Ronald Haines, Author

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Category: Colonial

Posts related to English Colonial period

A Brief History of Rum in Colonial America


In 1493 the Spanish introduced sugar cane into the West Indies and enslaved the native populations to work their sugar plantations.  Sugar was produced by crushing the cane, boiling the resulting juices, and then leaving the syrup in clay pots to cure.  A viscous liquid, molasses, was then poured off leaving the pure sugar behind and for every two pounds of sugar produced a pound of molasses was also created.  This industrial waste was fed to slaves and livestock but, with no other practical use for it, most of the molasses was dumped into the ocean.  It was probably the slaves who first realized that if molasses was mixed with the liquid skimmed off the cane juice during boiling and fermented, it produced an intoxicating beverage.  Colonists soon realized that this mixture was an excellent starting point for distillation and by 1650 British planters in Barbados and the French in Martinique began creating a drink called rum in pot stills.  Rum rapidly became the alcoholic beverage of choice in England and colonial America and soon many of the sugar growing islands in the Caribbean were also distilling rum.


In 1733 the British parliament, in an attempt to regulate commerce and collect duties by forcing trade through the ports of Kingston and Nassau, passed the molasses act which imposed a high tax on molasses or rum coming from any non-British island and also made it illegal for the colonies to trade alcoholic beverages directly between one another. The molasses act was not enforced initially and by 1742 England was at war with both France and Spain so there was no worry about the colonies trading with other nations.

When the hostilities with Spain and France ended, however, Britain began to look for additional sources of revenue from the colonies to help pay for the war costs.  Although it provoked much anger amongst the American colonists, enforcement of the molasses act began in 1750.


The end of the war had also brought dire economic consequences for the pirates who had become privateers but had been released from government employment. The more entrepreneurial amongst them, the ones who had fast ships capable of outrunning the British revenue cutters, elected to help the American colonists avoid what they felt were unjustified taxes by smuggling for them.

With the help of the former pirates, American goods were then traded with the ever obliging merchants on Harbour Island, Bahamas, or went directly to Martinique where the rum was cheap.


In Rum & Wrecks, which I am currently writing, we find the protagonists from Pirates of the Bahamas becoming rum smugglers, after a harrowing experience with the Spanish regarding salvaging a ship makes Jack realize that smuggling might be safer than wrecking.

Wrecking in the Bahamas in the Eighteenth Century

With so many reefs and shallow waters surrounding the passageways through the Bahamas, many merchant ships were lost there as trade became established between Europe, the West Indies and the American Colonies.  Sailors who encountered a shipwreck would salvage the contents in an activity known as wrecking.  From the time that the Bahamas was first settled in 1648 wrecking was an important activity, growing so much that by 1660 when New Providence was settled many captains had dedicated their vessels to it.  Rather than a passive, opportunistic activity, however, these seamen pursued wrecking aggressively, regarding all salvage as their property, and they were rumored to kill people who inconveniently survived the shipwrecks. They drove Spanish sailors away from Spanish wrecks, and even took goods that the Spanish had already salvaged. Understandably, the Spanish considered these Bahamian wreckers to be pirates, and retaliated by attacking the wreckers’ ships.  The Spanish also made repeated attacks on New Providence to retrieve salvaged property and burned the capital, Charles Town, in 1684.  Charles Town was rebuilt and named Nassau in 1695.

After piracy was eliminated from the Bahamas in the early 1720s the Bahamian government established controls over the wreckers, requiring them to carry salvaged goods to Nassau, where they were auctioned. They also required wreckers to have a government license to do so. However, goods which would be useful on a ship or in a wrecker’s home were often diverted with the government officials turning a blind eye to it.  The wreckers usually received 40% to 60% of the value of the salvaged goods, and many former pirates turned to wrecking as a legal, and very profitable, profession.

Wrecking continued to be a mainstay of the Bahamian economy through most of the 19th century until improved navigation and the building of lighthouses saw the number of wrecks diminish.  In its heyday there were 302 ships and 2,679 men (out of a total population of 27,000) licensed as wreckers in the Bahamas.   Salvaged cargo brought into Nassau in 1856 was valued at £96,304, more than half of all imports to the Bahamas, and more than two-thirds of the exports from the Bahamas were salvaged goods.

Wrecking is featured prominently in the novel I am currently working on, Rum & Wrecks, which will be the second book in the Pirates of the Bahamas series now that I am finished writing the prequel, Love, Lust & Passion, and it has been published.

Pirate Rum Drinks in the 18th Century

My research into pirates and people in colonial times in general has shown, not surprisingly, that as a whole they consumed a lot of alcohol, considering it to be a healthy alternative to water.  While we associate pirates with drinking rum straight, they actually enjoyed it in a variety of mixed drinks.  Here are a few of the more interesting ones I’ve come across:


Why bother with separate mugs for beer and rum when you can just mix it up together?  Rattle-Skull did just that.  Half a cup of rum was blended with a pint of porter and the juice of half a lime, then served with shaved nutmeg on top.  My research described it as “a dangerously smooth and stultifying concoction.”


Flip was a blend of ale, rum, molasses and eggs.  The eggs and molasses were beaten together in a ceramic jug, then rum was blended in, then the jug was topped off with ale and all the ingredients mixed together.  Before serving, a hot poker was inserted into the jug and after it frothed up it was poured into mugs and served.


Bumbo was a mixture of rum, water, sugar and nutmeg which was enjoyed by sailors in the West Indies in the early 1700s, and it eventually became a very popular drink throughout the English Colonies too.

coconut005 I suspect that coconut water was likely used in the Caribbean, and I can personally vouch for this one as an excellent drink when made that way.

Bumbo even played a role in the course of American history.  Political campaigning in colonial times included providing generous amount of drink, presumably in exchange for votes.  George Washington’s papers state that he used “160 gallons of rum to treat 391 voters to bumbo” during his campaign for the Virginia House in 1758.  He won.



Triangular Trade made Piracy Golden

When European demand for the products from the Spanish Main and the Caribbean Islands soared in the 17th and 18th centuries, a very profitable system was set up to transport these goods back to England, Spain, France and The Netherlands.  The so called Triangular Trade took manufactured products such as cloth, iron and beer to Africa to be exchanged for slaves, which were then takes across the Atlantic and sold at tremendous profit.  The ships then loaded up with sugar, molasses and rum and headed back to Europe in a triangular circuit that took about a year to complete.

By the beginning of the 18th century all of this wealth, the slave ships coming in from Africa and the goods laden ships leaving for Europe, had become irresistible targets for looters and pirates.  The golden age of piracy was born, not due to grand efforts on the part of the pirates themselves, but because of the abundance of spoils and the ease of taking them.

Here’s some more reading material: