Putting the Rum in the Route

Kill Devil, Nelson’s Blood, demon water, pirate’s drink, navy neaters, Barbados water or screech. By any name, for those who sail Rum is the spirit of choice and lubricates those long evenings at the bar when your hands flutter around to illustrate how you successfully covered your opponent and crossed the finish line for the bullet and international accolades. Maybe it’s the taste, or maybe because it flowed from the Caribbean islands were so may boats went to and fro. Admiral Nelson’s body was pickled in a cask of rum after dying at Trafalgar, and the British Navy offered its sailors a daily rations of rum from 1655 all the way all the way to 1970. It is fitting that this race celebrates the drink as it traces the route the casks followed from the Caribbean back to France.

The word itself has disputed etymology. The sober amongst us point to the Latin word for sugar, saccharumas its source. The romantics amongst us favor the claim that it sprang (stumbled?) forth from the archaic English words rumbullionor rumbustionwhich meant a tumult or uproar. Who amongst us has not felt all sorts of tumult caused by rum, both during the drinking and the next morning’s regrets?

All rum comes from the sugar plant, either from distilling the juice produced when the cane was crushed or by distilling the molasses that is created as a by-product of refining sugar. For drinking nerds, the French spelling of the word, Rhum, is used to describe the result of distilling fresh sugar cane juice while the English spelling of the word, Rum, signifies that the resulting drink was distilled from molasses.

With the techniques used in the early days of sugar refining, one part Molasses would be created for every for two parts sugar. Refined sugar had a large market as it a replaced honey as a sweetener, but thrifty plantation owners wanted to make sure that they found a way to monetize all the of the molasses they were stuck with and rum distillation was the perfect solution. Evidence points to the first distillation of rum occurring in 17th century, at some point in the 1620s which coincides with the initial period of the commercialization of sugar as an agricultural crop.

Columbus may not have found a short cut to Asia when he reached the New World, but he unwittingly carried with him the future success of the Caribbean. In 1493, on his way west, he had stopped in the Canary Islands and took cuttings of native grown sugar cane that he carried with him. Those initial cuttings Columbus had made in the Canaries were planted when he made landfall and from that modest start empires and fortunes were born. By the 16th century, sugar was being imported across Europe and was replacing honey as a sweetener in jams, jellies and other food products, and by the 17th century the consumption of sugar had exploded, the oxycontin of its day.

For the three centuries stretching from the mid 16th to the mid 19th century, sugar was a third of the European economy. It’s no exaggeration to claim that modern Europe was built on a foundation of White Gold as it was known by British colonists, and much of that fortune accrued to the French. While the Spanish fuelled their empire with gold, silver and jewels ripped from the ground of their Central America territories, and the British looked to the unlimited lands of North America and their agricultural potential as a source of raw materials for a mercantile economy, the French found sugar as the perfect outcome for the cards they had been played in the game that was colonization of the New World.

The 16th century saw a broad struggle between the European powers for control of the Caribbean which limited the opportunities for commercial exploitation. As a result, Brazil was first country to see the establishment of plantation style sugar cane cultivation and the wide scale commercial production of refined sugar and molasses. However, challenges with the sailing routes as well as a downturn in the economic fortunes in Brazil in the late 16th and early 17th century, combined with a somewhat more settled political future for the Caribbean saw a shift of sugar production to the Caribbean in the mid-17th century. Initially the English led the charge with plantations established in Barbados, but the French very quickly followed by planting the islands of Saint Domingo (Dominic), Martinique and Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe alone saw a 5X increase in sugar production over the latter two decades of the 17th century.

The French had colonized Guadeloupe in 1635 and following a sad pattern repeated throughout the Caribbean, they wiped out the native Carib people. Their new colony had conditions that strongly favored sugar cultivation and significant portions of the island were planted in the years immediately following colonization. For the better part of the 17th and 18th centuries, Guadeloupe was the largest sugar producer in the Caribbean and for that matter, the world. This one island produced more sugar than all of the British islands combined. As result, it made an attractive target for acquisitive super powers, and the British seized the island multiple times in the hundred years that followed colonization. After seizing it 1759, they then subsequently gave it back to the French as part of the 1763 treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Year War, figuring that Canada and the land east of the Mississippi was more valuable than Guadeloupe when it came to their mercantile economy.

