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All in the Rum: The Legacy of Slaves and Pirates of the Caribbean

As Europe changed its drinking habit, so did the waters between Europe and the Caribbean. Pirates who ran by their own laws, began to teem the waters, and trade across the Atlantic became a tricky affair for everyone.

Manu Remakant |

Updated:June 2, 2017, 8:12 PM IST
All in the Rum: The Legacy of Slaves and Pirates of the Caribbean
A still from Johnny Depp-starrer 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. Image: Youtube/Disney

News18 Tippling Point It was the 17th century. European colonisers didn’t know all hell would break loose over the Atlantic, when they began to cultivate sugarcane over a few Caribbean islands scattered over the ocean.

Sugar went harmless.

But the refuse — molasses — the by-product of sugar distillation had a tryst with destiny. A few planters saved the sticky trash that was draining into the ocean to see whether, if fermented (and later, if distilled), it would turn into some coolant against the intense heat in the plantations. It did.

The slaves, whom the colonisers had brought from Africa, took to the new drink warmly and buried their hardships in it. They worked hard the whole day. Drank hard in the evening.

Rumbullion, kill-joy, later known widely as rum was born.

Though initially spurned as too rough a drink for the delicate and mannerly senses of Europe, rum eventually crossed the ocean and caught on flaunting its decadent spirit.

ALSO READ | How Indian Single Malts Matured Beyond Their Years

Europe changed its drinking habit, but what changed irremediably was the waters between Europe and the Caribbean. As the craving for sugar and rum grew in the continent, more slaves were needed for work. With the arrival of shiploads of slaves from Africa, trade flourished over the Atlantic and Pacific. With trade, came the fight among colonisers over the merchandise from the New World.

Privateers commissioned by various countries for looting enemy ships, and eventually pirates who ran by their own laws, began to teem the waters, and trade across the Atlantic became a tricky affair for everyone.

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”

Remember the drinking song of RL Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island? It is iconic of the life on turbid waters those days. The refrain subtly refers to the story of legendary pirate Edward Teach, known widely as Blackbeard as well.

Blackbeard. There was a time when the very name sent shudders across the oceans and a few coasts of North America. With a flotilla of pirate ships and hundreds of privateers, Blackbeard was nemesis incarnated on sea.

The sudden and dramatic hoisting of a skull flag from his ship was enough to make the hapless victims surrender their merchandise without even meek resistance. Add to that his legendary appearance and theatrics.

A man pours rum into a glass at the St. Nicholas Abbey in St. Peter, Barbados
Rumbullion, kill-joy, later known widely as rum was born

Blackbeard wore a sling over his shoulders from which hung three pistols. Records say he wore a beard of extravagant length. He braided it with ribbons and in times of action, he stuck lighted matches in it and also behind his ears that gave him the very look of the devil.

In the heat of action, Blackbeard once even showed the courage to attack a British military ship. His name regularly appeared in letters, newspapers and official documents in Europe as well as in America.

Whenever they needed rest, Blackbeard and his crew retired to some coasts in North America, drank hard (rum) and spent nights on hammocks. But merchant ships always called them back to the sea.

Even when Blackbeard was finally put down by an army sent by the Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, after a fierce battle, he didn’t take his dying meekly. It was only after receiving 25 slashes, including five from gun shots, that Blackbeard came down to his knees.

His head was cut off and slashed to the prow of a ship. It was a death knell to a spectre that haunted the ocean for many years. Legends say that his skull was later brought to a tavern in Virginia to be used as a drinking bowl until the beginning of the 20th century.

So the next time you hold a glass of rum, listen before you quaff it. You could perhaps pick up from it, the rumble of oceans, drinking songs of slaves working in the Caribbean, and the war cries of pirates. No wonder even if you see the faint flicker of those burning matches that once set a long beard alight.
It’s all in the rum.

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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