Rum: Fuel For the Modern World

Ian Williams knows rum, and he knows it far better than you, or I, or anyone we know.

His interest in the libation began as a boy growing up in a Liverpool, England council estate -- the American equivalent of a housing project. Williams' dad couldn't afford much at Christmastime, but he always scrounged up enough to buy a sole, special bottle of rum ("Usually Demerara," Williams recalls) to help stay warm during the snowy season.

A frequent AlterNet contributor and a U.N. correspondent for The Nation, Williams delves into the drink's remarkable history in his latest book, Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776.

Hopping the globe from Haiti to Cuba to Boston to explore various countries' unique rums and their backgrounds, Williams uncovers historical connections most Americans never knew existed. He studies the liquor's sordid ties to the slave trade, and the ways rum contributed to the decimation of many of New England's native populations. Most importantly, he examines how rum "put a whole new light on the motives of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic."

From his New York home, Williams spoke with AlterNet about his beloved beverage -- he collects bottles of rum from around the world, as well as labels, advertisements and paraphernalia -- and its distinguished role as "the lubricant and fuel for the whole engine of commerce that made the modern world."

Where did you find the inspiration for this book?

I have always associated rum with Christmas, for reasons to do with post-war rationing in Britain and my father's time as a merchant seaman. But I was recently in the Caribbean, and as I was sampling the fine rums of Martinique, I realized that the island was filled with graveyards of British soldiers. It occurred to me that the 18th-century Caribbean was the Persian Gulf of its day. This is where hundred of thousands of foreigners came to fight each other for control over small islands. And the reasons were similar: sugar was money. It was sugar and rum that made the British Navy what it was. It allowed the British treasury to pay the national debt and to effectively win wars with the French.

How did you go about researching the book?

I don't really regret to say that a lot of the research I did was absolutely irrelevant to the book, but it taught me a lot about rum. It was fascinating because it took me into a lot of history -- particularly about the American Revolution. I developed an appreciation for how the modern world developed the way it did around the Atlantic seaboard.

Rum was such an integral part of it. This has been written out because of Prohibitionism and temperance. The founding fathers' connection to booze was omitted from American history books, along with the whole role of rum in the American Revolution, the development of the northeast colonies, and its tie-in with slavery. We all in the north look down on the south as the old slave-holding stronghold, but the north actually transported most of those slaves and paid for it with rum.

Can you explain the north's role in this trading cycle?

The northeast is very barren. Agriculturally, it has very low productivity. The Yankees traded all over the world and often doubled as smugglers. They smuggled molasses from the French colonies that they made into rum. They drank prodigious quantities of it themselves on a per capita basis, because it was a major food item, especially in the winter.

Then they would use some of it to trade with the Native Americans, and a significant portion of it was taken to the west coast of Africa where they traded it for slaves with the local kings. That was where the American triangle trade came in: rum from New England for slaves, and molasses up from the Caribbean. It was a pretty unholy commerce, but it was what developed the northeastern states, both commercially and industrially.

What role did rum play in relation to Native Americans?

Well, to some extent it was a cultural thing. They had never been introduced to hard liquor on this scale before, and they had completely different ideas about it. It was a sort of spiritual experience. They just knocked the stuff back, and from what I can gather, in Native American tribal custom, a person who was drunk was not responsible for his actions. In fact, the British colonial officials also made it a rule that they wouldn't recognize any treaties or land sales that were conducted with Native Americans when they were drunk.

Basically, the Native Americans' economic role was to provide furs from trapping. They paid for that in rum. The traders' excuse was that if they paid the Native Americans in clothes and food that they had enough of, they wouldn't do it. Whereas rum was a desirable commodity that they had access to, and there was no end to what they could drink.

This also devastated the ecology because they trapped out and had to go further and further infield. It was unsustainable for the Indians because they were at the tail end of massive harvesting.

And getting drunk messed up their society as a social structure, making them vulnerable to diseases, attacks, cheating and takeover. Benjamin Franklin actually described it as something that was pretty much designed by providence to clear "the savages" away from these territories.

