In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rum

  • Introduction
  • Main Academic Works
  • Primary Sources on the Origins of Rum
  • The Art of British Caribbean Rum Making
  • French Caribbean Rum Making
  • Spanish Caribbean Rum Making
  • Rum in Africa and the African Slave Trade
  • Rum and Spirituality
  • Drinking, Drunkenness, and Social Customs
  • Rum and Military Life
  • Rum and Health
  • Rum Drinking in the Modern Caribbean
  • Archaeological Studies
  • Rum in North America

Atlantic History Rum
Frederick H. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0155


Rum is the alcoholic beverage produced by distilling fermented sugarcane juice and the waste products of sugar making. It was first produced in the Caribbean in the early to mid-17th century, though fermented varieties of sugarcane juice had been known in ancient India and China. The British island of Barbados and the French island of Martinique were the birthplaces of rum making. The British and French settlement of the Caribbean coincided with the increasing knowledge and expansion of alcohol distillation in Europe. Colonists produced rum to recreate the drinking practices they left behind in the Old World. More importantly, they drank to cope with the many anxieties they encountered on the colonial Caribbean frontier, especially boredom, epidemic diseases, a coercive labor system, and an imbalanced sex ratio. Rum quickly found markets in the periphery of the Atlantic world, especially among European colonists and enslaved peoples in the New World, Carib Indians, and seamen. Although little Caribbean rum entered European markets at the end of the 17th century, rum distilling helped supplement sugar plantation revenues. In the 18th century, British Caribbean rum makers pulled away from their French rivals. They found welcoming markets in London and British North America, which led to advances in distilling practices that helped strengthen the British Caribbean rum trade. Rum making also emerged in the New England colonies of British North America. Rum makers there distilled imported Caribbean molasses. The American Revolution, the abolition of the slave trade, slave emancipation, competition from European beet sugar industries, and the rise of whiskey drinking in the newly formed United States weakened British Caribbean rum making in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. French Caribbean rum makers, bolstered by the opening of French metropolitan and colonial markets, began to improve their rum industries. By the end of the 19th century, Martinique was the leading rum exporter, and perhaps producer, in the Caribbean. Despite early attempts at rum distilling in the Spanish Caribbean, it was not until the mid- to late 19th century that Spanish Caribbean rum making began to develop. In particular, Cuba, with its close ties to the US market, emerged as one of the largest rum makers in the Caribbean. However, the Cuban Revolution brought an end to the growing US market for Cuban rum. Cold War policies in the United States greatly benefitted rum makers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Main Academic Works

There are four main academic works and two very good popular books on the history of rum in the Atlantic world. Smith 2005 offers the most comprehensive social and economic history of rum. Drawing on materials from Africa, Europe, and throughout the Americas, Smith explores the role of alcohol in the Caribbean from the 16th century to the present using an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates documentary, archaeological, and ethnographic evidence. Smith, a historical anthropologist, investigates the economic impact of Caribbean rum on multiple scales, including rum’s contribution to sugar plantation revenues, its role in bolstering colonial and postcolonial economies, and its impact on Atlantic trade. The book also examines the social and sacred uses of rum and identifies the forces that shaped levels of alcohol use in the Caribbean. The levels of drinking and drunken comportment conveyed messages about the underlying tensions that existed in the Caribbean, which were driven by the coercive exploitation of labor and set within a highly contentious social hierarchy based on class, race, gender, religion, and ethnic identity. McCusker 1989 is a detailed economic work that is essentially a reprinting of the author’s earlier 1970 dissertation. McCusker, an economic historian, designed a system for calculating levels of rum production and developed models for assessing the level of rum production for each Caribbean island and North America. His goal was to create an economic snapshot of rum in the Atlantic world between 1768 and 1772, just prior to the American Revolution, in order to understand the value of the rum trade on the balance of payments of the thirteen continental colonies. Huetz de Lemps 1997, Histoire du rhum, offers another scholarly and comprehensive analysis of the rise of rum making. Published in French, Histoire du rhum gives perhaps a more French perspective on the rise of the rum industry. Rodríguez 2009 provides a similarly strong scholarly analysis of rum, emphasizing the Spanish Caribbean experience. Popular books on rum such as Barty-King and Massel 1983 and Broome 2003 are well written and entertaining. Davis 1885 is an important early article that seeks to identify the origin of the word “rum.”

  • Barty-King, Hugh, and Anton Massel. Rum: Yesterday and Today. London: Heinemann, 1983.

    This book is perhaps the earliest historical overview of rum. It is a well-written study containing a number of interesting anecdotes on the history of rum. The authors address rum making outside the Caribbean context.

  • Broom, Dave. Rum. New York: Abbeville, 2003.

    Broome, a spirits expert and journalist, gives an entertaining and informative analysis of rum.

  • Davis, N. Darnell. “The Etymology of the Word Rum.” Timehri 4 (1885): 76–81.

    This interesting article examines the origins of the word “rum” and traces it back to the large number of West Country English who settled Barbados in the early 17th century. According to Davis, the word “rum” is an abbreviation of the word “rumbullion,” which was a term widely used in the West Country to describe “a great tumult.”

  • Huetz de Lemps, Alain. Histoire du rhum. Paris: Editions Desjonquères, 1997.

    Huetz de Lemps provides a serious overview of the rise of the rum industry, emphasizing the French colonial experience.

  • McCusker, John J. Rum and the American Revolution: The Rum Trade and the Balance of Payments of the Thirteen Continental Colonies. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1989.

    McCusker designs economic models for assessing the level of rum production for each Caribbean island and North America. It is an important economic study of rum. There is little discussion about rum consumption or the social customs of drinking.

  • Rodríguez, José Ángel. Al son del ron: Azúcares y rones de Venezuela y la cuenca del Caribe. Caracas, Venezuela: Ediciones B, 2009.

    This important study provides a comprehensive analysis of Caribbean rum, highlighting the emergence of rum making in Venezuela and other parts of the Spanish Caribbean. Rodriguez outlines the expansion of Venezuelan rum making and examines the forces that led to its success in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Smith, Frederick H. Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.

    Smith offers the most comprehensive analysis of the social and economic impact of rum in the Atlantic World from the 16th century to the present. It is intended for social and economic historians of the Atlantic world, as well as ethnohistorians interested in the African diaspora, slavery, and plantation life. It is also intended for scholars in alcohol studies.

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