[ Kill-devil ]
The people have a very generous fashion that if one come to a house to inquire the way to any place, they will make him drink, and if the traveler does deny to stay to drink they take it very unkindly of him. —Henry Whistler on Barbados customs, 1655
Rum—a spirit distilled from the juice of a sugarcane plant or its by-products—was first invented in the early seventeenth century on the British island colony of Barbados.
Or not. In which case it may have been invented on the Spanish islands of Hispaniola or Cuba (where it would have been called aguadiente, or “burning water”), or by Portuguese colonists on the coast of Brazil (where it would later be called cachaça). Or possibly it was first distilled by the French on one of their Caribbean island strongholds (where the poorer grades of rum were known as tafia). On the other hand, it may have been first concocted in the 1400s somewhere in Europe by secretive alchemists searching for the elixir of life and feeding through their retorts whatever fermentable matter they could get their hands on. Or just maybe it was invented even earlier by an anonymous chemist tinkering near the cane fields of coastal India.
The thing is, no one really knows when rum first appeared. If you want to know about the history of sugar, overflowing archives provide enough information to lead to mental obesity. But for rum, it’s a starvation diet. The West Indian island of Barbados has long claimed that first Barbadians invented rum, and it’s telling that no historians have roused themselves to seriously dispute this point. Some, like rum expert Edward Hamilton, have argued that rum was first produced commercially in the Portuguese or Spanish colonies, probably in Brazil, and he has been rooting around for customs documents or ship manifests to back this up. He hasn’t found anything yet. (And he guesses he may never: Rum exports from the colonies were prohibited by Spain and Portugal, which meant any rum produced was smuggled and undocumented. And even if it had been documented, the ports of the West Indies were laid waste by attackers with numbing regularity, so the archives of the earliest days are often nonexistent.)
This much at least is known about rum: Sometime around the middle of the seventeenth century, an outbreak of rum occurred almost everywhere the Dutch, Spanish, French, and English were engaged in their New World errand-running. The British sea captain John Josselyn wrote of a dinner held on a ship off the coast of present-day Maine in September 1639, at which another captain toasted him with a pint of rum. Laws controlling the sale of rum abruptly cropped up in different colonies, as a warden in pursuit of a persistent truant—in Bermuda in 1653, in Connecticut in 1654, in Massachusetts in 1657.
Then, sometime shortly before 1650, rum surfaced at an extravagant feast held at the Barbados estate of James Drax, the most important planter on Great Britain’s most important island colony. For anyone curious about the cultural history of rum—or who wants to learn about the ancestry of that bottle of West Indian rum in the back of their liquor cabinet—I’d argue that this is as fine a place to begin the story as any.
Barbados is pear-shaped and just twenty-one miles long by fourteen miles wide—or about one-seventh the size of Rhode Island. On a map of the Caribbean, Barbados lies far to the east, like a wayward child refusing to stand in line with the rest of the Lesser Antilles, which sweep in a great arc from Puerto Rico to Trinidad. Adventurers from Portugal and Spain landed here in the sixteenth century, but finding no precious metals to mine nor Indians to enslave, they lingered only long enough to name the island “Los Barbados,” after the “bearded” fig trees. Barbados lay unmolested until 1625, when a British sailing ship stopped off while heading home from Brazil. The captain claimed the island for the British throne and reported on its pleasing qualities to Sir William Courteen, the ship’s owner. Courteen hastened to cobble together a syndicate, then dispatched a ship with supplies to support several dozen colonists. On February 20, 1627, eighty colonists—plus ten slaves captured along the way—disembarked near present-day Holetown on the island’s west coast.
The mandate given the first settlers by Courteen was not complicated: Go forth and produce. Specifically, produce for export such things as were in demand in England. The colonists tried growing cotton, indigo, and fustic wood, the latter a sort of tropical mulberry useful in making yellow dye. These crops did not produce great fortunes. Taking a cue from the colony at Virginia, which had been settled two decades earlier, the islanders planted tobacco, which was then the most profitable agricultural staple in the colonies. But a glut in London soon undercut prices, and Barbados tobacco was hampered by another problem: It was “so earthy and worthless,” wrote one seventeenth-century island visitor, that it provided “little or no return from England.” A 1628 shipment was described as “foul, full of stalks, and evil colored.” Even the islanders wouldn’t smoke it.
