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Rum Facts and Trivia

Updated on February 16, 2018

Slaves and Rum

Slaves loading rum barrels in Antigua, from drawings made by William Clark, 1823
Slaves loading rum barrels in Antigua, from drawings made by William Clark, 1823 | Source

A Caribbean Invention

In the early 1600s, Caribbean sugar cane planters had a big problem. What could they do with all the black sludge by-product that filled all the waste buckets, when sugar cane was refined into cane syrup. With every gallon of cane syrup, a half gallon of thick, black waste was created.

Strangely enough, the solution came from the slaves, who worked the island plantations. They discovered that if you fermented the sweet sludge and then distilled it, the result was a drinkable liquor, which became known as rum. Today, rum is an enjoyable and palatable drink, enjoyed by many around the world. And as far as that thick, tar-like, by-product goes, it is made into molasses, which can be safely stored and shipped almost anywhere in the world.

P.S. Long before rum was created, island plantations had been busy distilling sugar cane to cane syrup, so all involved in this process knew about distilling.

Beer Barrels

For many centuries, barrels of beer have been the staple fare of many a ship
For many centuries, barrels of beer have been the staple fare of many a ship

Beer Was The First Currency

In the early sailing days, ships crossing the Atlantic would carry barrels of beer alongside the provisions of water. Even the Mayflower carried beer on its maiden journey across the Atlantic, as did most British ships, both private and military. Beer would be used as a beverage, because it kept better than water and as for the water that was used for washing and cleaning.

British warships were careful, so as to have a supply of beer that would last for the entire voyage. To ensure that the hops and barley was evenly distributed, a rationing system was developed, whereabouts each sailor received a gallon of beer a day. (That's equivalent of eleven 12 ounce.bottles) Not surprisingly, many a naive lad enlisted in Her Majesty's service, just to enjoy the daily ration.

Slaves Set to work at the Antigua rum distillery, painting by William Clarke (1800s)
Slaves Set to work at the Antigua rum distillery, painting by William Clarke (1800s) | Source

Beer To Rum

But sometimes, even a barrel of beer went bad, so in 1655, the Royal Navy began substituting rum for beer. This change in policy coincided with the British capture of Jamaica, which gave the Royal Navy access to the rich sugar plantations of this large Caribbean island.

At first, each sailor was allowed a half pint of rum that was ceremoniously distributed twice a day. Also mixed in with rum was some wine and lime juice, added for medicinal purposes. This mixture was commonly referred to as Tot O Rum. This improved morale, but it also lead to increase in drunkenness.

Nonetheless, in 1740, in an effort to reduce alcohol abuse, the British Navy began cutting the half pint of rum with a quart of water. Of course the new mixture quickly acquired a nickname, Grog.

Old Rum Bottles

Old rum bottles in Greece
Old rum bottles in Greece | Source

Gunpowder Proof

Quickly, after its invention, rum became so popular around the New World that in actually became a kind of currency. As the rich liquor became more and more popular, traders in the commodity had to be careful not to be sold watered-down versions. The best way to do this was to soak gunpowder with a rum sample, then light the mixture with a match. If the rum burned, it was good. Buyers could even get an idea of the alcohol content by the way that the gunpowder-rum combination was consumed by fire. And this was considered good proof that the rum was up to grade.

Nelson's Demise

Portrait of Vice Admiral Horatio Francis Nelson, by
Portrait of Vice Admiral Horatio Francis Nelson, by

Nelson's Blood

In 1805, the British Navy won a decisive victory over French and Spanish forces at the Battle of Trafalgar. This momentous event took place near Cape Trafalgar on the southwest coast of Spain. Unfortunately, for the British, their naval leader, Vice Admiral Horatio Francis Nelson died during the battle.

To preserve the vice admiral for proper burial, his body was placed in a full barrel of rum for the trip back to England. And then, according to legend, some of the sailors on board decided to tap into the barrel containing Lord Nelson's body. Even though the story cannot be confirmed, rum is still known in some circle's as Nelson's Blood.

P.S. One internet source, the Drinking Cup, has Admiral Nelson being pickled in a barrel of brandy instead of rum. If this version stands to be true, it only goes to show how variable history can be and how easily myths can evolve into the public discourse.

Pussers rum, a corruption of the word purser, comes in a fancy bottle and is sold in liquor stores worldwide
Pussers rum, a corruption of the word purser, comes in a fancy bottle and is sold in liquor stores worldwide

A Caribbean Art Form

During the 17th and 18th century, virtually every Caribbean island developed a rum industry of its own, which continues even to today. Currently, Puerto Rico is by far the largest producer, but most islands proudly distill their own brand.

Pusser's Rum, the official product of the British Navy, mixes as many as 21 different brands of island rums to create a unique blend. This rum mixture is sold for a year, when a new selection of island rum is created.

The Caribbean

Black Tot Day

On August 1, 1970, the British Navy discontinued its daily rum ration, thus making July 31, 1970, the last day that rum was distributed onboard a royal ship. Since that time, July 31st has been known as Black Tot Day. However, not all is lost, for once the daily ration had been discontinued, it was now possible for this specific British naval liquor to be sold to the general public under the package of Pusser's Rum. Besides that, profits from sale of Pusser's goes to benefit retired and diabled British naval veterans.

Triangular Trade Map

Rum was an integral part of the triangular trade
Rum was an integral part of the triangular trade

The Triangular Trade

As plantations grew in the New World, so did the slave trade from Africa. Some of the earliest places to develop a prospering plantation system were the West Indies, where Christopher Columbus introduced sugar cane to Hispanola early in the 1500s. The plant grew well in the subtropical islands and soon, slaves were being imported from West Africa to work the crop.

Eventually this lead to the famed "triangular trade", whereabouts molasses produced in the Caribbean was shipped to America. Here the dark, sweet liquid was distilled to rum and then sold abroad to Britain and Europe in exchange for manufactured goods.

Demon Rum

By time the revolution arrived in 1776, "demon rum" was associated with many social ills
By time the revolution arrived in 1776, "demon rum" was associated with many social ills

Consumption In the Colonies

Before the Revolution, rum was consumed in great quantities among the original thirteen colonies. Today it is estimated that American colonists drank to a tune of 12,000,000 gallons a year. That's much less than the 30 million gallons of rum imbibed today, but keep in mind that the population was much less back in those days, about 3 million.

Also be aware than liquors like whiskey, vodka and bourbon had not come into their own at that time, so rum was the primary drink of choice.

Pusser's Rum

Comments

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    • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

      Harry Nielsen 

      12 months ago from Durango, Colorado

      Thanks. I just happened across the subject while researching other topics.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      12 months ago from The Caribbean

      What an interesting history of rum. Never even thought to ask how, when or where it originated. Thanks for the facts on this very unique topic.

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