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When I think of rum, I think of pirates. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, right? And when I think of pirates, I think of treasure chests full of gold, silver, precious gems, buried treasure. The rum seems recreational, dastardly, debaucherous, trivial. The treasure, now that’s serious. That’s the job. There’s no messing around with the treasure. But, did know, for many in the business of maritime trade and, yes even piracy, the rum was the treasure? Did you know that rum, while likely started by enslaved Africans, later became the currency with which they were bought and sold? And did you know that rum was such a valuable commodity in colonial America, it helped open the door to the American Revolution, changing the world forever? Let’s fix that.     


Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. The story of rum is one of extreme contradictions - freedom and oppression, debauchery and integrity, expansion and exploitation. I had no idea how much this seemingly trivial spirit has impacted history. Each drop of rum tells a story that contradicts the next. In one drop - the story of enslaved Africans forced to labor on Caribbean sugar plantations, searching for any small reprieve from daily persecution. In the next, the story of men, greedy and blinded by privilege trading barrels of liquor to purchase other men as property. In another drop - the expansion of territory, development of industry, and establishment of cities and towns, colonies, ports, thriving civilizations. The next - the decimation of indigenous people, destroyed by foreign diseases, alcoholism, forced off their ancestral lands, pushed down to the lowest rungs of society. Another drop - the story of a young country, hungry for independence, eager to sever the ties that bind it to a tyrannical throne. And yet, next drop, too weak to face the tyranny it shows its own people in the form of slavery it acknowledges is evil but refuses to put a stop to. Each drop contradicts the next until you’re too intoxicated to tell where one story ends and the next begins. And that, my friends, is my kind of history. 


I have a list of episode ideas, I’ve mentioned this before. I add to it every now and then. It’s more of a brain dump than anything. Some of the ideas have been on the list since I first dreamt up History Fix and they haven’t found their way to becoming episodes yet. This story didn’t happen like that though. This one sought me out when I least expected it. My birthday was last month and all I wanted for my birthday was to get away from my kids for a minute. No, that sounds terrible. I was with them all day, okay? We went to the pumpkin patch, it was a whole thing. I just wanted, like a nice evening out. Which I got, thank you grandma. Got a date night with my husband. We went out to dinner and then we popped into a local rum distillery, Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo on Roanoke Island, yes of Lost Colony fame. Our friend Matt Joyner works there and we’ve been trying to get in there for a drink like all summer so, mid October, finally pulled it off. It was fantastic. The rum was great and then Matt was like “do you guys want a tour?” and we’re like “um, yes.” So he took us into this back room and it’s like a steampunk science lab meets Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. It was way cool. There was like this giant copper tower thing with little porthole windows all the way up. Stuff was like bubbling in one room and then there was another room just stacked floor to ceiling with big wooden barrels. Not at all what I was expecting. Very Willy Wonka, but rum instead of chocolate. 


Anyway, Matt’s explaining the process, how they distill the rum, what all the crazy machinery does, and then he throws a fun fact in there, he’s like “you know, rum comes from the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, the slaves invented it, and then it was used to absolutely destroy…” and I’m like “wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute… We’re doing an episode on rum.” And so this one just fell into my lap really. So I had to sit down with Matt to learn more.


[Matt Joyner interview]


 He also recruited the best in the business to help me tell this story.  


[Scott Smith interview]


That’s Matt’s boss, Scott. He’s in the business of making rum and he’s also a history fan so of course I had to talk with him. Then Scott put me in contact with Dr. Frederick Smith, associate professor and global studies coordinator at North Carolina A &T State University in Greensboro. He’s also the author of a book called “Caribbean Rum: a Social and Economic History,” which I have linked in the description of course. He’s THE go to guy when it comes to unpacking the convoluted history of rum so I’ll let him get us started: 


[Dr. Smith interview]


So rum comes from sugar cane and sugar, as I’ve mentioned before, was an incredibly valuable trade good in early America, often referred to as “white gold.” So while everyone’s out there searching for treasure chests full of gold coins, it’s likely a lot of the treasure was actually barrels of sugar and rum that have long since disintegrated at the bottom of the sea. During the days of colonization, the Caribbean exploded as a major producer of sugar. It had the perfect climate for it. Europeans had no problem pushing the indigenous people, weakened by disease, off their lands, setting up sugar plantations, and importing enslaved Africans to do the back breaking labor for free. 