And then came sugar.
The species Saccharum officinarum (“sugar of the apothecaries”), a freakishly tall and sharp-edged grass, had first appeared around 4000 b.c. in Asia, most likely in Papua New Guinea, where primitive agriculturists had selected the sweetest canes for further breeding. These plants migrated eastward with traders, to India and on to the Mediterranean. In 325 b.c. a general under Alexander the Great came upon sugarcane for the first time and described it with wonder as a plant that “brings forth honey without the help of bees.”
Sugar soon became an essential crop in the colonial Atlantic islands off Africa, including Madeira, the Canary Islands, and the Azores. It made the leap to the New World with Christopher Columbus, whose father-in-law was a Madeira sugar planter. On the explorer’s second trip across the Atlantic in 1493, he brought live sugarcane seedlings and oversaw their planting on Hispaniola. The sugar grew fabulously, and colonists were quick to establish plantations over the next two decades in Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. The Portuguese, demonstrating a flair for running complex businesses in difficult environments far from home, planted cane aggressively on the damp Brazilian coast and brought in sugar presses and copper boiling vats from home. The number of sugar refineries in Brazil grew from 5 in 1550 to 350 less than a century later. With great quantities of sugar now being produced in the New World, the price fell, and many of the sugar producers of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic islands were ruined. The New World sugar era was dawning.
Barbados made the most of it. In England, the demand for sugar soared as it quickly evolved from a luxury for aristocrats to a staple for the masses. It was in great demand for making sweets, masking the taste of rancid meat, and sweetening new beverages, including coffee (which arrived in Britain in 1650), chocolate (1657), and tea (1660). Between 1660 and 1700, the per capita consumption of sugar in England quadrupled, and then it doubled again in the next quarter century. The value of sugar shipped to England and Wales was worth twice that of tobacco by the end of the seventeenth century.
With reports filtering home of great fortunes being made, thousands of British colonists boarded ships for the West Indies. The well-off paid for their outbound trips and brought enough cash to acquire some acreage and build a sugar works or two. Those unable to afford the £6 trip traded passage and board by signing on as indentured servants, typically committing to seven years of labor on a plantation, after which they would be freed and given a small parcel of land. A third group washed ashore on the islands: thieves and petty criminals, who were exiled from England to the West Indies much as later undesirables would be shipped off to Australia. Slaves from Africa, too, were beginning to arrive in great numbers against their will, imported by the sugar planters to work the expanding fields. The population of Barbados swelled from just 80 in 1627 to more than 75,000 by 1650.
James Drax—later Sir James Drax—arrived on Barbados in 1627 among the first wave of settlers. He began by planting tobacco, then switched to sugarcane. He quickly amassed an estate of 850 acres, which yielded a torrent of cash. Drax was the first to build island windmills, which were expensive but more efficient and productive than cattle-powered mills. His wealth grew, and he had plenty of company. “It is seldom seen that the ingenious or the industrious fail of raising their fortunes in any part of the Indies,” wrote one planter to an acquaintance in England. Another noted in 1655 that Barbados was “one of the richest spots of ground in the world,” adding that the gentry there “live far better than ours do in England.”
In England, architects had been flirting with a hybrid style for British manor houses, mixing elements of Gothic and classic. The results were often eye-catching, although not always in a good way. The planters commissioned dozens of similarly grand homes of coral stone smoothed with plaster. Drax’s great house was three stories and featured a carved mastic archway near a grand staircase, the whole pile capped with angular gables and studded with corner finials. Such homes were notably ill-suited for the tropical weather, and many were, oddly, built with fireplaces. One visitor marveled that the planters, who spent afternoons indoors drinking spirits and smoking pipes, did not spontaneously combust.
Just as the houses were ill-designed for the stifling heat, so, too, were colonial island fashions. Merchant ships laden with current London styles would arrive with jackets and gowns unsuitable for the oppressive tropics. Yet the fashionable were undaunted. “One may see men loaded and half melting under a ponderous coat and waistcoat,” noted an early visitor to Jamaica, another thriving British colony, “richly bedaubed with gold lace or embroidery on a hot day, scarcely able to bear them.”