Guadeloupe itself was retaken by the British twice more, once in 1793 in conjunction with a slave rebellion. After Napoleon regained control in 1802, the British took it again 1810 and the French finally regained control in 1814.

By the beginning of the 18thcentury, rum had become so prevalent in the old country that in 1712, the French brandy producers were successful in having the manufacture of rum in France banned in an effort to protect their business. This briefly slowed sugar and molasses imports, but in 1715 the French government reversed course and reduced imports duties on sugar and molasses, and then also eased restrictions on re-exporting the goods. The result was French sourced product that was substantially cheaper than what the English or Dutch could bring to market, and resulted in the French becoming the largest sugar, molasses and rumsupplier to the rest of Europe. Sugar, in its raw and refined form, flowed out of the West Indies and landed in the French Atlantic ports, only to be passed on to the other cities of Europe where exponential growth in demand soaked up a massive and growing supply from across the West Indies.

For the French, their dominance in the sugar trade from the Caribbean fueled trade that crisscrossed the Atlantic. One important form was Rum and sugar from the Caribbean to Île-Royale in Cape Breton, now Canada. Île-Royale was France’s remaining toe hold in Canada from 1706 to the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and the rum and sugar was paid for with lumber and fish sent to the Caribbean. The rum and sugar then became part of the trade flow that went from to Île-Royale to Saint Malo, with Saint Malo reciprocating with food, clothing and manufactured goods.

In a far less benign version of this cross-Atlantic trade, sugar cane also fueled the triangle trade that was at the heart of slavery in the new world. French sugar producers sold their molasses to a large number of New England rum producers who paid for the molasses with lumber, cheese and flour. They also, however, would bring their rum and other goods bought with the profits from selling rum to Africa to pay for slaves which they brought to the Caribbean and sold to plantation owners that were completely dependent on slaves for labor to work their cane fields. The money earned from selling the slaves paid for the molasses which then went to New England to be turned into rum, feeding the cycle.

In a lesser known chapter of early American history, profits from rum and anger over taxes may have also led to the American Revolution. French molasses was cheaper than either Dutch or English molasses, and as a result the French captured a significant market share of the molasses demand from New England rum distilleries. This dominance by the French meant that British cane growers had less demand for their molasses and British distillers were being consistently undercut on price by Colonial distillers. This lost business did not go unnoticed by the British colonial rulers and in 1733 they enacted the Molasses Act, imposing a tax of 6 pence per gallon of foreign (e.g. non-British) molasses. The Act was meant to force the colonies into buying British molasses, or stop producing rum. Instead, the Act led to massive smuggling and fed simmering resentment in the Colonies against their British rulers. The British recognized that their efforts were being circumvented so in 1764 they passed the Sugar Act that while it lowered the actual molasses tax somewhat, it extended that tax to a range of additional goods and significantly increased the enforcement activity. The effect was immediate and severe, reducing market access and trade, significantly disrupting the American colonial economy and further feeding the resentment and anger of the Colonialist. So while the Tea Act of 1773 may have led to the Tea Party considered the first salvo of the American Revolution, that path was well paved by sugar and the earlier taxes.

Sadly for the French, the good life fueled by the sugar trade came to an end. As the 19th century dawned, competition had ramped from both other tropical location but more importantly beet sugar grown and refined in Europe. This new source was to prove critical in the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815 when Napoleon blocked the ocean trade routes to cut off the sugar trade and the source of wealth it represented. Beet sugar offered a ready substitute and gained quick acceptance and market share that persisted even after the War and blockade ended. Then, when slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century and with it the source of inexpensive labor that was needed to tend the sugar cane fields, the price of cane sugar sky rocketed and made beet sugar the smart economic choice and led to the decline of the Caribbean’s geo-political importance.

Saint Malo as well as St. Jean de Luz were perhaps the two most important Atlantic Ports in France in this era, followed by Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Honfleur and Nantes. The pirates known as Corsairs called Saint Malo their home port, but the citizen sailors of Saint Malo put their skills to more commercial and less criminal use as well and sugar was a huge part of that trade. Their exploits made Saint Malo rich, much of it stemming from the Caribbean trade in sugar and rum. The Route du Rhum celebrates this heritage, as the fleet traces the route of so many ships before them from Saint Malo to Guadeloupe.