Where did you travel to research your book?

In my travels, I picked up rum from India, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Croatia, Czech Republic - rum from almost everywhere. But most of the research was in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, you have this sort of microcosm of the world. You have the Dutch, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Americans, and Danes. They all had colonies in the Caribbean. And the region shares this common thread of rum -- that's the bedrock similarity. The development of the drink varies from place to place.

The English-speaking countries were way ahead, because there was no serious domestic spirit industry for them to compete with. The French, Spanish and Portuguese inhibited rum production in their colonies because it competed with brandy production back home. They didn't get in to the better quality stuff until much later on, which left the field free for the British and the Americans to develop, drink and appreciate it.

What impact do you think rum has had on the modern world?

It's just another commodity. In America, in particular Bacardi -- during Prohibition and afterwards -- developed a huge position as a very bland spirit to be used for mixing. [Bacardi has] basically used their monopoly position to swamp out other entrants into the market, which is a shame.

Rum could be a development tool for the Caribbean. The islands can do much better by selling their high value-added premium spirit than they could by trying to sell sugar onto a world market dominated by heavily subsidized high-fructose corn syrup and European beet sugar. It makes much more sense for these islands to make rum, brand it and sell it on the world market. But always, with the world trade stuff, they meet a lot of resistance. Such was the case of Bacardi and Fidel Castro with Havana Club.

Can you discuss the feud between Castro and the Bacardi family?

Bacardi and several of the other big rum producers actually supported Castro financially when he was up in the mountains. When Castro marched into Havana with his column with Che Guevara, there was a big banner on the Bacardi building in downtown Havana with a placard saying "Gracias a Fidel," for getting rid of Batista. And the first trade delegation to the U.S. actually included several leading members of the Bacardi family.

But when things fell out, and Fidel took a pro-Soviet turn, he nationalized Bacardi. It's interesting because it didn't have that much of an effect. Bacardi was the original trans-global corporation. It had already shifted its headquarters to the Bahamas so that it got British Empire preferences. It had also opened its biggest plant in Puerto Rico so that it had that point of access to the American market.

Cuba was already almost just a branch office for the actual industrial empire because they had distilleries around the world and technically they were headquartered elsewhere. But there was a grudge. Bacardi bankrolled the Cuban American National Foundation for many years, thereby buying Congress.

It came as no surprise that when Havana Club was launched onto the world market, with the help of the French spirits company, Bacardi did everything they could legally in the U.S. to frustrate it -- hence the big battles about the trademark for Havana Club, which Bacardi keeps losing in the courts and then winning in the Congress because they keep buying an amendment that covers whatever case they lost.

Talk a little bit about how rum is marketed and advertised.

It's almost the subject for another book -- an illustrative book. I've collected a lot of labels, and some of them, especially the French ones, are not at all politically correct. There are caricatures of black people - that's one whole line of iconography. Then there is the nautical connection: sailors and pirates. And the Spanish have this conquistador image which is slightly strange because the conquistadors didn't drink rum until much later, but what the hell, we're talking marketing here.

Do you think trends in rum's marketing and advertising has shifted over the years? Are there different images now?

Well, Captain Morgan has been transformed from the iconic pirate into a swashbuckling, romantic, and mischievous figure. Now he's a sort of lifestyle model for the young 20s-to-30s set who are supposed to drink high-value-added spirits.

There are lots of rum companies coming along now which are struggling with how to market it, how to get these people to buy rum as opposed to vodka. Vodka is essentially alcohol and water. That's always a triumph in marketing: when you can take something that is two very simple ingredients and persuade people that this bottle is better than the other.

With rum, you really can taste the difference. There are so many different ways of making it and ageing it.

What I really like is sipping rums -- the ones that you don't need to mix. You can roll them around your mouth and drink [them] like a single malt.

