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Caribbean Rum: History and Culture Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 19th, 2022


The Caribbean rum is an alcoholic drink made from by-products of sugarcane through the process of distillation and zymolysis. After getting the distillate, the ageing process takes place in oaks or any other barrel. According to Kurlansky, the Caribbean remains the biggest producer of quality rum in the world.

Rum production has a long history and has undergone through several issues like colonialism of the Caribbean and globalization. This rum has diverse social and economical effects in given its deep culture amongst the Caribbean. This paper runs from history and culture, through colonialism and globalisation to economical and social effects of the Caribbean rum.


The origin of the Caribbean rum goes back to the introduction of sugarcane in the Caribbean in the 15th century by Christopher Columbus (Coulombe 16). According to most historians, rum production was an idea of plantation slaves in Barbados who discovered that the by-products of sugarcane would be fermented into an alcoholic drink in the 17th century.

“Many rum historians agree that, the first rum was made on the island of Barbados using molasses” (Broom 65). Later on, people came up with techniques of concentrating the alcoholic content of this rum and this included distillation. After its establishment in the Caribbean, the Caribbean rum spread to other places in Europe and this is how it found its way in America.

Interestingly, the Caribbean rum was so popular that it tied continents together; it was the ‘oil’ of the day; “Not until oil was any single commodity so important for world trade” (Williams Para. 1). The Caribbean rum found its way to Colonial North America. However, the demand was increasing by the day thus pushing for establishment of distilleries in North America.

The first distillery was established in the then Staten Island in 1664 before establishment of a second and a third one in Boston and Massachusetts after three years. Caribbean rum production became the most successful industry in that time in Colonial North America (Roueche 178). From Europe, the Caribbean rum crossed borders and entered Africa in late seventeenth century where it became even popular than in Europe.

This popularity is attributed to the fact that African slaves in the Caribbean plantations were the inventors of this rum; therefore, to Africans, the Caribbean rum was a form of identity (Arkell 96). The Caribbean rum’s popularity soared and it threatened existence of other alcoholic brands world all over. For instance, production of the Caribbean rum was banned in Spain after it became a threat to Spain’s die sweet spirits (William 89).

Initially, the Caribbean rum was seen as a cheap drink associated with slaves and low class people; nevertheless, with time even the elite became consumers of this brand thus posing a big threat to other European brands, which were a reserve for the elites. In this twenty first century, the Caribbean rum still exists amongst different communities all over the world.


As aforementioned, the culture of the Caribbean rum is deeply rooted in different communities across the world and especially in the Caribbean islands.

Rum shops litter the streets of the Caribbean islands. Given the fact that this rum was invented by Africans, the deep culture of this brand found its way to Africa. Back to the Caribbean islands, people here adored rum. Slaves would drown themselves into this brand to escape the realities of slavery that faced them everyday. Slavery was inhuman and because slaves had no way out of it, they found solace in drunkenness.

This established the culture of the Caribbean rum in these islands especially in Barbados. Moreover, this alcoholic drink was thought to have medicinal value (Gonzalez Para. 6). Consequently, people consumed it in large amounts including children, women, youth and men. Therefore, the Caribbean rum became an important element in the culture of African slaves in the Caribbean. Moreover, this stuff brought people together as part of socialization.

“Rum is at the epicentre of Caribbean culture and the economy. Practically every island organizes a tour of their rum distillery and each proclaims itself producer of the ‘best rum’ in the world” (Blue 98). This shows how this brand is deeply rooted in the hearts and culture of the Caribbean natives.

People would come together to socialize and pass time whilst drinking rum. This alcoholic drink had spiritual inclinations. “In the Caribbean, rum was increasingly incorporated into local, syncretic spiritual traditions like Vodou” (Gonzalez Para. 9). This fact stretches to contemporary African societies where traditional brews are used in spiritual matters like chasing away ghosts among other practices.

Therefore, it is logical that African slaves in the Caribbean, having discovered this rum, they would attach some spiritual importance to it because it gave them identity and value. Rorabaugh posits that African slaves were so inclined to it that they had to be removed from distilleries for they would become drunk. Slaves from Muslim countries were the preferred workers in the distilleries because Islam does not encourage alcohol consumption.


The Caribbean islands went through colonialism in hands of many European powers including Spain, France, the Dutch, Denmark, Britain, and the U.S. As aforementioned, Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the Caribbean islands. Soon after his voyages entered the Caribbean, other voyages especially from Spain and Portugal started trickling in to establish their own colonies in these islands.

