The Revolutionary Spirit

Ian Williams



um and revolution have been associated together for centuries. Rum is “the global spirit with its warm beating heart in the Caribbean,” the one factor that is shared by all the cultures of the region, and enthusiastically drunk by the descendants of those who were enslaved to produce it.

I began drinking rum with uninformed enthusiasm at an age that would have had the child welfare crowd taking me into care if I had been in New York instead of Liverpool. But I began researching the subject seriously many years later while working in the Caribbean, which was my point of departure.

All over the islands are massive forts and harbors, barracks and other monuments to the time when the Caribbean was to the world what the Gulf is now. Literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in the struggles to control these fecund volcanic hilltops where ample supplies of sun and water combined to make sugar.

It was not the only parallel with the modern world: rum and sugar anticipated modern problems of globalization, of empire and deficits, of war and taxation.

The sugar trade provided the liquid capital to fund the British National Debt, the real secret weapon that ensured British dominance against the threat from a much richer and more populous France. So where does rum fit?

It was in Barbados in the first half of the seventeenth century that the British colonists realized that the by-product of sugar refining, molasses, was more than just an inferior sweetener. In the tropics it fermented quickly, and although the immediate product was an intestinal challenge of a high order to any drinker, when distilled, a gallon of molasses produced a gallon of high-octane spirit.

Known as Kill-devil, Barbados Water, or rumbullion, before rum became the common term, it was a desirable commodity that quickly enhanced the profits of the sugar trade, while making more bearable the endless toil in the tropical heat necessary to grow and refine it.

The production of rum in Barbados transformed the economics of the island, which switched rapidly to a sugar-growing monoculture and equally rapidly from a majority white indentured work force to a chattel slave based economy. Incidentally, the white workers also rose, and were suppressed with mass executions in the early stages before racism was added to the Planters’ sins of cupidity and cruelty.

It would repay study to see how much the mainland North American colonies benefited from the experience of the Barbadian plantation owners. Not only did they invent the principle of no taxation without representation in an agreement with the Cromwellian government during the Civil Wars in Britain, they were the first to introduce legislation that codified African slavery as different from the traditional indentures for white workers and to justify this breach of Common Law by inveighing against the supposed inferiority of Africans.

Many of the English settlers in North America came via Barbados and they brought their social innovations with them, as well as a thirst for rum, which became a major item of trade.

It was not until much later that the British Isles and their North Atlantic colonies produced enough of a grain surplus to make gin or whisky on a regular basis, and even when they did, it took much more bulk of grain to produce the same amount of alcohol. Nor did they produce grapes and wine on any scale, so the metropolitan government saw no problems with rum production within the colonial system.

Not so France, where in the early eighteenth century the cognac producers successfully lobbied for a ban on rum production for export from the French islands.

On the one hand, the lucrative production of rum gave the British colonies an economic advantage; on the other hand, Adam Smith’s invisible hand was busily mixing it between the North Americans and the British.

The British islands used all their molasses to make their own rum, which the colonial elite drank for preference. The colonists largely benefited from the imperial connection, but rum was a crucial commodity. The presence of lakes of molasses in the French islands proved an irresistible temptation, so much so that the Yankee traders were easily able to overcome any scruples that may have resulted from the wars being fought between France and Britain, even though a major purpose of those wars was to safeguard the American colonies from the French threat in Canada.

The colonists drank prodigious quantities of their own rum, but they also used it to trade for furs with the Indian tribes, while many of them quietly rejoiced at the damage rum did to Indian societies which amounted to alcoholic ethnic cleansing. Even more sinisterly, New England rum was the major trade item for slaves on the African coast.

When the French and Indian war was over, the British were paying over a quarter of their GDP in taxation, mostly to pay off the National Debt. The colonies offered but never delivered contributions. It was clear that “no taxation” was the primary thought, not representation. The British sent in the Navy to enforce customs collection, and played into the hands of the secessionists by providing an excuse for insurrection.

