Pirates and Rum (again)

Originally posted 20 June 2013

The popularity of pirate reenactment, which fosters romantic notions about what were, with rare exceptions, seagoing muggers and thugs, has led to many questions about the types of rum that pirates drank. I get enough of these that I decided to post answers to a few questions. One unusually thoughtful writer asked if pirates drank anyhing like the standardized dark rum that was produced for the Royal Navy. I find this highly unlikely, for several reasons. First, the strength of the naval rum ration wasn’t fully standardized until the Napoleonic War era of the early 1800’s, while most of the famous buccaneers flourished almost a century earlier. Second, naval-quality rum commanded a premium in most places compared to the rotgut made for local consumption and trade, so it is likely that thrifty mariners of ill repute would have bought the cheaper article for crew rations. They may have drunk better rum in port, but this was an individual choice.

It is worth noting that most of the rum consumed during the peak era of Caribbean piracy was probably not carefully aged dark rum, but pale spirits that were aged haphazardly if at all. The chemistry of aging was poorly understood, and though experienced drinkers must have noticed that the rum that sat in the holds for a while was better than companion barrels that were tapped immediately, there was little standardization or quality control before the 1750’s at the earliest. By then Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, and Calico Jack Rackham were all long dead, none having had a chance to enjoy a tot of the rum that was to become a symbol of the navy that ended their careers.

Gunpowder and Rum, Necessity and Aesthetics…

Originally posted 15 May 2013

A few boutique distilleries blend gunpowder with rum – a combination pioneered by the pirate Blackbeard, who is not otherwise noted a a culinary trendsetter. I have tried Smoke and Oakum from New Zealand – this picture of their bottles shows how they use the iconography of Caribbean piracy for a beverage made just about as far from Jamaica as you can get while still being on the same planet.


The slightly sulfurous reek of the gunpowder mixed with rum is oddly enjoyable – it smells and tastes like something from another era. In my book I mentioned that mixing rum with gunpowder may have happened accidentally because barrels of both were on a ship, and they might be reused for different purposes. I have since found that while this may have happened, it was probably rare and never by accident. Also, the swap can only go one way; using gunpowder barrels for rum is impossible, and using rum barrels for gunpowder is an extremely bad idea. Gunpowder barrels did not hold liquid well – having been made to keep a dry material inside, the staves were not intended to get wet and might have swelled and warped if it was filled with liquid. Some gunpowder barrels were sealed with pine tar, which would change the flavor of beverages stored within, and some were lined with lead, which would have other negative consequences. Gunpowder barrels were also weaker – they were usually made with wooden or rope bands that were put in place wet so they shrank and held the barrel together, instead of iron hoops. That way there would be no metal on the barrel that might strike a spark.

Rum barrels were much stronger and would have held powder nicely, but a single spark struck from the metal staves would turn that barrel into a bomb that could imperil all within a wide radius. Rum was also usually shipped in large and unwieldy casks that would have been difficult for a gunner to manipulate in order to refill his magazine. Storing gunpowder in rum barrels probably did happen, but not by preference – it was almost certainly an improvisation by a desperate captain or military commander. The necessity is long past, but the spirit lives on in an interesting niche beverage.

The Most Successful Government Program in History

Originally posted 11 April 2013

The question I posted about the Australian pistol-shaped rum bottles has been solved! Troy of Bundaberg Showcase followed up on my supposition that VE might be an abbreviation for “vetreria”, the Italian word for glass works, and he found that the maker’s mark matches Vetreria Etruscana of Northern Italy. We still don’t know precisely how the bottles got to Australia, but we know the maker.

In honor of the solution of that question, it’s worth going into another historical fact about rum in Australia – namely, that the stuff was wildly popular in the early years of the colony, and had a reputation nearly as vile as gin when it comes to wrecking people’s lives. Around 1800, the governor of the colony came up with a brilliant solution, which was convincing Australians to drink something less alcoholic like beer. The problem was that beer wasn’t widely available, so the government actually built a brewery at Paramatta and subsidized its operation. Once beer was available, a public relations campaign was instituted to convince people to switch from rum to beer. Though the message was not initially well received, the aim was eventually achieved; I can state from personal experience that Australians now will drink beer without coercion. Though rum was greatly eclipsed in popularity, it is still made there, and made very well. Some classic brands like Inner Circle and Bundaberg have been bought by conglomerates and much of their history lost – as far as I can tell, there isn’t a single rum museum in the country, which is surprising in a place where it was once both popular and a mainstay of the economy.

A sailor’s song about rum that isn’t a shanty, but delightful nonetheless…

Originally posted 08 February 2013

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.

Rum and guns, real and glass…

Originally posted 19 January 2013

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.

Rum, Piracy, and the famous shanty that no pirate sang

Originally posted 29 December 2012

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.

Drinking rum from an onion…

Originally posted 25 November 2012

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.

Some of the most beautiful ads ever published……

Originally posted 23 October 2012

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.

The mystery of South African rum…

Originally posted 20 October 2012

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…

Rhapsodizing about rum punch…

Originally posted 10 October 2012

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.

Happy Mr Micawber

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.