Columbus introduced sugarcane in the Caribbean while slaves discovered rum later on. However, as different European powers started establishing their colonies in these islands, there were numerous changes. Actually, colonialism gave rise to the Caribbean rum. It is important to repeat at this point that African slaves invented the Caribbean rum. Spain’s arrival in the Caribbean islands signalled torture and death of many natives (Rouse 36).

After most of the natives had died, Spain started importing African slaves and this explains how Africans found their way to the Caribbean. In the course of colonialism, numerous changes took place including different wars, which brought different impacts to the Caribbean rum as exposited below.

Impact of Colonialism

As aforementioned, the Caribbean rum resulted from colonialism. Without colonialism, the story of the famous Caribbean rum may be different. Therefore, to start with, one of the effects of colonialism of the Caribbean islands was and still is the introduction of the Caribbean rum.

European colonialism brought the idea of plantations and now that Columbus had introduced sugarcane, most Europeans embarked on sugar plantation in these islands. “By the middle of the eighteenth century, sugar was Britain’s largest import which made the Caribbean that much more important as a colony” (Cross 3). This meant that production of rum persisted because it was made from this sugarcane.

Even with the abolition of slave trade, sugar plantations persisted because many freed slaves were unskilled and they could only work in sugar plantations for wages (Russell Para. 7). However, at this time, rum production was still down because the British did not want to sell sugar locally; her market was back in Britain where sugar would be used for other purposes.

Most of Caribbean population depended on agriculture and even many foreign investors invested in agriculture too. Sugar production was still controlled by colonial masters and rum production remained low for long time. Nevertheless, this was preparing the Caribbean islands for something better in future. The fact that colonialists were interested in agriculture especially sugar plantation, it enabled these islands to adopt the culture of agriculture; however, they did not know this was a blessing in disguise.

In 1971, Haiti became the “first he first Caribbean nation to gain independence from European powers” (Haggerty 45). Cuba followed in this series when it gained independence in 1902 while other nations gained their independence later on. Independence heralded a new beginning in the production of the Caribbean rum.

After testing freedom, people had the freewill to produce rum. Formerly, people produced rum in small quantities for local consumption; however, as demand increased, large-scale production commenced. Eventually, globalisation took the Caribbean islands by storm and the Caribbean rum went international.


Globalisation saw the entry of the Caribbean rum into international markets. Even though consumption of the same had spread to Europe due to presence of Europeans in the Caribbean, it was not until globalisation became a vehicle of exposing this brandy to the rest of the world.

The Bacardi Corporation is the first international company to be involved in exportation of the Caribbean rum to the rest of the world (Williams Para. 6). This corporation had its headquarters in Cuba before Fidel Castro ascended to power after which it moved to Puerto Rico. This movement proved instrumental because from Puerto Rico the Bacardi Corporation managed to infiltrate European markets in a better way.

In contemporary times, this corporation operates mostly from Florida in the United States of America. This is how this brand found its way into the rest of the world in the wake of globalisation. Globalisation brought both positive and negative effects to the Caribbean rum (Klooster 56).

Effects of Globalisation

Exportation of the Caribbean rum came as good news the Caribbean people who had invested a lot in sugar farming. This brand took the international markets with storm cutting across the world. Today, the Caribbean rum is consumed in thousands of nations across the world thanks to globalisation and the Bacardi Corporation. “At the end of World War II, the US was importing more Caribbean rum than any other category of imported spirits, including whiskey” (Frost Para. 9).

This America’s import was just a small portion of imports of the Caribbean rum over the years across the world. Unfortunately, globalisation has threatened the survival and popularity of this brand, which was once the most popular brand within and outside the borders of the Caribbean island. With globalisation, production of rum in the Caribbean was and is still becoming very expensive in terms of production and raw materials.

Unfortunately, most countries have subsidized sugar production forcing many Caribbean nations to give up on sugarcane farming (Pack 80). If sugarcane farming or production goes down it implies that production of this rum will go down also. Globalisation has turned the Caribbean islands into tourism sites and with many people seeing better income returns from tourism, they have abandoned sugarcane farming (Hornbeck Para 9).