But sugar did not originate in the Americas like potatoes, tobacco, and pumpkins. There was already sugar cane growing in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. However, it didn’t make its way to Europe until around the 11th century when it was brought back by soldiers returning from the Crusades in the Middle East. But it remained an extremely rare luxury in Europe where they mostly continued to use honey as a sweetener. It’s incredibly difficult to refine sugar out of sugar cane so even in places where sugarcane grew naturally, sugar was expensive. In Europe, where it was imported, it was mostly unattainably expensive. 


So if sugar came from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, why didn’t rum originate there as well? Dr. Smith seemed certain that rum originated in the Caribbean 


[Dr. Smith interview]


It’s likely they did make some form of alcoholic beverage out of sugar cane but it would have been more similar to wine or beer as opposed to liquor. 


[Dr. Smith interview]


According to Alexandru Micu in an article for ZME Science titled “Sugarcane, slaves, empire-toppling - the story of rum,” the earliest alcohols made from sugar would have been similar to Brum which is a traditional alcoholic beverage from Malaysia. Micu notes that Italian explorer Marco Polo claimed he was offered a quote “wine of sugar” while in the area of modern day Iran and reported that it was very good. These fermented beverages - brum, “wine of sugar” - these weren’t quite rum. Micu calls them “rum-like drinks” and that distinction comes down to the way they’re made. If you leave a bunch of grapes sitting out, they’ll eventually ferment naturally into wine. To make liquor, rum, is more complicated. So I asked my experts. Here’s Scott


[Scott Smith interview]


Matt chimes [Matt Joyner interview]


So rum-like drinks, wines and beers made of sugar are basically a precursor to rum. They’re the first step in the process of making rum but they aren’t rum because they aren’t distilled. According to Dr. Smith, though, distillation was a thing. It was an emerging technology, just not with sugar cane yet. 


[Dr. Smith interview]


But let’s go back to sugar because that’s where the story of rum begins. After enough centuries of knowing about the existence of sugar but not really being able to access it or afford it, Europe had had enough. They wanted sugar. Sugar’s like that, right? Dangerous stuff. So they decided to start growing it themselves. This started with Portugal which had colonized the Madeira Islands off the west coast of Africa in the early 1400s. Here they established 200 sugar plantations and built 80 sugar mills. But, as I said before, sugar is a hard business. It’s extremely time consuming, extremely hard work, and it’s very time sensitive. If the sugar cane isn’t processed into sugar in a timely fashion, the whole harvest could rot. There’s a lot of pressure. So they have all this difficult, dangerous work that needs to be accomplished quickly in order to profit from it. They needed a lot of manpower and they needed to cut their costs. Slavery was the natural solution. Portugal began importing enslaved people from nearby Africa to work on these sugar plantations. And with free labor from these enslaved Africans, Portuguese sugar began to out-compete sugar from the Middle East, making Madeira the world’s biggest sugar exporter by 1500. 


Then there’s Christopher Columbus, this guy, just the shock waves he sent through history. I wonder if he had any idea how impactful his actions would become. 


[Dr. Smith interview] That’s Dr. Smith informing me that we have good ol’ Chris to thanks for the madness that’s about to ensue in the Caribbean. So, as Europeans continued to expand their empires and explore and settle in the Americas, they began to replicate Portugal’s sugar business model. It was working, let’s repeat it elsewhere. Plus the Caribbean had the perfect climate for sugar plantations. 


[Dr. Smith interview] Barbados and Jamaica especially became huge centers of sugar production and plantation owners were becoming very, very rich peddling this “white gold” they had produced with free, slave labor. As the industry grew, it created a need for more and more enslaved Africans to work the fields and the sugar mills fueling the triangle trade between Africa, America, and Europe. They had created a monster of a system whereby Europeans benefited immensely from the oppression of enslaved Africans and the conquest of land taken from indigenous Americans. All for sugar which, at this point, Europe was completely addicted to and couldn’t get enough of. So this sweet, seemingly innocent substance - the stuff of lollipops and birthday cakes - was fueling abusive colonial era slavery in the Americas. 


So let’s talk about the lives of the enslaved people working on Caribbean sugar plantations. Not good. I touched on this already in episode 12 about Abolition. Conditions for these people were absolutely abhorrent. They worked extremely long hours, sometimes on little sleep. They were often physically and sexually abused, easily and often separated from their family, sold with little warning to another plantation. The whole point of slave labor was that, number one, enslavers didn’t have to pay them. But also, number two, they didn’t have to ensure safe or fair working conditions. It was whatever really. They could do whatever to these people, make them do whatever they wanted and there was really no recourse. Enslaved people had no rights. 


So that’s a hard life, an insufferable life. It’s only natural that enslaved people would seek out some kind of escape from that kind of reality. And that escape throughout time is quite often alcohol. When sugarcane is processed into sugar, it leaves a by-product - molasses.


