance that rum had in the past, and the renewed importance it has in the present, I became convinced that the history of rum in early America, from the first settlers until the decline of rum and the surge of whiskey around 1830 in the United States, deserved a book. So, I decided to write that book.

A warning. As my readers will see, I have devoted many pages to Boston and New England, both for the unquestionable importance of Boston in the history of American rum and for the quantity, the quality and the availability of the sources. If, by reading this book and finding the gaps in its scope, others will be encouraged to carry out more extensive research about the history of rum in the other Colonies, I will be extremely happy.

Marco Pierini

GROG

In April 1731 the British brig Rebecca was sailing, probably not far from La Havana, when a Spanish guardacostas stopped and boarded it looking for smuggled goods. It is not clear what really happened on board and at the moment it seemed a trifling event. But seven years later, in 1738, the Rebecca’s Captain Robert Jenkins exhibited to a committee of the House of Commons his own left ear, cut off by the Spanish that – he said – also pillaged the ship and insulted the British King. British public opinion was already angry with Spain for other “outrages” on British ships and war began in October 1739, later called “War of Jenkins’ ear”.

The Taking of Porto Bello, Samuel Scott 1741

A large British fleet set sail for the West Indies under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who became a national hero thanks to the conquest of the important Spanish town of Portobello, on the Atlantic coast of what is now Panama. Later on things didn’t go so well for him, but this is a matter of no interest to us now. For every rum enthusiast, his lasting fame is due to the invention of Grog.

At that time, in the West Indies a daily distribution of rum as an alternative to beer was already quite normal. Sailors usually drank it pure, all the allowance down in one gulp. It was a very dangerous practice, the cause of many accidents in the rigging at sea and also of many problems of discipline. We must not forget that at that time the alcoholic strength of rum was probably much higher than what we are used to today. In any case on board British warships accidents, disease and harsh punishments, also caused by rum, ravaged the crews, often more harshly than enemy weapons.

Worried about the health of the sailors and the efficiency of the fleet, Vernon tackled the problem head on. First of all he consulted the captains and the surgeons of his fleet, then on August 21st, 1740, he signed a General Order that deserves to be widely quoted:

Whereas it manifestly appears … to be the unanimous opinion of both Captains and Surgeons, that the pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams, and often at once, is attended with many fatal effects to their morals as well to their health, which are visibly impaired thereby, and many of their lives shortened by it, besides the ill consequences arising from stupefying their rational qualities, which makes them heedlessly slaves to every passion;

[ I order the Captains]

to take particular care that rum be no more served in specie to any of the ship’s company under your command, but the respective daily allowance of half a pint a man for all your officers and ship’s company, be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to every half pint of rum, to be mixed in scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch, who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum, and when so mixed it is to be served to them in two servings in the day, the one between the hours of 10 and 12 in the morning, and the other between 4 and 6 in the afternoon.”

Praise be given to those who invented the metric system. The history of systems of measurements before it was adopted, and in Britain and the US even afterwards, is a real quagmire. With the added complexity that in the past units of measures often changed  name and dimensions depending on the content (for example, liquids or grain), the Country and the years. In addition to that,  pre-industrial production techniques were not able to manufacture standard barrels, always of the same dimensions.

Luckily, it is enough for us to know that  “a quart” was the fourth part of a gallon, roughly 1 liter, and half a pint was about a quarter of a liter. Therefore, the new beverage had roughly 1 part of rum for 4 parts of water. Sailors did not like such a novelty, they wanted to get drunk with real rum, not to drink it watered. But discipline was cast-iron and they had to accept it. Drunkenness on board did not disappear, but it decreased significantly and so did accidents and punishments. In summary, the innovation was a success.

At the beginning the order applied only to the fleet commanded by Vernon, but after a while the Admiralty extended the same rules to the whole Navy. Then, over time the allowance decreased and was distributed only once a day, creating  one of the most impressive, enduring, typical, and frankly astounding, rituals of the Royal Navy. Usually called Up Spirits and also simply Tot, it lasted for 200 years, as we will see in future articles.

The new beverage had no name, but with their traditional flair for names, sailors soon gave it one. Vernon’s nickname was “Old Grogram” from a waterproof cloak he usually wore, made of a fabric called Grogram.

So his drink was called “Grog”.