The Caribbean rum also faces competition from other non-Caribbean rums, which are being produced at a lower cost in other countries like Mauritius; a nation located thousands of miles from the Caribbean; the origin of rum (Cooper 39). These are some of the challenges facing the Caribbean rum as it grapples with globalisation.

Nevertheless, the Caribbean people are smart people and they are turning these challenges into income generating activities. Frost notes that, “there is the overall theme of the Caribbean, its islands, waters and its people, and its good looking women.

That helps build brands based on tourism…exposing visitors to high quality and memorably-branded products helps them to take happy memories back with them and recreate them in the chill of their Northern homes” (Frost Para. 11). These foreigners are keeping up the hopes of the Caribbean rum survival. Plans are underway to import molasses to reduce production costs and this will make the Caribbean rum competitive in the international market (de Kadt 38).

Economical and Social effects of Caribbean Rum

Economically, the Caribbean rum has been playing a vital role in the Caribbean islands. Both locally, and internationally, the Caribbean rum fetches good money for its producers. After the Bacardi Corporation started its business deals in the Caribbean, this brandy has continually fetched the Caribbean islands millions of dollars in returns.

For instance, “in 2004, revenues from rum exports actually surpassed those of sugar for the first time in Barbadian history” (Sanders Para. 12). This echoes how this brand is important to the economy of these islands.

Part of tourist attraction in this region is their culture in rum. People from around the world visit the Caribbean. Florestal (Para. 8) remembers twenty years ago when, “every year, my parents returned to New York from their Haitian vacation with bags full of an innocuous-looking clear liquid”. Nothing has really changed even after twenty years. People continue to visit the Caribbean for “Come lets we fire one” (Barocas Para. 2).

This means to have a drink especially in Barbados. All these people bring revenue to these nations thus improving their economy. People are making a living out of the Caribbean rum (Smith 86). In social arena, the Caribbean rum plays a crucial role. People gather to have this brand as they socialise and pass time (Boyer16). Even slaves would use it as a way of forgetting their woes.


The Caribbean rum comes from sugarcane by-products like molasses. African slaves working in sugar plantations invented the art of making rum and distillation came in later on to concentrate the alcohol content of this brandy. The culture of this brand runs deep amongst Caribbean people; actually, it has become a cultural symbol.

It is important to note that the origin of this brand is colonialism after Columbus introduced sugarcane in the Caribbean islands. Colonialism brought about large-scale production of sugarcane, which sustained production of this rum. With globalization, this brand became popular around the world; however, globalisation brought competition among other challenges that are threatening the popularity of this brand.

Nevertheless, the Caribbean people are fitting this rum into globalisation to make maximum returns. Socially, this brand plays a vital key as people gather to enjoy good times together as they share the Caribbean rum.

Works Cited

Arkell, Julie. “Classic Rum.” Prion Books, 1999.

Barocas, Deborah. “The Rum Culture of Barbados.” 2010. Web.

Blue, Anthony. “The Complete Book of Spirits: A Guide to Their History, Production and Enjoyment.” Harper Collins, 2004.

Boyer, John. “Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History, Book Review.” Journal of Latin American Geography, 2006, 14(2): 6-15. Broom, Dave. “Rum.” Abbeville Press, 2003.

Cooper, Rosalind. “Spirits & Liqueurs.” HP Books, 1982.

Coulombe, Charles. “Rum: The Epic Story of the Drink that Changed Conquered the World.” Citadel Press, 2004.

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de Kadt, Emanuel, (Ed.). “Patterns of Foreign Influence in the Caribbean.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1972

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Klooster, Wim. “Illicit riches. Dutch trade in the Caribbean, 1648-1795.” New York; Oxford University Press, 1998.

Kurlansky, Mark. “A Continent of Islands: Searching for the Caribbean Destiny.” Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1992.

Pack, James. “Nelson’s Blood: The Story of Naval Rum.” Naval Institute Press, 1982.

Rorabaugh, John. “The Alcoholic Republic.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Roueché, Berton. “Alcohol in Human Culture.” New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Rouse, Irving. “The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus.” New York: Vail-Ballou Press, 1992.

Russell, Menard. “Review of Frederick H. Smith, Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History.” EH.Net Economic History Services, 2006.

Sanders, Ronald. “Caribbean Rum in Grave Danger; Urgent Government Action Needed.” 2010. Web.

Smith, Frederick. “Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History.” Florida: University Press of Florida, 2005.

Williams, Ian. “Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776.” Nation Books, 2005.

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