I am always interested to find historic songs about rum, and I heard one at the Riverside Dickens Festival last weekend. A duo who perform as Bob’s Yer Uncle (note: not the 90’s Canadian rock band with a similar name) sang this cheerful ditty of the dangers of overindulging in grog.
The song is called “Ben Backstay” and if you try to look it up, you are liable to get a much different song, a sad tale of a British sailor who perishes in a shipwreck, breaking the heart of his lady love. That tragic tale has an identical name and rhyming scheme to the one about the meeting of sailor, rum, and shark. This is not an accident; the serious song dates to 1803, and it extolled the bravery of British seamen during the Napoleonic Wars. The comic version, which is sung to a much more jolly tune, probably dates to around 1826, when it appeared in a book called The Universal Songster. This is not a shanty, which is a work song, but a forebitter, a song that is sung at the end of the day just for fun. The fellows in Bob’s Your Uncle seem to be having plenty of fun with it, and it was well received in their shows.
I was reading an account of Australian troops in the Battle of the Somme in World War One in which an officer noted that his men were so fatigued that that when relieved from duty they lay down where they were, sometimes dropping their rifles and collapsing. The officer could tell they were not shamming, because when it was time for distribution of rum rations, only one man from a platoon of fifteen showed up. This was apparently the detail that impressed his superiors – men too tired to get their rum were desperately in need of relief. On another matter involving weaponry and rum, Troy from Bundaberg Showcase in Australia sent this picture of unusual rum liqueur bottles.
These glass pistols were originally filled with Rum Royal Liqueur and were distributed by a company called Frangos, probably in the 1960’s. Troy is looking for any information about exactly where and when these were made and where the liqueur was blended. From the style of the bottle and some markings on the glass I’m guessing the bottles are from Italy – there is a mark that reads “SE. Ve” on the butt of each pistol, and Ve is a likely abbreviation for Vetreria, the Italian word for “Glass works.” Does anybody out there have more information on these? We’d be obliged for the answer.
One has to have a sneaking admiration for the people who invent tourist attractions, for their great creativity if for no other reason. Tourists who visit the British West Indies are told exciting lies about a barren, inhospitable islet named Dead Chest that lies off the coast of Peter Island. Here, they are told, is where Blackbeard cruelly marooned several members of his crew, leaving them with a cutlass and a bottle of rum each. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either the pirates killed each other until only one man was left alive, or they were picked up days later with the rum gone but all of the men alive. The tale goes on that a famous author visited the area later gathering material for a book and worked the story into a song.
The truth is a bit more prosaic. In 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scotsman who never visited the Caribbean, wrote Treasure Island and burnished the stereotype of the rum-crazed, profligate pirate : “[W]hen a cruise is done, why, it’s hundreds of pounds instead of hundreds of farthings in their pockets. Now the most goes for rum and a good fling, and to sea again in their shirts.” Stevenson also gave the world the most famous sea chantey that no real pirate ever sang:
Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil be done with the rest, Yo ho ho and a bottle or rum!
Dead Chest does have a connection to Treasure Island, though – Stevenson saw the name on a map and thought it sounded interesting, so he used it for his song. As to whether Blackbeard was ever there, it’s unlikely – the man did do a lot of traveling around the Caribbean, but an island with no trees, water, or anything else worth plundering would not be a likely stop for him.
When I was in North Carolina on my lecture tour earlier this month, I was puzzled by the lack of information about rum distillers in the area prior to the Civil War. I found several references to rum as a generic trade good, but little information about who was making it and in what quantity. Based on nosing through various archives, I think I have the answer: lots of people were making it, each in relatively small quantities, and there were no established regional brands. Branded goods were indeed established in the North and Midwest during this time, but branding, advertising, and commercialization of alcohol lagged in the Old South. Distilling was an everyday skill, with turpentine and wood alcohol made in high volume, and the skill at distilling one could easily be used for the other. Hundreds of small rummeries were fed by the molasses trade with the Caribbean, with the rum sold through wholesale grocers. Most was probably sold by the keg, but bottles like this one were endlessly reused.
This type of flask was called an onion bottle, and this example was dug up on a beach near New Bern. It probably was made in Holland around 1730 – too late to have actually been part of Blackbeard’s cargo, but well within the time-line for many of his fellow buccaneers.
You can’t get away from the fact that many early rum advertisements portray slaves, or people who worked in slave-like conditions, as happy with their lives, and that is troubling to modern sensibilities. To which I can only say that we can’t judge people of that era by modern standards, so let us merely admire the graphics of early rum labels for what they are: commercial art of a high order, conveying a tropical mystique and pride in craftsmanship. Negrita has made rum in Martinique since 1857, and their graphics have always been splendid…
I could wallpaper a room with antique rum advertisements and not grow tired of looking at them, so arresting are the images, so vibrant the colors. I have been teaching a class on the history of alcohol in America for UCLA’s Lifelong Learning Extension program, and have been admiring lots of vintage alcohol advertisements of late – a book on the topic may be in the works if I can find a publisher who is interested.
During the British Colonial period rum was evidently made in South Africa, but I haven’t been able to find out much about the industry. One of the most prominent modern rums from the country is Mainstay, which was first bottled in 1954. Their advertising states that their rum is “unique to South Africa, is as special to this country as tequila is to Mexico! It was created in the cane fields of KwaZulu-Natal and originally known as ‘gavine’ or ‘mystery liquor’. As the name implies, cane spirit is distilled from fermented molasses, by the continuous column still method. Mainstay, the resultant spirit, is extremely pure and crystal clear.”