At the time, molasses was mostly considered a waste product by sugar producers so they weren’t concerned about what happened to it really. It was of little value to them. So enslaved people began taking the molasses left over after the sugar was produced and turning it into alcoholic beverages, rum-like drinks like beers and wines made from fermented molasses. Dr. Smith shared a wealth of knowledge on this 


[Dr. Smith interview]


So Dr. Smith talked about enslaved Africans bringing knowledge of fermentation to the Caribbean from West Africa, carrying this little bit of their culture with them but adapting it from palm wine into sugar wine, using what they had available. Scott mentioned something else I found interesting: 


[Scott Smith interview]


So West African fermentation techniques meet South American fermentation techniques but some question remains as to how and when people in the Caribbean took it to the next level and actually started distilling the fermented molasses into legit rum.


[Dr. Smith interview] However, by 1650, there is written evidence of a drink called “rumbullion” or sometimes “kill devil” being produced on the island of Nevis which is like east of Puerto Rico.  


So, pause for a minute. I live in a town called Kill Devil Hills. And, although I’ve dug and dug and dug looking for the history of this town name. It’s all very urban legendy. Which is weird, because the town was only incorporated and, I’m assuming, named officially in 1953. So I’ve always thought it weird that no one definitively knows the origin of the name. I’m assuming the area was called Kill Devil Hills long before the actual town was formed and that information was just sort of lost to time. But, I’m pretty sure there is a link to rum, which was often called “kill devil” in its infancy. 


Also not a coincidence that Scott and Matt’s very own Outer Banks Distilling names its rum Kill Devil Rum. So I wanted to find out more about the name. Here’s Scott: 


[Scott Smith interview]


According to Matt, rum took off in the Caribbean for a pretty specific reason 


[Matt Joyner interview]


Here’s Scott [Scott Smith interview]


As the popularity of rum grew, it soon reached the American colonies, what is now the United States, and they were fans. Colonists began distilling their own rum, importing sugar and molasses from Caribbean plantations. But rum became so much more than a beverage enjoyed by colonists, an escape for over-worked enslaved people. Its value grew to the extent that it actually transformed into a currency with purchasing power. After its prototype, at least, was likely invented by enslaved people, rum was then used to purchase more enslaved people from Africa. Let the horrible irony of that sink in for a moment. With rum as currency, a secondary triangle trade emerged. American colonists traded rum for enslaved Africans. They then traded those enslaved Africans to plantation owners in the Caribbean in exchange for sugar and molasses that they used to create more rum and the cycle continued. 


According to Marco Pierini in an article for Got Rum Magazine called “The Dark Side of Rum,” quote “Americans also entered the lucrative trade by using their locally produced cheap, strong rum. Without any moral qualms, but with a hint of embarrassment. For example, Captain David Lindsey 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’” end quote. 


We know that rum was used as currency to purchase enslaved people because we have detailed logs recording exactly how much rum was traded for what. English historian and writer Hugh Thomas recorded in his book “The Slave Trade” quote “In 1755 Caleb Godfrey, a slave captain from Newport, Rhode Island, bought four men, three women, three girls, and one boy for 799 gallons of rum, two barrels of beef and one barrel of pork, together with some smaller items; and in 1767 Captain William Taylor, acting for Richard Brew of Cape Coast, bought male slaves at 130 gallons each, women at 110, and young girls at 80. By 1773 the price was higher: 210 to 220 gallons per slave was paid by the captain of Aaron Lopez’ Cleopatra.” end quote. Can you imagine? Measuring the value of a human life in barrels of rum? How many barrels of rum do you think you’re worth? 


In his article “The Dark Side of Rum,” Marco Pierini brings up an interesting point. That rum, while initially used by enslaved people as a sort of escape, relief, was also strategically used by enslavers to further oppress enslaved people. According to Pierini, it was not uncommon for enslavers to intentionally distribute rum to enslaved people, sometimes on a holiday, sometimes after completing particularly hard or difficult work. He says quote “And yet, the drunkenness of the slaves, whichever way it may appear, was never a real moment of liberation, on the contrary it reasserted their condition of inferiority.” end quote. And then he cites the writing of Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery in 1838 and became an incredibly influential American abolitionist and author. Douglass wrote quote “The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen, by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed; many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field, feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.” end quote. 


Dr. Smith also brought up Frederick Douglass organically in our conversation, but he had a slightly different take on it. 


[Dr. Smith interview]


It makes sense to me that alcohol was involved in uprisings and revolts on plantations. It has a way of bringing people together, uniting people. It’s why we like to drink with someone, drinking is a very social thing. We bond while we’re drinking. Dr. Smith mentioned the West African custom of the “oath drink” that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Caribbean. 


