Ruminations on Pirates & Rum

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Aside from the obvious pillaging, trinket burying, and severe lack of lemons–nothing apart from a flag adorned with skull and crossbones could fill the popular mythos of pirates as effectively as a passionate love of Rum. But where did the idea come from and how many daiquiris could they possibly have been guzzling while terrorizing the high seas?

Before we set our coordinates and dive in on the history of rum and pirates thing, I want to briefly touch on what, specifically, rum is. Don’t laugh, I’m sure most of us chug whatever giggle juice we can find without much thought to where it came from. And, in this case, the distillation of rum is insanely relevant to what I’m about to get into in this post. So, for those who don’t really know what’s in their piña colada, rum is distilled from sugarcane by-products, specifically in this case, molasses. And, historically, where could you find an over abundance of molasses from 1650-1730 AD along with pirates? The Caribbean, baby.

As a colonial territory, the Caribbean was rampant with European special interests, sugar plantations, and, er, despite what Kanye West thinks–slavery.

planting sugar cane

The Triangular Trade is certainly a post for another day, but the bare essentials of it was the creation of a trade highway in the middle of the Atlantic. Slaves were taken from Africa and shipped off to the Caribbean and then were worked on plantations where “a total environment in which the lives of the captive workforce could be bent unremittingly to maximize output” [1]. From there, sugar & molasses were imported back to Britain and (with sometimes slaves) to North American colonies, with an exchange of needed goods sent back. Rum was at the heart of this exchange. In the process of crystallizing cane sugar, one of the by-products of this process produced a considerable amount of molasses, which no one really knew what to do with. When life gives you molasses, one of the cheapest and easiest things to do was make rum out of it, and thus in turn created an abundant and bountiful return for the West Indies. [2] Unlike the French, who refused to distill rum and preferred to remain loyal to the classic French brandy and wine, they were simply throwing away around half a million gallons of molasses a year in the 1680’s on their Caribbean colonies. To get an idea on how crazy the export game was, in 1702 Barbados exported more than 200,000 gallons of rum. 30 years later, that number rose to 4 million. [3]

Rum-men traded rum for slaves in Africa, and then slaves for molasses in the West Indies. Frequently, molasses served as a partial payment for the slaves, thereby making the circle of Caribbean involvement complete. [2]

And so it was that rum became exceedingly popular in the 18th century. In England, where brandy and wine became less readily available while warring with the French, an average of 1,317,062 gallons of spirits had been made from molasses between 1728 and 1736. By 1740, the annual consumption in London was estimated at 14 gallons per person. The Royal Navy even instituted a rum ration, guaranteeing a sailor a half pint of it a day. The Scottish had their own run at it, trading and smuggling around British tariffs. [1] North American colonies like Rhode Island and South Carolina got into the rum production game too. In fact, it seemed like everyone was guzzling rum down like water except for Georgia, those Southern Gents tryin’ their darnedest to ban the evil nectar. [4]

Found the people were grown very mutinous and impatient of labour and discipline. …this petulancy was owing chiefly to several of them having got into drinking of rum.Oglethorpe on why Georgians can’t handle their drink. [4]

So where do pirates come in to play? Clearly, an inclination to drinking copious amounts of rum wasn’t mutually exclusive to pillaging and plunder. For pirates, it’s probably nothing more than happenstance.

With The Triangular Trade, not only were there avenues of trade across the Atlantic, but also prime targets for a little self-serving economic prosperity to anyone willing to take it. Piracy increased around the same time, at first with privateers and marauders with official licenses from their respective governments to attack and plunder enemy ships, blurring the lines between agent and villain like with Sir Francis Drake and Captain Henry Morgan. But during the early centuries, it was not unusual to feel a sense of loyalty to a homeland. Pirates during the Golden Age, however, were loyal to their crew alone. These pirates were unique in that they were made up of a band of misfits, characterized as castaways, escaped slaves, and ex-sailors disenchanted with the employment opportunities and financial prospects available to them. [5] They were a counter culture in explicit retaliation of nationalist enterprises in trade and resented political and religious authority. These were rebels operating within the bounds of their own ideology and lifestyles–with the recourse to spend lavishly on all kinds of pleasurable indulgences from fancy clothes and prostitution to, yes, rum. And yet, despite their supposed anarchy, they still “developed a distinctive work culture with its own language, songs, rituals, and sense of brotherhood as well as shared institutions and agreed-upon rules for their social order.” [6] This is where the Pirate’s Code comes from, and one such example from Captain Black Bart’s Pirate Law shows how even the respective indulgence of rum was worked into the deal:

Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of Moment; Has equal Title to the fresh provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time Seized. [6]

Therefore, it’s safe to say that pirates themselves, as diverse a band of miscreants as can be, have some form of a shared culture. And at least in pop culture, happen to be associated with rum. Whereas their consumption of rum during the 18th century was little out of the ordinary, more contemporary authors seem to shed particular light on the coupling in no dissimilar a way as any other popular outlaw characterization would a Wild West gunman with a cowboy hat or Prohibition-era mobster with a Tommy gun. [6] One of the earliest literary examples comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island written more than a hundred years after the more famous high sea shenanigans took place. In it, we not only get the image of peg legs and shoulder-warming parrots, but the classic ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum.” [1] And obviously, the romanticizing hasn’t stopped there.