Even when the war came, rum was an essential war supply, with both sides fighting to deprive the other side. George Washington, that unlikely socialist, even advocated government owned distilleries to meet the need and was as scornful as any modern Virginian about French fries in the Congressional canteen at any attempts to substitute a French wine ration for rum for the continental armies.

Aided by temperance and prohibition, this inconvenient history, both rum and the essential Yankee role in the slave trade has been edited out of popular historical consciousness.

But then, more recently, who remembers that the Bacardi family bankrolled Fidel Castro up in the hills, and greeted him when he arrived in Havana with a banner “Gracias a Fidel” draped across their headquarters? Of course, they took it personally when he nationalized their distilleries, but they had already gone multinational, incorporating in the Bahamas and distilling in Puerto Rico, so they still conduct their grudges against Castro in the American courtrooms for ownership of the Havana Club brand, which, although banned by the Embargo from the US, is selling far more successfully than Cuban sugar across the rest of the world. And touchingly, Fidel was telling Cubans that drink was bad for them, so that there would be more for export.

Perhaps more damaging than this family feud is the way that Bacardi has used its economic and political clout to flood out better rums from the rest of the Caribbean with its own undistinguished spirit. For many islands, faced with competition from European sugar beet, Archer Daniel Midland’s high fructose corn syrup and their accompanying tariff barriers, making high value added branded rum from their sugar crop is one of their ways forward in a world where the empires have moved on and forgotten how much of their own and African blood they shed to conquer these volcanic rocks, and how much money they made from it.


* * *


For its first two centuries, Barbados’ position as the first port of call for ships to the other British colonies in the Western Hemisphere gave it an importance greater than its tiny. Any “good” ideas that originated in the island, whether rum, sugar plantations, African slavery, or even the idea of calling the head of the local government the President, were sure to spread to all the British colonies, and in those early days, they were carried by the departing colonists.

Some of them founded Charleston, where they left their marks on the names and habits of the Carolinian town and helped to establish a long established but frequently forgotten connection between the Caribbean and the Eastern seaboard. Eleven of the first 23 governors of South Carolina came from the islands, seven from Barbados.[i] Henry Winthrop, son of John Winthrop, New England’s first governor had put in three years in Barbados before moving north.[ii].

While maintaining the trading connections that progressively expanded over the following century they took something far more pernicious than rum. Slavery had no basis in contemporary English Law, and it took the autonomy of the Barbadian planters to codify it separately.

The Barbadian slave code in 1661 was a legal breakthrough that was in fact adopted by Antigua and Jamaica, and then copied and emulated by South Carolina and Virginia, transforming the English legal idea of indentures for a fixed period into a state of perennial servitude for one group of people only. Whom the planters wished to enslave, they first insulted. “The Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Africans and Negroes,” began by referring to its subjects as “heathenish,” “brutish,” and a “dangerous kind of people.”[iii]

So, along with an aversion to taxation, and the title of President, the codification of black slavery went along with rum as Barbados’ contribution to the development of the North American colonies. Two out of three of Churchill’s triptych on the Navy, Rum and the Lash are definite Barbadian exports to the mainland. Buggery was optional, one supposes.

Many other aspects of the economic and social structures of the Southern Plantation system had a dry run in Barbados. Even at this early stage Barbados had some amusing precursors of later stereotypical Southern lifestyles. Long before the Kentucky Colonel’s heyday, every planter or “gentleman” on the island is titled as “Captain” – or “Colonel.” But there were more serious precursors, a persistent semi-feudal politics setting poor whites as the first bulwark against the possibility of slave revolts. You could say that the fuse for the American Civil War fizzled its way north from Barbados, the sugar colony that rum made profitable and habitable.

