Rum and pirates belong together just like peanut butter and jelly. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. Part of this is probably because rum was created and grew up along with the Golden Age of Piracy, and in the same place.
Liquor made from sugar had been known for hundreds – maybe thousands – of years, mostly in Asia. Marco Polo wrote about “sugar wine.” Brum, a drink popular in Malaysia, has existed throughout recorded time.
We don’t know where the word rum comes from. Theories include an abbreviation of one of several Latin words, a Romani word meaning “strong”, and rumbullion or rumbustion, two words that surfaced about the same time as “rum” – in the mid 1600’s. Since both words are slang terms for “uproar” or “loud chaos” it seems to me that it was the other way around.
We have sugar cane and the Irish to thank for rum. When the British government began shipping Irish to Barbados as slaves, they separated those people from home, family and friends. They also separated these Irish slaves from whiskey.
But it’s hard to keep the Irish from their liquor. These slaves found out that the molasses extracted from sugar cane could be fermented, and then that the fermented substance could be distilled into the liquor that we now call rum.
By 1654 – one year before the pirate Henry Morgan came onto the historical stage - the name rum was firmly attached to the popular, potent drink. By 1664, distilleries had begun to flourish in Boston and Rhode Island, taking advantage of the higher technologies in those areas to build larger distillation pots and a larger number of high-quality barrels. This produced a more standardized product. For a while, Rhode Island rum joined gold as a form of currency in Europe.
It was common at the time for navies to issue rations of liquor to sailors. Once England captured Jamaica (1655), they changed their liquor of choice from French brandy to Jamaican rum. From then on, rum became a solid part of British navy life. The ration of rum continued until July 31st, 1970, when it was discontinued because other liquor was available for recreational use. This date is still remembered in the British navy as “black tot day.”
For special occasions, however, such as a royal wedding, birth or coronation, rum is still supplied. The order for an extra tot of rum, which dates from the age of sail, is “splice the mainbrace!” This commemorates an on-ship chore which was extremely difficult and warranted an extra rum ration.
Many pirates learned to sail and fight by serving in their national navy. They learned to like rum from the same source. In Jamaica’s early days, navy support was considered too slight to keep the island secure from the Spanish. The island’s governor lured pirates to Port Royal and enlisted their support in guarding the island from the Spanish by offering a safe trading port for fencing stolen goods and taverns filled with bountiful rum to spend their ill-gotten gains on.
The pirate Henry Morgan, knighted, retired and appointed Jamaica’s acting Governor, drank himself to death in these taverns, reliving his glory days in the sweet trade. Rum and prostitution caused Port Royal to be known as the “wickedest city on earth.”
One of rum’s many nicknames was “kill devil.” A 1651 document from Barbados stated, "The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor." Pirates and others drank it so consistently they became dependent, and without it began to see hallucinations. Lack of rum on a pirate ship was a cause for desperate action, including robbing ships that the pirates had previously agreed were off-limits.
Rum encouraged the “triangle trade” that was partially responsible for the region’s wealth, which in turn drew pirates to the Caribbean. Merchant ships picked up sugar, rum and molasses on Barbados and Jamaica, transported them to New England, where more rum was distilled from the raw materials. Then this rum was taken to Europe and exchanged for trade goods such as cloth and beads, which was then transported to Africa and traded for slaves, which were taken back to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations.
This cemented the practice of using African slaves, who were hardier than Europeans, and lived longer in the tropics. It also encouraged regular trade routes, enabling the pirates to lay in ambush in known areas.
Rum also encouraged larceny inside the navy. When Admiral Nelson, England’s national hero, was killed in action at sea, legend has it that his body was preserved by sealing it inside a full cask of rum. But when the ship arrived back in port and the cask was opened it was empty. Enterprising sailors had tapped it and drunk every last drop, leaving only the Admiral’s body. After that, rum was often referred to as “Nelson’s blood.”
Author Robert Lewis Stevenson had a profound influence on the link between pirates and rum when he included “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum” in his famous novel Treasure Island. And Johnny Depp cemented it farther with Captain Jack Sparrow’s wandering walk and question, “Why is the rum gone?”
In real life, pirates drank pretty much anything that would get them drunk, but whiskey, brandy, wine and gin have their own mythologies. Rum now belongs forever to the pirates, famous in song and story.
Let’s raise a glass and say, “Yo Ho!”