The dark side of rum...

Hopefully everyone out there is aware that October is Black History Month; a month dedicated to celebrating the achievements and culture of black men and women from past to present right through history. 

Whilst there is a lot to rightly celebrate, I want to focus in on one part of history that isn’t a celebration and is sometimes a difficult topic to talk about. Slavery. In particular, sugar slavery. 

Sugar cane in the form of molasses is the base of rum, a much loved and growing spirit, consumed the world over in massive quantities. But it has a dark past. 

Sugar plantations were almost exclusively run using slave labour, with vast numbers of people taken from their homes to the plantations to spend their entire lives cutting and preparing sugar, or producing the sugar products. Rum would be sent to Africa as payment for more slaves and so the brutal, inhuman cycle would continue, with demand skyrocketing as Europe’s appetite for sugar grew. 

Rum itself is thought to owe its very existence to slaves - sugar canes were fermented by the slaves, creating a crude alcoholic base which at some point was then distilled and refined to create rum.

Millions of lives were lost, even more were changed beyond recognition overnight, as families were torn apart, and millions moved to remote parts of the globe, all to satisfy Europe’s insatiable appetite for sugar products. Owners of the plantations were exclusively rich, white men. 

The practice of slave ownership started to be abolished in 1833, but what I found crazy whilst researching this article was that payments to the ancestors of slave owners compensating for the ‘loss of assets’ by freeing slaves only ended in 2015. That means for decades we’ve been paying already extremely wealthy individuals to compensate for ‘not being allowed’ to enslave people… what an embarrassment to the country. 

Thankfully, we are now heading in the right direction. Not only are people no longer enslaved by the sugar industry but we’re now starting to see distilleries that are owned and run by black people. It’s great to see how far the industry has come on, and hopefully the timing is perfect for the rum resurgence; just this time on a fair playing field without the human cost. 

I think it’s really important to acknowledge this part of history; we can’t ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen. It’s a part of human history, and in turn a part of rum’s history. Are we proud of it? Absolutely not. We can’t change it, but we can ensure we strive to live in a fair and equal society that gives everyone opportunities, no matter the colour of your skin.

So, as we celebrate Black History Month, take a second to think about all the history in the rum you’re enjoying and remember the Rumagin Directive-

  • Stay Safe
  • Be Kind
  • Drink Rum