RUM FOR THE SAILORS

 

 

 

 

On a cold 26 December 1654 a big fleet left England: 37 men-of-war under the command of Vice-Admiral William Penn and with General Robert Venable in charge of an army of 3.000 soldiers.

The orders were clear:  to attack and conquer the large  Spanish island of Hispaniola, present-day Santo Domingo and Haiti. It was an entirely new enterprise for England: it was not another privateer enterprise, like Francis Drake’s ones and similar, but something different and much more ambitious. For the first time England attempted to conquer and hold the colony of one of its European rivals; Oliver Crowell’s ambitious “Western Design” was on the move.   

After a one month’s voyage, in late January 1655 the fleet arrived at Barbados, at that time the most important British colony in the Caribbean. After a short stay to embark provisions and more troops, among them many indentured servants that wanted to flee the island, it moved to Hispaniola. There the fleet landed the army ashore to attack the town of Santo Domingo. The attack was ill prepared and worse carried out,  and the reaction of the Spanish cavalry was strong and effective. After a crushing ground defeat, the English troops retired in disarray and had to re-embark quickly. Maybe only the absence of a Spanish fleet avoid a complete disaster.

After this crushing defeat, Vice-Admiral Penn was very worried. To return home defeated and with empty hands could be very dangerous. So, in May 1655 Penn decided to attack Jamaica, at that time a small, poor Spanish island, sparsely populated and virtually undefended. This time the amphibious attack war prepared with care and it was success, Britain took possession of Jamaica. But this did not appease Cromwell that was devastated by the Hispaniola disaster to the point he fells ill and sent Penn and Venable to the Tower.

C.Sheldon 1907

And it was in Jamaica in 1655 that rum was for the first time distributed on board the ships of the English Navy. The thing happened quite unofficially and we don’t have many details about it. But we know that rum was distributed to the crews instead of the customary daily allowance of beer.

When abroad the captains were allowed to buy wine, and sometimes also brandy. But they were expensive and often produced by enemies. And in the Caribbean they were difficult to find on a regular basis and in the quantity needed by thousands of men.

On the contrary, in Barbados and the West Indies a new, strong beverage was cheap and easily available in huge quantity: Rum. With its alcoholic strength it occupied relatively less space in the hold than beer and moreover it was produced by English subjects. But, maybe more importantly, rum did not deteriorate when stored on board, on the contrary, it improved. Finally, if mixed with rum the same water stored on board was drinkable for long periods.

So rum began to be part of the ordinary daily rations of British sailors and soldiers in the West Indies. But for decades its diffusion relied on the personal decisions of captains and officers on the ground, without any standard rules for the whole Navy.

Only in 1731 did the “Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea” state: “Of the Provisions. In case it should be thought for the Service … in ships employed on foreign voyages, it is to be observed that a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack, hold provision to a gallon of beer

Navy Rum was born.

RUM AND EMPIRES IN THE XVII CENTURY

In the middle of the XVII° century, rum starts from Barbados (and Martinique) its long, victorious march to conquer the world. A world which was very different from today’s, and where sugar was  a source of enormous wealth and the cause of bloody wars and, leaving aside Portuguese Brazil because of its relative isolation, the heart of sugar production was in the Caribbean. Continue reading “RUM AND EMPIRES IN THE XVII CENTURY”

The Rum Historian

 

My name is Marco Pierini. I was born in 1954 in a little town in Tuscany (Italy) where I still live. In a previous life I  got a degree in Philosophy in Florence and I studied Political Science in Madrid. Life brought me to work in tourism, event organization and vocational training . But my real passion has always been History and through History I have always tried to understand the men.

Then I discovered rum. With my business partner, Francesco Rufini, I founded a firm, La Casa del Rum (The House of Rum), that runs a beach bar and selects Premium Rums.

I also decided to return back to my initial passion History, studying the History of Rum. Because Rum is not only a great distillate, it’s a world. Produced in scores of countries, by thousands of companies, with an extraordinary variety of aromas and flavors; it has a terrible and fascinating history, made of slaves and pirates, imperial fleets and revolutions. And using rum as point of view you can understand a lot about our world.

I run a column – The Rum Historian – in the Got Rum? magazine –

I have just published my first book with Amazon:

“AMERICAN RUM  A Short History of Rum in Early America”