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Rum History

Following is an excerpt from the book "The Rum Experience," this text is copyrighted by Rum Runner Press, Inc., it is used with permission from the author, all rights reserved.

"Rum owes its existence to sugar, plain and simple. To gain a better understanding of the importance of sugar in the economy of the West Indies and in that of the European markets, it is essential to be aware of certain key events. Perhaps, as you read through the following pages, you can create a mental image of what it was like to live in those times.

By the time you reach the end of this series of chronological events, I’m sure you’ll have a better understanding and appreciation of rum as a witness to greatness and sadness around the world.

1474 Genoese seaman Christopher Columbus, 23, begins discussing the possibility of a westward passage to Cathay (China). The young navigator uses projections made by German mathematicians and Italian mapmakers at Sangres to revive the ancient Greek knowledge that the earth is round. Columbus has the advantages of the compass invented in the 12th century and of the more recently invented mariner’s astrolabe, by which a navigator can calculate the altitude of the sun, moon, or stars above the horizon and thus determine his distance north or south of the equator.

1477 Christopher Columbus visits England, but fails to obtain the financial support needed for his venture in quest for a new route to the Indies.

1484 Columbus asks Joăo II of Portugal to back him in a westward voyage to the Indies, but Joăo rejects the request.

1485 Bartholomew Columbus is sent by his brother to France and England in hopes that he may interest Charles VIII or Henry VII in outfitting an expedition to Asia, but Bartholomew has no success.

1492 Christopher Columbus weighs anchor Friday, August 3, with 52 men aboard his flagship the 100-ton Santa Maria, 18 aboard the 50-ton Pinta commanded by Martín Alonso Pinzón, and another 18 aboard the 40-ton Nińa commanded by Vicente Yáńez Pinzón. The Pinta loses her rudder August 6, the fleet puts in at Tenerife for refitting, the three caravels put out to sea again September 6, and land is sighted October 12. Financed by Castile’s Isabella, who has borrowed the wherewithal from Luis de Santangel by putting up her jewels as security, Columbus has crossed the Atlantic to make the first known European landing in the Western Hemisphere since early in the 11th century. He disembarks in the Bahamas (or the Turks and Caicos, depending who you ask) on an island he names San Salvador under the impression that he has reached the East Indies. Columbus lands in Cuba October 28 and on December 6 lands on the island of Quisqueya, which he renames Hispaniola, but his Santa Maria runs aground on Christmas Day and must be abandoned.

1502 Christopher Columbus embarks May 11 on a fourth voyage to the New World, this time with 150 men in four caravels that took eight months to make the Atlantic crossing, forcing the crews to eat wormy biscuit (dried bread), shark meat, and ships’ rats in order to survive. Columbus discovers St. Lucia, the island of Guanaja off Honduras, Honduras itself, Costa Rica, and the Isthmus of Panama. Sugarcane is introduced to Puerto Rico. Portuguese colonists bring sugarcane from Brazil.

1504 Christopher Columbus returns from a final voyage to the Western Hemisphere, landing at Sanlucar November 7 too ill after a nine week voyage from Hispaniola to pay his respects to the dying Isabella.

1506 Christopher Columbus dies in obscurity at Valladolid, on May 21 at age 55. His bones would later be relocated to Santo Domingo, the island he discovered on December 5, 1492, changing the course of history. 

1509 Ponce de León seizes control of Puerto Rico, making himself governor. Portuguese explorer Diego Alvaros Correa founds the first European settlement in Brazil near Porto Seguro.

1515 Spanish conquistadors found the city of Havana, Cuba.

1521 Spanish conquistadors found the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico, paving the city’s streets with stones brought as ballast in ships from Spain.

1522 Ferdinand Magellan’s lieutenant Juan Sebastian d’Elcano (del Cano) returns to Seville September 6 aboard the Vittoria with 18 surviving sailors of the Magellan expedition and with a cargo of valuable spices that more than pays for the expedition that has accomplished the first circumnavigation of the world.

1526 First shipments of Brazilian sugar leave to Europe.

1536 England begins to suffer shortages of honey as monasteries, which raised honeybees as a source of wax for votive candles, are dissolved pursuant to the 1534 Act of Supremacy.

1544 Northern Europe suffers a honey shortage as a result of the breakup of monasteries by the Reformation. The decline in honeybee colonies creates a growing need for cheap sugar, but sugar will remain a luxury for more than a century.