Related image

Edward Teach, aka ‘Blackbeard’. Supposedly enjoyed his rum with gunpowder, probably how he managed the smokey hair tendril look.

Now, pirates are distinctly part of the Disney narrative, which in and of itself, is nearly a monopoly as a juggernaut of cultural output with the vacuum of Star Wars, Marvel, and now Fox Searchlight tangled in its web. The irony of Pirates of the Caribbean then being a narrative text within the Disney world and thus commoditized for gain in its own image is not lost on me.

“Although piracy, mutiny, and rogue sailors may have certainly existed, the manner in which they are displayed in the ride–as swashbuckling caricatures, bungling and gluttonous–is more a function of exposure to other media, not to factual pirate accounts.” –  [7]

And though I absolutely adore the Pirates of the Caribbean films, it’s important to point out how Disney manufactures and contextualizes their stories. It’s no secret that their films aren’t exactly congruent with the origin stories of which they’re based, and Pirates is no different a fairy tale than Cinderella is. With base material like Treasure Island, add in all those Errol Flynn movies, and Disney’s own Peter Pan and The Swiss Family Robinson, and you’ve already got a known place of reference. And with the first Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) film in particular, the screenwriters who were responsible for Aladdin (1992) and Shrek (2001), were already established as priding themselves on exceedingly self-aware and referential fans of fairy tales. “Slyly poking fun at the very essentialized pirate narratives and Disneyfication they were enlisted to produce” [7], they created a film both riddled with Easter eggs in synergy with the park ride and the opportunity to sell memetic jokes as merchandise. The ongoing one, in particular, should be fairly obvious…

Image result for why is the rum always gone gif

Image result for why is the rum always gone gif

Image result for why is the rum always gone gif

That’s not to say it’s all Disney’s fault by any means. Just look at all of these various rum brands that are capitalizing on pirate imagery to sell their product. But even this is completely fair, as pirates were known for making their own version of grog called ‘bumbo’ because who doesn’t like a little extra spice in their life? You could say they’ve probably earned their labels.

And, if we get right down to it, associating rum with pirates is just more fun. Because rum’s tangled history is a bit of a messy one, and it’s not one people usually like to call for shots of at a Miami dance club. With rum, there is a direct link with the slave trade, a drink synonymous with colonialism and sometimes used to barter with for slaves (or to subdue them with). [2] Then there’s traders in North America who would ply Native Americans with rum and cheat them out of their wares, getting them hooked on the drink much the same way as the British did with Opium in China. [8] And then of course, the pervasive image of rum became an evil one during the Temperance movement, especially with the associations above. [9]

But all that aside, rum is good as Jack Sparrow would say. So why not just let the pirates steal all the love?

 

Fact Check it, yo!

[1Grabiner, J. (1998). ‘Some Disputes of Consequence‘: Maclaurin among the Molasses Barrels. Social Studies of Science, 28(1), 139-168. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/285753

[2Nesbitt, Jennifer P. “Rum Histories: Decolonizing the Narratives of Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘The Flint Anchor.’” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 26, no. 2, 2007, pp. 309–330. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20455331.

[3Ostrander, G. (1956). The Colonial Molasses Trade. Agricultural History, 30(2), 77-84. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3739927

[4Sweet, J. (2010). “That Cursed Evil Rum”: The Trustees’ Prohibition Policy in Colonial Georgia. The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 94(1), 1-29. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40585152

[5Dawdy, S., & Bonni, J. (2012). Towards a General Theory of Piracy. Anthropological Quarterly, 85(3), 673-699. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41857267

[6Mackie, E. (2005). Welcome the Outlaw: Pirates, Maroons, and Caribbean Countercultures. Cultural Critique, (59), 24-62. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4489197

[7] Petersen, A. (2007). “You Believe in Pirates, Of Course…”: Disney’s Commodification and “Closure” vs. Johnny Depp’s Aesthetic Piracy of “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Studies in Popular Culture, 29(2), 63-81. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23416141

[8DiVirgilio, J. (2005). Rum Punch and Cultural Revolution: The Impact of the Seven Years’ War in Albany. New York History,86(4), 434-449. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42677835

[9] McArthur, Judith N. “Demon Rum on the Boards: Temperance Melodrama and the Tradition of Antebellum Reform.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 9, no. 4, 1989, pp. 517–540. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3123754.

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