Of course, when you taste rums, you're supposed to roll it around your mouth and then spit it out. But I always feel that part of the tasting experience is to feel it hitting the esophagus, the liver, and then the brain cells. The experience isn't complete without it.

What are some of your favorite rums? How do the mainstream liquor-store versions like Captain Morgan and Bacardi stack up?

Personally, I think they're awful... My particular favorite is Rum Barbencourt from Haiti. I went to the distillery in Haiti, which is pretty much the only industry working there. They produce this brand that you actually have to strain hard just to get the "rum-ishness" out of. It could almost be old single malt or a cognac.

The French Islands -- Martinique and Guadalupe -- make some really nice aged rums. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Guatemala also produce some really good rums. I tasted one last night from Venezuela called "Diplomatico" and I wondered if, post-Chavez, they were going to introduce a brand called "un-Diplomatico."

What's rum's connection to folklore?

Rum has a lot more history than any other drink. And it's still the biggest, most widespread spirit in the whole world. My slogan, which I haven't charged the Caribbean Tourism Organization for, is "rum is the global spirit with its warm, beating heart in the Caribbean."

The biggest myths are all connected with pirates. I thought it was all summed up with Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, when he's wandering around saying, "It's the sun, sand, and rum ... it's the Caribbean," and then he falls over backwards.

I was in upstate New York this time last year, going to a friend's house, and I tried to buy a bottle of rum for him but the liquor store owner had sold out, and he said, "Oh well; it's winter."

It's self-explanatory. The people bought rum in winter. There's a strong folklore that it's good against colds and flu, and that it keeps the winter chill out.

The French government in WWI actually nationalized the entire stock of rum in the Caribbean for use for the troops to fight the Spanish flu. It was official endorsement. For many years in America, British rum was regarded as specific for colds -- a spoonful of rum with sugar or black currant juice to fight off a cold. I don't think it actually does anything about the virus but it certainly makes you feel a lot better.

What about rum's connection to the navy?

The British instituted rum by giving rum rations to the sailors. At the height of the British Empire, British sailors were given over half a pint of rum every day. It's always been a great mystery to me how they got the ships out of port, let alone won battles.

It was a big bonding ritual on the ships as well. It was an entitlement. The British admiralty resisted interfering with the sailors' sense of entitlement. The American Navy swapped rum for whisky in the early 19th century, during the Civil War, and then abolished the ration entirely.

But the British didn't abolish it until the 1970s. One of the convincing things they did for a PR stunt was to breathalyze the people who were driving the nuclear submarines for Britain. After they'd had their rum ration, they weren't fit to drive their cars home from the naval base, but they were being considered fit to drive around with submarines filled with nuclear missiles.

What was most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

With the Puritanical, self-righteous image of America, the idea that the founding fathers were a bunch of lushes doesn't sit well. Even when I've done readings, I've said that people think that the standard of American politics has declined, and present-day politicians don't match up to the founding fathers. Well, they do.

The founding fathers were rogues and scallywags. It's a different look from the Disney World version of American history and world history. One of the particular points that came up, and hasn't really been picked up, is just how much of colonial American institutions came from the Caribbean.

It was Barbados in the mid-17th century that first produced the slogan, "No taxation without representation." "The President" was the title of the leaders of the legislatures in all of these colonies. They were all fairly autonomous, and people like George Washington visited Barbados and actually considered settling there. It was actually in Barbados that the British Empire first legalized black slavery.

Up until then, they were indentured -- people signed up for five or seven years and worked for one person. They were considered free, but they couldn't run away. That's how they originally staffed the colonies in the south before they started bringing slaves. British law had ruled in the 16th century that there was no such thing as slavery in Britain anymore.

So after Barbados, the colonies actually began to develop a black code which ruled that Africans, by their very nature, were unfit to be free. This put them in a separate position from the white indentured servants. They basically invented slavery in the Anglo Saxon sense. And it was from there that it went north along the coast and up into the southern colonies. It all came from the Caribbean, and it all came on the trade winds along with the sugar and molasses.


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