Trade Goods > Rum


Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration


Rum is a type of alcohol that is made from sugarcane and its associated products such as molasses. Through the processes of fermentation and distillation a clear liquid is produced that is then aged in oak barrels. Most of the rum of the world both during the Golden Age of Piracy and the present day is produced in the Caribbean and Latin America. Although it is produced elsewhere now, the history of the product is steeped in the West Indies.

Rum was famous not only among pirates but among the Royal Navy and the Spanish as well. In the Golden Age of Piracy the trade and exchange of rum was almost as valuable as coined money and it was one of the major products on the Trans-Atlantic Triangular Trade route. It was so important to sailors because it provided a way for them to have fresh drinking water as the alcohol would kill all the bacteria.

The pirates created a concoction called bumbo out of rum while the Royal Navy made grog out of it by mixing rum with Beer or water. The Spanish called rum, ron viejo or "old rum", and ron aƱejo or "aged rum".


The precursors to rum date back to antiquity. Development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane juice is believed to have first occurred either in ancient India or in China,[2] and to have spread from there. An example of such an early drink is brum. Produced by the Malay people, brum dates back thousands of years.[9] Marco Polo also recorded a 14th-century account of a "very good wine of sugar" that was offered to him in the area that became modern-day Iran.[2]

The first distillation of rum in the West Indies occurred on the massive sugarcane plantations that developed during the 17th century. It is believed that this happened on the British island of Barbados where slaves working on a plantation discovered that molasses could be fermented into alcohol. Later the colonists realized that by distilling this product they could remove the impurities and create a smooth alcohol. The earliest mentions of rum in the historical record are from a 1651 document from Barbados that states;

"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."

Rum was also found in a tin bottle found on the Swedish warship named the Vasa that sunk in 1628. As soon as rum developed however, its popularity surged across the New World. In 1664 the first rum distillery was set up in the Province of New York on Staten Island in order to meet the colonists growing demand for the product. Another distillery developed in Boston in the Province of Massachusetts Bay three years later in 1667.

Rum in fact would become the single largest export and the most prosperous industries of the New England. Eventually the success of the product spread to all the other colonies and it would become one of the major exports from British North America back to Europe. In order to support this massive consumer demand for rum along with the growing demand for sugar meant that more plantations had to be developed and more slaves imported to work them. This helped established the Trans-Atlantic Triangular Trade which saw the movement of manufactured goods such as guns, luxury goods, cloth, beer and iron be exported from Europe to West Africa where they were traded with local kingdoms and tribes for slaves that would be sent to the New World. From West Africa luxury goods such as gold, ivory, spices and hardwoods would all be brought back to Europe.

The slaves from West Africa were then brought to the Caribbean and British North America where they were sold at various slave markets. Ships would then pick up products such as sugarcane and its products such as sugar, molasses and rum and head up to either British North America or back to Europe. If they headed to British North America merchants could also pick up goods such as whale oil, furs and hides along with natural resources such as lumbar, indigo, tobacco, silk and rice before heading back to Europe to sell everything at a massive profit. Goods would also go from North America to West Africa such as rum, iron, gunpowder, cloth and tools.

The sugar trade was so important to the imperial structure that the Sugar Act of 1764 may have been responsible for initiating the American Revolution. Rum was popular all throughout the American Revolution as well as George Washington requested a barrel of rum from Barbados at his first inauguration in 1789. However, over time with bans on British rum imports and the rise of American whiskey the popularity of rum has waned since its heyday during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Types of Rum

Rum Grog

Rum's association with piracy began with British privateers trading on the valuable commodity. As some of the privateers became pirates and buccaneers, their fondness for rum remained, the association between the two only being strengthened by literary works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.[20] The association of rum with the Royal Navy began in 1655, when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum.[21] While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon had the rum ration watered producing a mixture that became known as grog. While many believe the term was coined in honor of the grogram cloak Admiral Vernon wore in rough weather,[22] the term predates his famous order. It probably originates in the West Indies, perhaps of African etymology. The Royal Navy continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a "tot," until the practice was abolished after 31 July 1970.[23] Today, a tot (totty) of rum is still issued on special occasions, using an order to "splice the mainbrace", which may only be given by the Queen, a member of the royal family or, on certain occasions, the admiralty board in the UK, with similar restrictions in other Commonwealth navies.[24] Recently, such occasions have included royal marriages or birthdays, or special anniversaries. In the days of daily rum rations, the order to "splice the mainbrace" meant double rations would be issued. A legend involving naval rum and Horatio Nelson says that following his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson's body was preserved in a cask of rum to allow transportation back to England. Upon arrival, however, the cask was opened and found to be empty. The [pickled] body was removed and, upon inspection, it was discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all the rum, hence the term "Nelson's blood" being used to describe rum. It also serves as the basis for the term tapping the admiral being used to describe surreptitiously sucking liquor from a cask through a straw. The details of the story are disputed, as many historians claim the cask contained French brandy, whilst others claim instead the term originated from a toast to Admiral Nelson.[25] Variations of the story, involving different notable corpses, have been in circulation for many years. The official record states merely that the body was placed in "refined spirits" and does not go into further detail.[26] Rum was also occasionally consumed mixed with gunpowder, either to test the proof of an alcohol ration (if the alcohol was diluted, the gunpowder would not ignite after being soaked with alcohol) or to seal a vow or show loyalty to a rebellion.[citation needed]


In the slave trade, rum was also used as a medium of exchange. For example, the slave Venture Smith, whose history was later published, had been purchased in Africa for four gallons of rum plus a piece of calico. Pirates carrying rum to shore to purchase slaves as depicted in The Pirates Own Book by Charles Ellms

Trade Goods





Primary Sources

Secondary Sources