1551 English and Welsh alehouses are licensed for the first time.

1559 Some 1,500 Spanish colonists land at Pensacola, Florida, but hostile natives force them to move to Port Royal Sound in what later will become the English colony of South Carolina. English food prices soar to three times their 1501 levels largely because Henry VIII debased the coinage to raise quick money for his wars with Spain, France, and Scotland.

1560 Venice gets its first coffee house. The city is a major sugar-refining center, using raw sugar imported through Lisbon, but Europe’s chief sugar refiner is Antwerp which also gets its raw materials from Lisbon but refines as much sugar in a fortnight as Venice does in a year.

1567 Antwerp’s sugar-refining industry moves to Amsterdam following the capture of Antwerp by the duke of Alva.

1588 Lord Howard writes to the British Admiralty that “Nothing doth displease the seaman as to sour beer.” Standard beer ration per sailor was at the time set to one gallon per day. This beer, being of poor quality, however, was apt to sour within weeks.

1590 The siege of Paris brings hunger and malnutrition that kill 13,000 in the city. Food supplies are inadequate for the 30,000 inhabitants and the 8,000-man garrison. By mid-June, the Spanish ambassador has proposed grinding the bones of the dead to make flour. By July 9, the poor are chasing dogs and eating grass that grows in the streets.
1601 The East India Company’s James Lancaster institutes lemon juice doses among his crew while at the Cape of Good Hope, then heaves off to Madagascar to take on more lemons and oranges. His 200 men are the only crew not decimated by scurvy.

1609 The Virginia colony declines in population to 67 by January as food stocks run low despite the introduction of carrots, parsnips, and turnips.

1623 Sir Thomas Warner establishes the first English colony in the West Indies on the island of St. Kitts.

1630 As sugarcane is grown and processed in the French West Indies, the supply of sugar in France increases. Lemonade is invented in Paris and quickly gains popularity.
1636 A Dutch planter introduces sugarcane from Brazil into the West Indian island of Barbados whose English settlers have been cultivating cotton, ginger, indigo, and tobacco for export while growing beans, plantains, and other food for their own consumption. Sugar becomes the chief crop of Barbados and of all the Caribbean islands. 

1637 Sugarcane is taken from St. Kitts to Martinique.

1641 The first sugar factory in the English New World is established in Barbados, with equipment supplied on credit by Dutch investors.

1647 Richard Ligon, a Royalist refugee from the English Civil War, arrives in Barbados, and in 1650 writes History of the Island of Barbados.

1651 The Navigation Act passed by Parliament October 9 forbids importation of goods into England or her colonies except by English vessels or by vessels of the countries producing the goods. The mercantilist legislation aims to help the nation’s merchant marine gain supremacy over the Dutch. “Rumbullion, alias Kill-Devill” is the “chief fudling they make in the Island” of Barbados, writes Richard Ligon. He calls rum “a hot, hellish and terrible liquor” made of “suggar canes, distilled.”

1654 Connecticut Court prohibits the import of any Barbados spirits.

1655 English forces under the command of Vice Admiral William Penn, 34, take Jamaica in the West Indies from the Spanish who have called the sugar-rich island San Iago. Penn’s action precipitates a 3-year war with Spain. Rum from Jamaica is introduced into the Royal Navy to replace beer, which goes sour after a few weeks at sea. This is the first time that rum is issued on board ships of the Royal Navy.

1662 Catherine da Braganza introduces to the London court the Lisbon fashion of drinking tea.

1665 England imports less than 88 tons of sugar, a figure that will grow to 10,000 tons by the end of the century as tea consumption, encouraged by cheap sugar, increases in popularity.

1675 Grain crop failure in England leads to a shortage of grain, limiting gin production. As a consequence, rum gains popularity in the English market.

1687 Rum is officially adopted as the daily ration for the Royal Navy.

1690 Start of the golden age of piracy, which lasts until 1720.

1694 French Churchman Father Pere LaBat arrives in St. Pierre, Martinique.

1709 Barbados has 409 windmills and 76 animal-powered cane mills, becoming the leading sugar producer of all the Caribbean Islands.

1718 Infamous pirate of the seas Blackbeard is killed on November 22nd off the coast of North Carolina by Lieutenant Robert Naynard.

1731 Half a pint of rum in two equal tots (servings) becomes the official daily ration for all hands in the British Royal Navy.