Many of the founding fathers had family connections and current ties to the islands, ranging from George Washington’s sojourn in Barbados to Alexander Hamilton’s birth in Nevis, and Thomas Jefferson’s visit to St Kitts, where his grandfather had had a plantation. There they had time to appreciate the model mix for the new republic, at least from the Southern colonies perspectives – slave-owners’ autonomy. 

Washington visited Barbados in 1751 and was almost tempted to stay by his calculations – which could have started a whole new alternative history. He confided to his diary, “Canes is from 40 to 70 ton of sugar, each ton valued at 20/ out of which a third is deducted for expenses, unless rum sells for 2/ and upwards pr Gallon than it is, though the sugar is near clean.”[iv]

 Adam Smith put it more cogently than the founder of the US, whose grammar and style improved over the years. “It is commonly said that a sugar planter expects that rum and molasses should defray the whole expense of his cultivation, and that his sugar should be all clear profit.”[v]  The presence of Washington is testimony once again to the connections between the mainland colonies and the Caribbean.

However it was not just the South, but also New England that owed its heritage to the island. It was two Indian slaves, John and Tituba, brought from Barbados to Salem by minister Samuel Parris, whose native rituals inspired the Salem Witch-hunts, thus setting the precedent for the periodic paroxysms of intolerance that still beset the American mainland.[vi]  Barbados was everywhere – in spirit and in rum – throughout the new colonies.

But it was not only the plantation system that the Barbadians exported northwards – it was also one of the more commercially lucrative ideas about what to do with their rum, and morally on a par with the “customs of the country” that they had exported. Soon emulated by Jamaica and the other islands, they took their rum to Africa to trade for slaves.

John Winthrop was a pioneer of the Barbadian- Boston connection. His journals record the first documented slave voyage from Boston November 1644, with a voyage that took staves for casks to Cape Verde Islands, traded them for slaves which they took to Barbados and exchanged for sugar and tobacco which eventually reached Boston after a five month round trip voyage.


Rum Rapine and Revolution – the Triangle

It was one thing selling dried fish to feed slaves and drinking the profits. But in the hands of the New England merchants, rum soon became a double enslaver, depending on the toil of slaves to make and being the main trade item to buy slaves in West Africa. To get their drinks, from an early stage coastal monarchs staged slave raids on their weaker neighbors. By 1679, French slave traders were already complaining that the brandy they had formerly used in trade for slaves in Africa had been flooded out by cheaper rum, and one recorded that a large bull was bought for one pint of spirit in 1697 in Senegal. The Monarchs along the coast had a huge thirst and in Gabon, they gave an elephant tusk for a measure of liquor which they had emptied before they left the vessel.[vii]

British histories always depicted the Triangle Trade with its apex in Liverpool and Bristol. Manufactured goods left Britain for West Africa, and were traded for slaves who were taken to the Caribbean and the mainland colonies where they were exchanged for with sugar, molasses and rum for the British home market.

The New England colonies had a triangle all their own, although it shared a base on the same gruesome middle passage.  But its apex was across the Atlantic in New England, Boston and Providence rather than Bristol and Liverpool.  Regardless of whose “triangle” it is, reality does not always favor simple geometrical metaphors and the so-called triangle was much more like a cats cradle with multiple nodes. There was a lot of direct trade between the American colonies and the Caribbean and between both and Britain, not to mention the voyages carrying Grand Banks fish to Southern Europe.

From a moral dimension, there was indeed a triangle, or rather the trinity, of disrepute: slaves, rum and sugar. In this “triangle,” the rum that was made from the molasses that had been traded for cod, was then bartered in West Africa for yet more slaves who were taken to the Caribbean or southern mainland colonies.  The resulting trade links connected the frozen seas of the North West Atlantic to the torrid beaches of the Bight of Benin – with the keystone of the structure the slave-worked sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

The mainland colonies were “the key to the Indies without which Jamaica, Barbadoes and ye Charibby Islands are not able to subsist,”[viii] one writer commented in 1661 – and it became truer as the decades rolled by – and as the hogsheads of molasses and rum rolled into the holds of the trading fleets. But it was also doubtful whether the mainland colonial economies would have taken off so quickly without the trade to the islands.