Through happy circumstance, these planters inhabited one of those rare junctures of time and place when money seemingly tumbled out of the sky. Sugar was king, the source of instant fortunes, taking on the role that railroads, oil, and the Internet would later play in North America. In the mid-seventeenth century, Barbados was the wealthiest colony in the budding British empire, as well as its most populous. The free white men of the islands had a net worth several times that of even the most industrious colonists on the North American mainland. Barbados produced more sugar and employed more shippers than all the other British West Indian islands put together. The island’s moment was to last for decades; as late as 1715, the value of exports from Barbados exceeded not only that of the other islands, but of all the other British North American colonies (island and mainland) combined. The city of Bridgetown in the seventeenth century was bigger and more prosperous than Manhattan.
The wealth that flowed back to England was immense. A writer in 1708 likened Barbados to a massive gold or silver mine being excavated for the benefit of the homeland and claimed that trade with the island supported sixty thousand people in England. The other British islands, like St. Christopher, Nevis, Jamaica, and Antigua, also contributed to the fortunes flowing back across the Atlantic, and the planters and their agents saw little that couldn’t be improved with gilding. In one well-known encounter, King George III and his prime minister were riding near Weymouth, England, when they were all but forced off the road by an extravagant carriage accompanied by a great many outriders in flamboyant clothing. The king was informed that the procession was that of a sugar planter from Jamaica. “Sugar, sugar, hey? All that sugar!” said the king. “How are the duties, hey, Pitt, how are the duties?”
One of those attracted to Barbados was Richard Ligon, who arrived under circumstances not wholly of his own choosing. A British royalist who had lost his business during the convulsions of the English rebellion, Ligon set off for the island in June 1647 with five acquaintances. The group acquired and managed a sugar estate, and Ligon remained on the island until 1650. His account is not only the chief source of information about early island life, but an enchanting chronicle, in large part because Ligon never lost his capacity to marvel in the face of great hardships. Barbados was in the throes of a yellow fever epidemic when he arrived, with the disease (by one accounting) killing six thousand inhabitants. Ligon, who nearly died of the fever three times himself, wrote that “the living were hardly able to bury the dead.”
Yet Ligon was endlessly enthusiastic about the island’s charms, including the incomparable taste of pineapple juice (“certainly the Nectar which the Gods drunk”) and the succulence of the feral pigs descended from swine abandoned by early Portuguese mariners (“the sweetest flesh . . . and the loveliest to look on in a dish, either boyl’d, roasted, or bak’d”). Given his persistent good cheer, it’s all the more striking that Ligon wrote A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657) while confined to an English debtor’s prison, into which he was tossed upon his return from the West Indies. (Ligon’s experience shows that not every colonist came home burdened with fortune.)
Historian Lowell Ragatz has written that new arrivals on the island were often astounded by the “gastronomic feats” performed at plantation feasts. “In violation of all rules of dietetics, huge quantities of heavy food and drink were disposed of,” Ragatz wrote.
Indeed, Drax hosted one such feast, where the offerings might have intimidated Falstaff. Ligon was there, and he reported that it began with a first course of fourteen beef dishes, featuring a cow especially fattened in a private pasture of abundant forage. Its breast, rump, and cheeks were variously roasted, boiled, and baked. The legs and head went into a spiced stew, and the tongue and tripe were made into a meat pie seasoned with currants and finely minced sweet herbs.
Then came the second course. It included a leg of pork and boiled chicken and shoulder of mutton and a young goat, its belly filled with a pudding. There was veal loin dressed with oranges, lemons, and limes, and a suckling pig served in a sauce of claret, sage, nutmeg, and brains. (The pig was “the fattest, whitest, and sweetest in the world,” Ligon wrote.) Then came three turkeys and two capons and two hens (served with their own eggs) and four ducklings and three rabbits and eight turtledoves and, for good measure, Spanish bacon. And oysters and caviar and olives and a potato pudding and a piquant relish made of fish eggs.