1733 The Molasses Act is passed by Parliament to tax British colonists, imposing heavy duties on the molasses, sugar and rum imported from non-British West-Indian islands, effectively raising the price of the rum Americans now consume at the rate of three imperial gallons (3.75 American gallons) per year for every man, woman, and child. Smugglers evade this new act, in some cases taking African slaves to Spanish colonies, where they are traded for sugar and molasses, selling the cargo to New England distillers for capital which they use to buy more African slaves. Denmark buys the Virgin Islands, leading to the duty-free status that prevails today.

1735 English distillers produce gin at a rate of 5.4 million gallons per year, nearly a gallon for every man, woman, and child.

1740 The Royal Navy’s rum ration is diluted by Admiral Edward Vernon, nicknamed “Old Grog” because he wears a grogram (grosgrain) cloak in foul weather. Grog will become a slang word for liquor, groggy for drunken dizziness.

1747 Prussian chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, 38, discovers that beets and carrots contain small amounts of sugar.

1750 Massachusetts has 63 distilleries producing rum made from molasses supplied in some cases by slave traders who sell it to the Puritan distillers for the capital needed to buy African natives that can be sold to West Indian sugar planters.

1758 George Washington distributes free rum to constituents as he runs for the Virginia House of Burgesses, a move which earns him the highest number of votes for any candidate.

1763 Of the 14,000 hogsheads of molasses brought into New England, only 2,500 are from British sources, smugglers account for the remainder. French islands allowed to export their rum to France.

1764 On April 5th, Parliament passes the Sugar Act, which replaces the Molasses Act of 1733. While this new Act reduces in half the sixpence per gallon duty on molasses imported into British colonies from non-British islands in the West Indies. The British send customs officials to America and order colonial governors to enforce the new law and apprehend the smugglers.

1780 A hurricane destroys much of the English fleet in Carlisle Bay. English sugar consumption reaches 12 pounds per year per capita, up from four in 1700, as Britons increase coffee and tea consumption.

1782 Admiral George Rodney defeats Admiral de Grasse off Dominica and secures his place as a Royal Navy hero.

1787 Sugar is produced from the sugar beet, and competition with sugarcane begins.

1789 The first bourbon whiskey is distilled by Baptist Minister Elijah Craig in the bluegrass country established as Kentucky County last year by the Virginia state assembly. The territory will become Bourbon County in the state of Kentucky, and Craig’s corn whiskey is so refined that it will become more popular than rum or brandy in America. The French revolution begins.

1790 Captain William Bligh arrives in St. Vincent with breadfruit sprouts from Tahiti.

1791 Congress imposes a 9˘-per-gallon tax on whiskey to discourage frontier farmers, blacksmiths, and storekeepers from diverting grain needed for food to use as distillery mash (and from competing with rum made in New England).

1793 Berlin chemist Franz Karl Achard, 40, reveals a process for obtaining sugar from beets.

1794 United States Navy is established.

1795 The Royal Navy orders lime juice rations aboard all naval vessels after the fifth or sixth week at sea following confirmation last year of James Lind’s theory that citrus juice is an anti scorbutic. The juice is usually combined with the rum ration.

1799 Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia receives a loaf of beet sugar from Berlin chemist Franz Karl Achard and is persuaded to provide land and financing to Achard to continue his work with sugar beets in Silesia.

1800 Selective breeding experiments begin to increase the sugar content of sugar beets, currently at six percent.

1802 The world’s first beet sugar factory goes into production but soon runs deep in debt. A disciple of Franz Karl Achard is no more successful with a factory he sets up at Krayn, also in Silesia, but he does succeed in growing the white Silesian beet, which is higher in sugar content and will be the basis of all future sugar-beet strains. An article on beet sugar written by F. K. Achard in Berlin appears in the Moniteur and arouses French interest in domestic sugar production, as the British Orders in Council issued last year cut France off from sugar imports.

1810 French banker Benjamin Delessert, 37, sets up beet-sugar factories at Passy to supply France with sugar in the absence of imports blockaded by the Royal Navy. The factories will produce more than four million kilos of high-cost sugar in the next two years.

1813 France has 334 sugar plantations by year’s end and has produced 35,000 tons of beet sugar.

1814 French beet sugar production declines sharply as imports of cane sugar resume and undercut prices.

1818 Angostura bitters are invented at Angostura, Venezuela, by German physician Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, who served as a surgeon under von Blücher three years earlier at Waterloo and has emigrated to South America. Siegert brews his elixir from gentian root, rum, and other ingredients as a stomach tonic to overcome debility and loss of appetite in the tropics. It gains wider use as a cocktail ingredient used by British colonials to make “pink gin.” Siegert’s son will take the formula to Trinidad and produce Angostura Bitters in an abandoned monastery at Port of Spain long after Angostura has become Ciudad Bolívar.