The movements of men, goods and ships which rum impelled ensured that New England and the North American colonies were not like French Canada, or the Spanish Main. The traditions of local autonomy and lively entrepreneurship ensured that they did not linger as a sleepy backwater fossilized economically and socially at the time of the settlement, but became a major link in the global network, with a vigorous and growing commercial and industrial life of their own. 

The ships were built, supplied and equipped locally in New England, on a scale that matched the mother country’s capabilities. Indeed their shipbuilding and navigation techniques overreached that of their more conservative transatlantic cousins. For example, Franklin remarked on British captains’ refusal to take advantage of the extra speed offered by the Gulf Stream. Yankee skippers roamed the globe in emulation of the Viking example of seeking riches at sea that they assuredly could not cultivate in their cold and relatively infertile home.

However, the rum trade also distorted economic development. George Weedon concluded that, “the substitution of rum for food affected the whole business of commercial exchange in this period. Between the derangement of an inflated currency, and the diversion of productive industry to distilling and its collateral slave importation, the building of vessels and the catch of fish fell off.”

While allowing for some effects from the wars with France, he concluded unequivocally, “the main cause in the decline in these important industries must be found in rum.”[ix] It did not take long for the New England traders to get in on the act. In the late seventeenth century, Taussig comments with bitter irony, the Yankee merchants’ first battle for “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” was their petitioning parliament, along with their English colleagues, to break the monopoly of the Royal Africa company on the slave trade along the coast of Africa. They enthusiastically proposed export duties of 10% on goods leaving for Africa to defray the costs of the slave forts and factories along the coast. Their proposal was adopted: whether they paid the tax as scrupulously is another story. [x]

In the Treaty of Utrecht – following the War of Spanish Succession in 1713, in addition to Gibraltar, Britain secured Newfoundland, along with confirmation of the Royal Assiento, whereby British ships, in return for a large cash payment up front to Spain, were licensed to trade slaves to the Spanish colonies. British for these purposes included the British colonies as well and the trade just grew and grew.

By 1721 the factor for the British Royal African Company on the Slave Coast reported that rum had become the “chief barter” there even for gold, let alone slaves. 

There was much more to show in the way of negative results for the people on the base of the triangle. In 1740, four out of every ten slaves bought by the Codrington Plantation in Barbados died within three years.  We must not belabor the New England divines alone for their flexible ethics.  They were drawing on an old tradition. Since the Codrington Plantation was owned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, its overseers branded slaves on the chest with “SOCIETY,” to remind them and others that these human chattels were doing the Lord’s work. James Oglethorpe when he founded Georgia tried to keep out both rum and slavery – with only very temporary success. The great evangelist George Whitefield sympathized with the colonists against John Oglethorpe, who he complained deprived them of - rum and slaves.

The heartland of abolitionism, piety and the Union in the Civil War, and Prohibitionism afterwards, has not often been ecstatic about being reminded of its close connections to rum and the lash. So popular histories have tended, if anything, to minimize both.

Even at the time, there were some mild signs of embarrassment about the business. For example, Captain David Lindsay of Newport called the vessels engaged in the trade “rum Ships” rather than slave ships and another slaver captain referred to “us rum men.” Even the rum for the slave trade was euphemized into “Guinea Rum.” As Taussig put the hypocrisy, “New Englanders in honesty referred to ‘Missionaries on deck and rum in the hold.’”[xi]

“Guinea Rum” was what we now call overproof. It was double or even triple distilled to save the cost of freight, and water would be added at the destination to get it to the appropriate and more drinkable strength.  Champlin’s trade book of the Rhode Island slaver, the Sloop Adventure, records that they traded 500 more gallons of rum than they had shipped – despite evaporation,­– which could have been sharp practice ­– or just normal business.[xii] 

As Simeon Potter, who had himself made his fortune privateering, ordered his Captain Earle of the King George in 1764 “Make Yr Chief Trade with the Blacks and Little or none with the white people if possible to be avoided. Worter yr rum as much as possible and sell as much by short mesuer as you can.”