I was served things best described as “mystery liquor” at parties when I was first exploring the consumption of alcohol, and it wasn’t usually a positive experience. Nevertheless, I look forward to trying Mainstay, and to learning more about rum in Southern Africa. Anybody who has information about production in earlier eras is invited to share it…
On another note entirely, I will be in North Carolina, Northern Virginia, and Maryland during the next few weeks on a book tour – if anybody has suggestions for rum bars near New Bern, Alexandria, Springfield, or Baltimore, I’d be delighted to meet readers for a beverage…
Charles Dickens enjoyed a good cup of rum punch – he wittily shared his own recipe in a letter to his cousin, and his books include many characters who enthusiastically drank it. Dickens also gives us a portrait of someone who took great delight in making it – Wilkins Micawber, the impoverished but optimistic clerk in 1850’s David Copperfield.
I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.
The ecstatic concentration of a great bartender or chef has rarely been so well expressed. Micawber and his creator were both a bit behind the times – punch was beginning to fall out of favor and be replaced by individually mixed cocktails – but in Dickens’ pages we can relive the joy of a good bowl of punch properly made.
I have been unable to find much information about the evolution of rum in the Philippines – it was made there for at least a hundred years by small distllers who left no trace save in court records when they were caught evading taxes. The industry giant is now Tanduay Distillers, which was established in 1854 and has become so dominant that the company name is almost the synonym for rum in that country. In the 1950’s a prohibitionist group took advantage of this when some poetic genius among their membership wrote the words “TANDUAY RUM” vertically and constructed a sentence in the Filipino language Tagalog horizontally. Roughly translated, the sentence reads “To drink this is to invite into your family sickness, illness, leprosy, strife, divorce, death and the destruction of your soul.” As a non-Tagalog speaker I can’t vouch for the artfulness of the phrasing, but I am impressed that somebody did it at all.Whether it convinced any Filipino rum drinkers to stop imibing has not been recorded..
Europeans and Americans in the 18th and early 19th century were certain that water, especially cold water, was dangerous to human health. In cities, they were right – before modern sewage systems were invented, most city water was contaminated and had to be boiled to be safe, so cold water was suspect. Nevertheless, the warning of Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint Méry, a Frenchman living in Philadelphia, went just a bit overboard: “During hot weather thirst is so widespread and irresistible in all American cities that several persons die each year from drinking cold pump water when hot. Printed handbills are distributed each summer to warn people of these dangers. Strangers especially are warned either to drink grog or to add a little wine or some other spirituous liquor to their water. People are urged to throw cold water on the faces of those suffering from water drinking, and bleeding is also suggested. Sometimes notices are placed on the pumps with the words: `Death to him who drinks quickly.’ But all these teachings are ignored.” This label from a bottle of “medicinal” rum is from a later period, but still reflects the era when rum was part of every doctor’s medical kit.
As for whether adding rum to the water actually did make it safer, it probably wasn’t a bad idea – a little alcohol could kill some of those dangerous germs in the water. I will probably be visiting Philadelphia soon on a lecture tour, and will be sure to add rum to all the water I drink there, just in case Saint Méry was right.
A recurring theme in the history of rum has been the tendency of distillers to evade taxes in any way possible, from hiding their barrels of liquor in caves or cellars to burying it in remote locations. At various times governments have turned to technology for solutions, such as the Distilleries Act promulgated in Jamaica in 1906. This was based on what seems like a sensible idea – putting a meter on every still so that the amount of liquid coming out was measured, and taxing that. So that nobody could cheat, the stills were to be locked so that there was no way of bypassing the meter.
Jamaican distillers cried foul, literally. The first products to come from a still as the wort boils (called feints or heads) are stinking, poisonous, and undrinkable, and at the end of the process the still emits another nasty liquid called tails. The meter on the still would measure either of these as alcohol, so distillers would pay taxes on something they couldn’t use, and unscrupulous still-men might be tempted to leave some of these harmful distillates in the liquor. Furthermore, it was proposed that the meter be attached to the still rather than to the end of the condensing coil, so any steam that escaped accidentally would be taxed as rum. The lock would cause another problem, namely that a distiller could not clean or repair his equipment without contacting an excise-man to give him access to it, and in Jamaica in the pre-telephone and automobile days, that could take days. Articles in the Jamaican press fumed at the injustice of this, noting that technically the Governor-General of Jamaica was the official in charge of the whole operation, and there was nothing in the law that specifically allowed him to delegate anybody else to do it. On April 14, 1906 the Jamaica Times fulminated that this section of the law was “sheer nonsense; what could the Governor know about the shape, dimensions, and parts of a locked still?” The Westmoreland Planters Association issued gloomy predictions of the ruin of the economy and lobbied the Legislative Council to oppose it – successfully, as it turned out, since rum was Jamaica’s major export. The revenue men had to continue their games of hide and seek with crafty distillers who did their best to conceal how much they had made and where they were storing it.
The picture here is of a still in St. Thomas – I couldn’t find a photo of a Jamaican still of this vintage. It is a stark and strange looking contraption, isn’t it! (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)