1823 Bourbon whiskey distilling increases in Kentucky. Aging in charred oak barrels will not begin until 1860, and whiskey will not take on color until then (the color will generally derive more from added caramel than from wood char).

1824 The Royal Navy reduces its daily rum ration from half a pint to a quarter pint, and tea becomes part of the daily ration.

1830 The continuous still patented by Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey speeds up distilling and makes for “cleaner” whisky, gin and rum. The still is named after its inventor.

1831 The general issue of beer to the Royal Navy fleet is officially discontinued.

1832 The Coffey Still is perfected, leading to higher production volumes and greater distillation purity.

1833 Abolition of slavery in the British Islands.

1842 France has nearly 60 sugar beet factories producing two pounds of sugar per capita annually.

1850 Nearly 15 percent of the world’s sugar consumption now comes from sugar beets. The Royal Navy reduces its daily rum ration from one-quarter pint to one-eighth pint to be dispensed before the midday meal.

1851 The first U.S. state prohibition law is voted in Maine where the mayor of Portland, Neal Dow, 47, has drafted the law, submitted it to the state legislature, and campaigned for its passage. An ardent temperance advocate, Dow will see his measure followed by other states.

1852 Prohibition laws are adopted by Massachusetts, Vermont, and Louisiana.

1855 Prohibition laws are adopted by Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, and the Nebraska Territory.

1856 Cessation of letters of marque at the Convention of Paris is the first step to the abolition of privateering.

1862 The U.S. Navy abolishes its rum ration through the influence of Rear Admiral Andrew Hull Foote, 56, who has made his ship the first in the Navy to stop issuing rum rations (first introduced in 1798). The ration was later revived.

1867 Sugar beets are introduced into Utah Territory by Brigham Young who has machinery from Liverpool carted across the continent to Salt Lake City by ox-drawn wagon, but the beetsugar factory he builds will be abandoned within two years.

1872 British sugar consumption reaches 47 pounds per capita per year, up from 12 pounds per capita per year in 1780.

1878 Beet-sugar extraction mills are demonstrated at the Paris World Exhibition. Most European countries will be encouraged by the Paris exhibit to plant sugar beets and build factories to process their sugar.

1879 Tobago exports to Europe one half million gallons of rum this year.

1883 Sugar production of sugar beets equals that of sugarcane.

1900 Sugar beet production worldwide reaches 5.6 million tons, a figure that quadruples in the following 64 years.

1914 Start of World War I (ended 1918). Demand for alcohol increases as its use in the manufacture of explosives is exploited. Many distilleries alter their production processes to distill high-purity alcohol directly from sugarcane juice. Many sugar beet fields and processing plants are destroyed in Europe, so European demand for Caribbean sugar increases.

1917 United States purchases the Virgin Islands from Denmark.

1920 Prohibition starts in the United States.

1933 Prohibition ends in the United States.

1957 Hurricane Janet wrecks Grenada.

1962 Trinidad and Tobago gain their independence.

1963 Sugar is nationalized by many Caribbean governments.

1966 Barbados gains its independence.

1970 July 30th. Black Tot Day. The Royal Navy abolishes the rum rations to its sailors. Detailed information about the events leading to this historical date can be found in the following section “Rum and the British Navy.”

1974 Grenada gains its independence.

1976 Trinidad and Tobago become a Republic.

1978 Dominica gains its independence on Nov. 3rd, 465 years after its discovery by Columbus.

1979 St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines gain their independence from Britain.

1980 Rum outsells vodka in the United States and outsells whiskey for the first time since the early nineteenth century. All whiskeys except Canadian brands have declined in the 70’s while vodka, tequila and rum have gained popularity.

1981 Antigua and Barbuda gain their independence.

1983 St. Kitts and Nevis gain independence.

1989 Hurricane Hugo imparts heavy damages to many of the Caribbean islands. Barbados’ based Caribbean Week holds the First Annual Rum Tasting Competition, an event that would grow to become the rum industry’s leading competition world-wide.

1994 Competition between banana growers from Central and South America forces Caribbean Islands to look for new sources of trade.

1995 Hurricane Luis leaves a path of destruction in the northeast Caribbean. Hurricane Marilyn hits St. Thomas and Culebra. Rum expert and personal friend Edward Hamilton publishes the first edition of Rums of the Eastern Caribbean, a great reference book in the field of rum."


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