The precursors to rum date back to antiquity. Development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane juice is believed to have first occurred either in ancient India or in China, and to have spread from there. An example of such an early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years. Marco Polo also recorded a 14th-century account of a “very good wine of sugar” that was offered to him in the area that became modern-day Iran.
The first distillation of rum took place on the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean in the 17th century. Plantation slaves first discovered that molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, could be fermented into alcohol. Later, distillation of these alcoholic byproducts concentrated the alcohol and removed impurities, producing the first true rums. Tradition suggests rum first originated on the island of Barbados. However, in the decade of the 1620s, rum production was recorded in Brazil. A liquid identified as rum has been found in a tin bottle found on the Swedish warship Vasa, which sank in 1628.
A 1651 document from Barbados stated, “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”
Pirates carrying rum to shore to purchase slaves as depicted in The Pirates Own Book by Charles Ellms
After rum’s development in the Caribbean, the drink’s popularity spread to Colonial North America. To support the demand for the drink, the first rum distillery in the British colonies of North America was set up in 1664 on present-day Staten Island. Boston, Massachusetts had a distillery three years later. The manufacture of rum became early Colonial New England’s largest and most prosperous industry. New England became a distilling center due to the technical, metalworking and cooperage skills and abundant lumber; the rum produced there was lighter, more like whiskey. Rhode Island rum even joined gold as an accepted currency in Europe for a period of time. Estimates of rum consumption in the American colonies before the American Revolutionary War had every man, woman, or child drinking an average of 3 imperial gallons (14 l) of rum each year.
To support this demand for the molasses to produce rum, along with the increasing demand for sugar in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, a labor source to work the sugar plantations in the Caribbean was needed. A triangular trade was established between Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonies to help support this need. The exchange of slaves, molasses, and rum was quite profitable, and the disruption to the trade caused by the Sugar Act in 1764 may have even helped cause the American Revolution. In the slave trade, rum was also used as a medium of exchange. For example, the slave Venture Smith, whose history was later published, had been purchased in Africa for four gallons of rum plus a piece of calico.
The popularity of rum continued after the American Revolution, with George Washington insisting on a barrel of Barbados rum at his 1789 inauguration.
Rum started to play an important role in the political system; candidates attempted to influence the outcome of an election through their generosity with rum. The people would attend the hustings to see which candidate appeared more generous. The candidate was expected to drink with the people to show he was independent and truly a republican. In the 1833 Mississippi state senate election, one candidate, Judge Edward Turner, poured his drinks and socialized with the people. He was more personal and it appeared as if he was going to win. The other candidate, a Methodist parson named Dick Stewart, announced he would not be pouring their drinks and they could have as much as they wanted; Dick Stewart won.
Eventually the restrictions on sugar imports from the British islands of the Caribbean, combined with the development of American whiskey, led to a decline in the drink’s popularity in North America.
Rum’s association with piracy began with British privateers trading on the valuable commodity. As some of the privateers became pirates and buccaneers, their fondness for rum remained, the association between the two only being strengthened by literary works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
The association of rum with the Royal Navy began in 1655, when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum.
Navy Rum was originally a blended rum mixed from rums locally produced in the West Indies. It varies in strength from 95.5 Proof (47.75% ABV) to 114 Proof (57% ABV).
While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon had the rum ration watered producing a mixture that became known as grog. While many believe the term was coined in honor of the grogram cloak Admiral Vernon wore in rough weather, the term predates his famous order. It probably originates in the West Indies, perhaps of African etymology. The Royal Navy continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a “tot,” until the practice was abolished after 31 July 1970.
Today, a tot (totty) of rum is still issued on special occasions, using an order to “splice the mainbrace”, which may only be given by the Queen, a member of the royal family or, on certain occasions, the admiralty board in the UK, with similar restrictions in other Commonwealth navies. Recently, such occasions have included royal marriages or birthdays, or special anniversaries. In the days of daily rum rations, the order to “splice the mainbrace” meant double rations would be issued.
A legend involving naval rum and Horatio Nelson says that following his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s body was preserved in a cask of rum to allow transportation back to England. Upon arrival, however, the cask was opened and found to be empty. The [pickled] body was removed and, upon inspection, it was discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all the rum, hence the term “Nelson’s blood” being used to describe rum. It also serves as the basis for the term tapping the admiral being used to describe surreptitiously sucking liquor from a cask through a straw. The details of the story are disputed, as many historians claim the cask contained French brandy, whilst others claim instead the term originated from a toast to Admiral Nelson. Variations of the story, involving different notable corpses, have been in circulation for many years. The official record states merely that the body was placed in “refined spirits” and does not go into further detail.
The Royal New Zealand Navy was the last naval force to give sailors a free daily tot of rum. The Royal Canadian Navy still gives a rum ration on special occasions; the rum is usually provided out of the commanding officer’s fund, and is 150 proof (75%). It is consumed on the order “up spirits”. The order to “splice the mainbrace” (i.e. take rum) can be given by the Queen as commander-in-chief, as occurred on 29 June 2010, when she gave the order to the Royal Canadian Navy as part of the celebration of their 100th anniversary.
Rum was also occasionally consumed mixed with gunpowder, either to test the proof of an alcohol ration (if the alcohol was diluted, the gunpowder would not ignite after being soaked with alcohol) or to seal a vow or show loyalty to a rebellion.
Rum became an important trade good in the early period of the colony of New South Wales. The value of rum was based upon the lack of coinage among the population of the colony, and due to the drink’s ability to allow its consumer to temporarily forget about the lack of creature comforts available in the new colony. The value of rum was such that convict settlers could be induced to work the lands owned by officers of the New South Wales Corps. Due to rum’s popularity among the settlers, the colony gained a reputation for drunkenness, though their alcohol consumption was less than levels commonly consumed in England at the time.
Australia was so far away from Britain that the convict colony, established in 1788, faced severe food shortages, compounded by poor conditions for growing crops and the shortage of livestock. Eventually it was realized that it might be cheaper for India, instead of Britain, to supply the settlement of Sydney. By 1817, two out of every three ships which left Sydney went to Java or India, and cargoes from Bengal fed and equipped the colony. Casks of Bengal Rum (which was reputed to be stronger than Jamaican Rum, and not so sweet) were brought back in the depths of nearly every ship from India — although taken to shore clandestinely—to the dismay of the governors. Britons living in India grew wealthy through sending ships to Sydney “laden half with rice and half with bad spirits.”
Rum was intimately involved in the only military takeover of an Australian government, known as the Rum Rebellion. When William Bligh became governor of the colony, he attempted to remedy the perceived problem with drunkenness by outlawing the use of rum as a medium of exchange, but in response to Bligh’s attempt to regulate the use of rum, in 1808, the New South Wales Corps marched with fixed bayonets to Government House and placed Bligh under arrest. The mutineers continued to control the colony until the arrival of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1810.