RUM by Ian Williams


A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776
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All about the distilled spirit that fueled the slave trade and sparked the American Revolution.

Nation correspondent Williams, author of foodstuff histories Salt (2001) and Spice (2004), documents the etymological origins of rum—“kill-devil” is one especially pungent early name for the stuff. In the Caribbean, especially Barbados, massive plantations grew the bulk of the cane that could be transformed into what the English for a time called “Barbados Waters.” The brutal work of sugar production required untold numbers of slaves, a vital component of 18th-century trading among Africa, the Caribbean and the New England colonies. Williams highlights just how lucrative and corrupting the business was, comparing the colonial-era Caribbean to today’s petroleum-enriched Middle East. He ascribes to the rum business the origins of the French-Indian War and the American Revolution. During the 1760s, colonists smuggled one barrel of rum for every two that were legally taxed, and their desire for cheap liquor whipped up plenty of anti-Crown sentiment. The story becomes less colorful as it comes closer to modern times: Life at sea just isn’t as much fun once British and American navies stop issuing grog rations; and the consolidating efforts of substandard producers like Bacardi are hardly as interesting, though arguably less reprehensible, than the activities of those who sold “the rum that was made from the molasses that had been traded for cod . . . then bartered in West Africa for yet more slaves.” Nonetheless, Williams (himself an avid collector of rumabilia) keeps his narrative chatty and informative to the end.

Rambunctious, rollicking history, sodden with tasty lore.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 1-56025-651-6
Page count: 362pp
Publisher: Nation Books
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2005


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