One could say that Potter’s political principles were just as flexible. Despite calling his ships “The Prince Charles” and “The King George”, he became a superpatriot at the time of Revolution and was made Major General of the Rhode Island Colonial Forces. More consistently, he was as remiss at paying taxes to the revolutionary government as he had been to the royal government.

He anticipated his successors in American politics by having his legal residence in the town of Swansey, Massachusetts, where the taxes were much lower than in Bristol RI, where he made most of his money. Neither tax evasion, nor slave trading stopped him finishing his days as a vestryman at St Michael’s church in Bristol.  It was what Weedon called “A casuistry of culture, combined with rude impassioned humanity- a commingled hash of Satanic civilization and simple savage nature. ” that enabled such to speak of the inalienable rights of man, and liberty or death, while either dealing in slaves, or owning them. [xiii]

And what was the price of soul? In 1764 it was   £12, - or 110 gallons of rum in the standard unit of exchange. [xiv] In 1755 was 799 gallons of rum, two barrels of beef and one of pork for four men, three women, three girls and one boy.

Twenty years later, just before the Revolution, Rhode Islander Aaron Lopez was paying only 22 gallons a head.[xv] 

George Washington was perhaps the most outstanding example of weighing souls against spirits and the osmosis of deceit involved in the process. In 1766, while still a British officer and a gentleman, the future President shipped off a slave called Tom to the West Indies to be sold in exchange for other things, a hogshead of best Jamaican rum.[xvi]

With no truth in advertising law to inhibit him, he did not tell prospective purchasers that Tom seemed to have nursed the spirit of independence and freedom that later canonized his master and was being sold because he was “unruly.”  Somehow, it seems more shocking that he actually sent Tom to sell himself! He sent him to the Captain of a sloop bound for the Caribbean with a letter saying that “With this letter comes a negro (Tom) which I beg the favor of you to sell in any of the islands you may go to, for whatever he will fetch, and bring me in return for him,

One hhd. of best molasses

One ditto of best rum

One barrel of lymes, if good & cheap

One pot tamarinds, containing about 10 lbs.

Two small ditto of mixed sweetmeats about 5 lbs each.
And the residue, much or little in good old spirits.”[xvii]

Setting the price of a human being in such tawdry trade goods rather than in coin of the realm appears more shocking even if the effect is the same. To sell ones own soul for a cask of rum is one thing, but to sell someone else’s certainly tarnishes the halo of the founding father.

Like most people of taste, Washington preferred the West Indian to the New England rum, just as he preferred the Virginian definition of freedom to that elaborated by Lord Mansfield in England in his famous declaration that slavery was illegal in Britain itself. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Samuel Johnson asked, and has never been adequately answered.

But one of the side effects of the Revolution for freedom and liberty was that a critical shortage of New England rum affected all the slave traders along the coast. The locals had become habituated and were unhappy with the substitutes.

[i] Tree 19

[ii] Tree 11,12

[iii] Beckles, Barbados 33

[iv] Washington Diaries, q in Taussig,  p 37

[v] Smith, 157

[vi] Dunn 337

[vii] Huetz de Lemp 88

[viii] see Barty-King, p 158 TK original

[ix] Weedon op cit., cited in Taussig 18

[x] Taussig 155

[xi] Taussig xi

[xii] (appendix Taussig)

[xiii] Taussig 102

[xiv] Taussig 97)

[xv] Thomas 328

[xvi] Aykroyd 92

[xvii] Taussig 27


This article is adapted from the book Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776, Nation Books, July 2005.