[Dr. Smith interview]


Freedom, slavery, relief, oppression - rum is complicated and that’s not even the end of the story. Sometime in the 1700’s, France banned the production of rum in their colonies. France already had a liquor - Brandy. They didn’t need rum competing with brandy so they banned it. This had unintended consequences for British sugar producers. Sugar plantations in these French colonies had no need for molasses anymore. They couldn’t make rum with it. So there was a major drop in the price of molasses coming from French colonies. Which means, rum makers in colonial America started buying molasses from the French instead of the British. It was cheaper. Why not? This meant they could also sell their rum for less and still make a profit. So the rum coming from the American colonies was suddenly cheaper than British rum, but just as good. So everyone started buying American rum. This caused outrage in Great Britain. The rich people were not happy. Because if you’re in the rum business, if you have a plantation, sugar mills, rum stills, you’re very rich and rich people are very squeaky wheels which made this an issue of great importance. In 1733, Great Britain passed the Molasses Act which placed an exorbitant tax on molasses imported into the American colonies from non British plantations. 


So basically, they’re like “Okay the Americans are buying up all that cheap French molasses and turning it into cheap rum which is hurting the sales of our more expensive rum. Everyone is buying cheap American rum now. So the problem is the cheap French molasses. Let’s make French molasses more expensive by putting this crazy tax on it. That should even things back out.” Because, this is 1733, pre-revolutionary war. The American colonies are still very much under the control of the British crown and forced to pay whatever taxes the crown feels like doling out. 


But honestly, the Americans didn’t really take the molasses act seriously. They just started smuggling in foreign molasses so they didn’t have to pay the crazy high taxes. And it wasn’t very strongly enforced by the British either. They just sort of turned a blind eye. 


After the failure of the molasses act, many more taxes were imposed and actually enforced - the sugar act, the currency act, the quartering act, the stamp act… just so many taxes. They were over it. They were tired of paying all this money to Great Britain when they had no say in the way the money would be spent. No voice in the government. This is where the whole idea of no taxation without representation came from. But that molasses act, that early tax that no one paid or enforced. That did some damage. 


According to Alexandru Micu in that article for ZME science, quote “the damage had already been done since the Molasses Act. Political authority is a fickle thing. A large part of being in power is people believing that you are in power. The rampant evasion of the molasses tax — one that everyone could see and was part of — together with the resentment of the colonies towards a measure they perceived punished them unjustly, shattered the illusion of British supremacy over the Americas. This crack would eventually grow and help shape the events and sentiments that made the American colonies seek out their independence.” end quote. 


Dr. Smith mentioned this as well [Dr. Smith interview]


So while rum began with enslaved people, it’s then turned against them and used to fuel the slave trade and perpetuate slavery. It’s part of what helped build up this powerful, oppressive British empire in the Americas and then, with the passing of the molasses act, that crack opens up in the illusion of British supremacy which acts as a catalyst to bring the whole empire crashing down during the American Revolution. Rum is complicated. It’s a giant contradiction.  


Matt and Scott see rum through two lenses 


[Matt and Scott interview]


As does Dr. Smith:


[Dr. Smith interview]


And my head is still spinning a bit, after taking this all in, like I’ve had one too many sips of rum myself. Its convoluted past is intoxicating, drop by drop. But whether you’re tasting the drop of oppression and domination, or the drop of culture, tradition, pride, and resistance that made its way through all of that, I hope I leave you today with an appreciation of rum. Respect for its dark and stormy past and admiration for a people who clung to their roots when everything else was stripped away from them, roots that remain strong in the Caribbean today. So the next time you have a drink of rum, be sure to pour a little out for them.


Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix and a huge thank you to Matt and Scott over at Outer Banks Distilling, if you ever find yourself in historic downtown Manteo, North Carolina, be sure to pop into their Wheel House Lounge to try Kill Devil Rum for yourself. You’re likely to find Matt behind the bar and he’ll certainly make it worth your time. You can also head over to to learn more about what Matt and Scott do and to find out where else you can buy Kill Devil Rum. I’ll link that in the description. And of course thank you to Dr. Frederick Smith. His passion for this topic was truly palpable and you can learn so much more from his book “Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History” I have a link for that in the description as well. 


As always, I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.  


Information used in this episode was sourced from Food and Wine Magazine, Encyclopedia Britannica,, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, ZME Science, University of Oxford, and of course Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History by Dr. Frederick H. Smith. Links to all these sources can be found in the show notes. 

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