An unholy trinity: sugar, rum and slaves

By Lennox Farrell Friday December 28 2012 in Opinion
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The commercial crop tied most specifically to the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean was sugar. Along with its derivative, rum, sugar and slavery remain Europe’s unholy trinity.


Generally, enslaving Africans and the profitability of commercial agriculture were the twin engines powering the rise of European industrialization, the scientific revolution, capitalism, increased population growth – occurring from improved diets using new foods such as tomatoes, corn and limes – increased migration and changing roles for men, women and children.


In addition, along with sugar in the Caribbean, other crops behind this European-controlled commercial agriculture were tobacco in Virginia and the Carolinas and rice in Georgia and South Carolina.


Cotton, grown all over, thereby changing clothing worn from animal skins and wool to fabric, became so profitable it spawned a Civil War (1861-1865). With British support for the South, anti-slavery Americans coined the saying, “Britannia no longer rules; cotton is king”. In short, slavery and commercial agriculture were hand-in-glove, seamless in unison.


The number of slaves snatched between the 15th and the 19th centuries are conservatively estimated at about 12 million. Some idea of what these numbers represent is seen in demographic maps today comparing Africa and Europe over this period.


While the two continents were almost identical in population in the 15th century, Europe’s population had doubled by the 19th century. The increase in population occurred despite Europeans migrating en masse to places like America and Australia.


But what is specific to rum and slavery? Among other things was that in Europe, water was a vast health hazard. Drinking this badly polluted water was insanitary and potentially lethal. Thus, beverages like beer and rum were a means to try to stay alive.


Here, I am indebted to citing and paraphrasing several authorities, in that:


“Of all places where sugar refining at one time became the most profitable industry was New York. This is because sugar processing in the colonial era needed large quantities of wood, a resource relatively scarce in the Caribbean but abundant in New England.


“New Englanders not only traded wood for sugar and molasses, but also imported raw molasses to ferment into rums. However, because European refiners dominated the market, manufacturers in North America had to import bulk molasses, sugar’s by-product, to thereby compete.


“In fact, as early as 1664, Dutch-Americans were distilling rum on Staten Island in New York. By the 1700s, New England distilleries were producing millions of gallons of cheap rum to supply traders that could be exchanged for slaves. Once the slave ships arrived in Africa, merchants could buy an adult for 110-130 gallons of rum, or a child for about 80 gallons.


In addition, producing rum per gallon cost as little as five-and-a-half pence. In 1746, a slave could be purchased for about £5 and auctioned in the West Indies for £30-£80. In Rhode Island, slave traders owned and operated 30 rum distilleries, capable of loading over 150 slave ships. In that year, it is estimated that the slave traders there exchanged rum for over 106,000 Africans. In a vicious cycle of profit, once brought to the islands, the enslaved would produce sugar, yielding molasses to distill into rum to exchange for more slaves.”


Before considering how profitable it was to increase the need for rum, and therefore for growing sugar and meeting the labour intensive demands of sugar plantations, it is interesting to look at how sugar was processed into molasses – formerly an unprofitable by-product – and then into rum.


One writer describes the process:


“A mass of useless scummings would be skinned off the boiling cauldrons during the cane-juice reduction…what emerged was molasses.”


On occasion, to speed up the fermentation (of molasses distilled into rum): “A distiller might toss into the putrid mix, the carcasses of dead animals…including waste emptied from chamber pots.”


Finally, with rum so much in demand, and “rum running” becoming so profitable, pirates, freebooters and buccaneers turned from pillaging treasure galleons to cargo ships carrying bulk sugar.


In fact, one of these pirates, Captain Morgan, is immortalized as the name of a select rum today. Thankfully, rum is fermented differently today than it was in the past.



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