History Buff Interview with Ian Williams

Colonists Used Rum As a Weapon Against Native Americans

Nov 07, 2015
Is rum the subject of a vast historical cover-up?

of a vast historical cover-up? Ian Williams thinks so. A renowned journalist and rum expert, Williams is the author of the acclaimed book Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776. It’s a riveting read. Taking us from the plantations of Barbados to the battlefields of Revolutionary New England, Williams argues that rum’s pivotal role in the American Revolution was written out of U.S. history because of prohibitionism. We asked him about the spirit’s troubling past:

HistoryBuff: Can you tell us a little about the origins of rum? When did it go mainstream?

Ian Williams: Rum is the mongrel progeny of mixed technical genes. It was first mentioned in Barbados in 1651 by a much-quoted anonymous writer who wrote that “the chief fudling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish and terrible liquor.” Originating in Papua New Guinea, the sugar cane travelled via India to the Middle East and was brought by the Spanish and Portuguese to the Americas. The British in Barbados imported the milling and refining technology from the coast of what is now Surinam when Dutch settlers were ousted by the Portuguese in Brazil and settled in Barbados, which rapidly became a sugar monoculture.

HB: How was it made?

IW: Rum was made from the by-product of sugar, the molasses and skimmings left once the sugar had been crystallised out. The natural yeasts in the air would have set the molasses solution bubbling and fermenting, but it produces an unpalatable and indigestible drink—until some unsung genius realised that distillation brought over the alcohol without the immediate intestinal upsets! It was a very ecological drink—using a waste product and not competing with food stocks.

HB: How did the spirit get its name?

IW: Originally known as “Kill-Devil,” the word rum seems to be derived from “rumbullion”—an English dialect word for “a commotion, a riot”—which is indicative of the effects! “Rhum” in French, Ron in Spanish and in other European languages all seem to be derived from the English word. But along the Eastern Seaboard of the US, features are often named after “Kill Devil.” The Wright brothers first flew near Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, for example.

via Wikimedia

HB: When was it first popularized in the U.S.?

IW: Most of the American colonists were marginally productive of grain crops, so using grain for alcohol production was frowned upon. Apple crops allowed hard cider production but a gallon of imported molasses made a gallon of rum roughly, and from an early stage of colonial history, distilleries flourished. Rum was much more easily stored and transported and was often drunk in the form of punches rather than neat. And it killed the bacteria in the water!

HB: How much rum did the colonists really drink?

IW: The colonists drank huge quantities themselves but also traded it with the Indians, persuading them to hunt for furs beyond their own subsistence needs. Benjamin Franklin commented, “If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that Rum may be the appointed means. It has already annihilated all the tribes who formerly inhabited the Sea-Coast.” The colonists preferred Caribbean rum for themselves, but they also traded their locally produced New England rum for slaves in Africa, where it was the major trading item for the American ships. The British ships used cloth and other manufactured goods rather than rum.

HB: What role did rum play in the American Revolution?

IW: The original dispute was that while the British West Indian islands used their own molasses to make rum, the French colonies were not allowed to in case they competed with the domestic French Brandy industry—and so had a surplus of molasses from their sugar production. The American ships traded, salt, salted cod, and timber for this and since for much of the 18th-century France and Britain were at war—among other things about French threats to the colonies from Canada—this was trading with the enemy.

The colonists did not pay duty on the smuggled goods and later when the British tried to collect taxes to defray the cost of removing the French from Canada, the colonists first refused, then actively resisted as the British shifted the collection from easily intimidated or bribable local collectors to the Navy, whose Captains and crews collected prize money from any smugglers’ ships they caught. The conflict escalated. But they never asked for representation—they just did not want taxation!

Revere, Paul 1770
Paul Revere via Wikimedia

HB: Did Paul Revere really fortify himself with rum before galloping off for Lexington?

IW: The revolution was plotted in taverns over bowls of rum punch, and Paul Revere’s ride, far from rousing the countryside, was simply warning the Militia to hide their arsenals before a Redcoat raid. His first stop was with the owner of a rum distillery, Isaac Hall, Captain of the Medford Minute Men, who rewarded the messenger with several stirrup cups that “would have made a rabbit bite a bulldog,” and sent him bellowing on his way. During the war both sides tried to seize rum distilleries stores since it was assumed the troops would not fight without it. Faced with a severe shortage of rum George Washington wrote to Congress in 1777 suggesting “erecting Public Distilleries in different States.” He went on to explain, suggesting that even then he anticipated some resistance, “The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor, have been experienced in all Armies and are not to be disputed.”

HB: Why did whisky surpass rum as America’s beverage of choice?

IW: After the Revolution, the opening up of the former Indian territories allowed corn to replace the molasses and rum from the Caribbean. Although rum remained a major commodity in New England, whisky replaced it as a drink and as currency. The combined effects of that and prohibitionism submerged its role in American history.

HB: What most surprised you while you were writing the book?

IW: Once I had begun to look into the subject, I was delighted and surprised to see how much of a role rum had had in the development of the modern Atlantic world. I began to research when I realized that the Caribbean was for centuries the cockpit of European history. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans went there to fight and die for control of its liquid treasures and it was seminal in the American Revolution. Faced with the choice between Canada and Martinique—the French chose Martinique. The West Indian colonies would have joined the USA—and reinforced the Southern slaveowners if it weren’t that they needed the British to protect them against the French and Spanish.

Rum was a delight to research whether in the archives of London and New York—or the rum-shops of Barbados and Jamaica!

Feature image via Wikimedia

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