A History of Rum

By Frederick H. Smith, Ph.D.

In the summer of 1996 I went to Barbados to prepare a historical archaeological field school in Bridgetown with my colleague Dr. Karl Watson and his students from the department of history at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. On the morning of Saturday, July 13, Watson called to say that construction workers in a part of the city known as the Pierhead had unearthed skeletal remains while preparing a site for the expansion of a local shopping mall.

The skeletal remains turned out to be human, and further investigation revealed more burials at the site. We spent the day surveying this unmarked and forgotten cemetery, and recording information about the site. Based on the absence of grave markers, the cemetery’s location on the periphery of the town, and the presence of a mid-eighteenth century white kaolin clay tobacco pipe, which had been placed in the crook of the right arm of one the deceased, we determined that the graveyard was the final resting place of Bridgetown’s slave population.

Throughout the day, construction workers and residents from the nearby neighborhoods monitored our excavation and pondered our work. Some mentioned the ghosts of those buried at the site and the restlessness of duppies, the mischievous, and sometimes malicious, spirits of the dead. At the end of the day, we removed the skeleton with the tobacco pipe and began packaging it for proper storage at the University of the West Indies. About that time, someone in the crowd shouted that we needed to pour libations to those buried at the site, and within minutes a bottle of rum was produced for that purpose. The rum was poured on the ground and the pouring was punctuated by requests that the duppies “rest in peace” and “leave us alone.”

This event was a major turning point in my academic career. Since 1991, I had conducted fieldwork in different parts of the Caribbean and during these visits had the opportunity to observe the central place of rum and other forms of alcohol in Caribbean society. I had also come across numerous references to rum in the primary documents I was reading. During the excavations at the Pierhead cemetery in Bridgetown, however, I was an actual participant in an event that embodied and expressed centuries of alcohol-related traditions in the Caribbean, which inspired me to pursue further study.

My book explores the role of alcohol in the Caribbean from the sixteenth century to the present. Drawing on materials from Africa, Europe, and throughout the Americas, it contributes to the growing field of Atlantic studies and breaks new ground in using an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates documentary, archaeological, and ethnographic evidence. It investigates the economic impact of Caribbean rum on multiple scales, including rum’s contribution to sugar plantation revenues, its role in bolstering colonial and post-colonial economies, and its impact on Atlantic trade. A number of political-economic trends determined the volume and value of rum exports from the Caribbean, especially war, competition from other alcohol industries, slavery and slave emancipation, temperance movements, and globalization.

My book also examines the social and sacred uses of rum and identifies the forces that shaped alcohol drinking in the Caribbean. While the enormous amounts of rum available in the Caribbean contributed to a climate of excessive drinking, levels of alcohol consumption varied among different social groups. The different drinking patterns reflect more than simply access to rum. For example, levels of drinking and drunken comportment conveyed messages about the underlying tensions that existed in the Caribbean, which were driven by the coercive exploitation of labor and set within a highly contentious social hierarchy based on class, race, gender, religion, and ethnic identity. Moreover, these tensions were often magnified by epidemic disease, poor living conditions, natural disasters, international conflicts, and unstable food supplies. While nearly everyone in the Caribbean drank, the differing levels of alcohol use by various social groups highlights the ways in which drinking became a means to confront anxiety.

To put your name in for a copy of Caribbean Rum, click HERE.

Frederick Smith is author of Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History. He teaches Anthropology at the College of William & Mary.

Image: A West India Sportsman by Lieutenant Abraham James (1807). Barbados Museum and Historical Society

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