If you’re a rum drinker, you’re almost certainly aware that spirits made from sugar cane in one form or another are most often produced in the tropical and subtropical climates in which the stalks have thrived for centuries. Rum and sugar are inextricably linked, and the relationship between the two is one that’s habitually romanticized by spirits brands and their loyal evangelists.
What is almost always excluded from the narrative, however, is that the industry surrounding rum, a spirit produced primarily in the Caribbean, has continued forth from its colonialist beginnings without confronting the truth that these lucrative crops were often a death sentence for the enslaved people forced to tend them. Furthermore, the industry has thus far neglected to take adequate measures to make reparations.
Put simply, a sip of rum should not be taken without understanding and acknowledging the numerous exploitative factors that created the spirit’s industry. Ideally, that knowledge should serve as a catalyst for change.
Caribbean Rum, Colonization and Slavery
The first printed mention of rum in the Caribbean dates back to around 1651 and was made by a visitor to Barbados, which was first colonized by Europeans in the late 15th century and eventually claimed long-term by the English in 1625. Artifacts and other evidence indicate that Indigenous peoples had inhabited the island of Barbados as early as 1623 BC.
According to the University of Glasgow’s Saint Lauretia Project, a research-based virtual recreation of Caribbean plantations during the slave-trade era, sugar cane for industrial planting was brought to Barbados in the 1640s by the English, who put enslaved Africans (along with convicts and prisoners from the British Isles) to work in the fields. The work was, needless to say, grueling and extremely cruel, and it continued around the clock.
“We’re talking about roughly three centuries of enslaved people meeting violence, whether they were taken from Africa and brought to the Caribbean or were born there,” says Dr. Natasha Lightfoot, the author of “Troubling Freedom” and an associate professor at Columbia University who specializes in Caribbean and African diaspora history, and slavery and emancipation studies.
Once a person became the property of a sugar estate, says Lightfoot, they were put to work from about five years old and assigned tasks according to age and physical ability. Children and the elderly were forced to clear trash from cane fields or scare birds away from the crops, while those in-between were typically either made to plant, tend and harvest the cane (often with very rudimentary tools or no tools at all) from sunup to sundown or work overnight at the sugar mill, where the potential for brutal and fatal accidents awaited at every turn.
Denial of access to the basics of living on top of the imposition of these horrendous working conditions translated not only to frequent deaths among the enslaved but also to negative birth rates because women could not carry pregnancies to term. For owners, the answer was to buy more slaves in a vicious circle that further bolstered the trade.
The brutality endured by enslaved people in general, according to Lightfoot, was not limited to the physical realm. “There is psychological violence in making people work for free; slave owners were also very much comfortable with the concept of creating obedience through the use of force,” she says. “Owners were dealing with people whom they didn't even regard as human. Their blackness meant that they were not worthy of any sort of wage or ability to reap profits from their labor, and there are still massive imbalances in society today that stem from all of this.”
Slavery in Barbados officially lasted until Britain’s 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, which did not take effect until the following year, and despite having been “freed,” the enslaved were forced to continue working for their former owners as apprentices for the next four years. As part of the Act, £20 million (which would be worth £2.4 billion, or $3.4 billion, in 2021) was set aside for slave owners in the British Colonies to compensate for their “losses,” though no such reparations have ever been paid to the enslaved or their descendants.
Modern Social Dynamics in the Rum Business
Rum’s origin story in Barbados is just one example of many similar tales in sugar-cane-producing areas across the globe. The vast majority of the category’s major players are white—not a coincidence given the failure on the part of slavery’s beneficiaries to reinvest their profits, which could be said to have been earned unfairly, back into the countries and communities they colonized.
Today, the colonizer influence within the rum world manifests far beyond the production side of the industry. Rum seminars at popular spirits industry conferences frequently feature all-white (and mostly all-male) panelists, and most rum books and blogs are authored by white men. Rum distilleries and import brands are often headed by white men, as are most Tiki bars, which inherently function as an extension of the rum business.
“The Caribbean and its spirits industries have been hijacked,” says Jahdé Marley, a Brooklyn wine and spirits specialist who co-hosted an industry discussion on the audio platform Clubhouse titled “Modern Colonialism in Rum” with entrepreneur, acclaimed author and widely respected industry advocate Jackie Summers. The live session was held in response to Gargano’s transgressions, which initially began circulating on Facebook after being pointed out by industry veteran Jabriel Donohue. “We as Caribbean people are not regarded as the experts on our own products, and outsiders come into our areas to extract cane and other resources for profit—it’s not right,” she says.
According to Marley, the authority and ownership claimed by folks who are not of the Caribbean would not be so egregious if proper and thoroughly equitable partnerships with local producers were put into place. Unfortunately, that is rarely how things play out.
Alongside the question of financial equity, Summers also stresses the importance of representation in positions of power within outsider-owned spirits companies operating within Caribbean countries. “Everything was stolen from the people of the Antilles: their land, their labor, their skills, their lives,” Summers said during the Clubhouse discussion of the numerous rum companies that have benefited from colonialism and slavery. “It isn’t enough to say, ‘We have black people in our company’ if none of them are on your executive boards. It’s fair to ask any company about its plan to undo its own complicity in colonial capitalism, who owns the equity and who owns the land. Decolonizing means ‘give it back.’”
Summers notes that the rum world will likely face grave consequences if white-owned spirits companies selling products rooted in indigeneity do not take significant measures to give credit where it’s due. “It’s of primary importance that the voices of those upon whose back the industry is built be heard,” he says. “Without this, the industry will fall under the weight of its own hate.”
Moving the Rum Industry Forward
From an ethics perspective, the future of rum depends on the industry’s leaders taking accountability and making significant changes accordingly. On what that could and should look like, Lightfoot says, “For true reparatory justice to happen, rum companies would have to be willing to dismantle themselves and become localized, but I don’t know if they’d go that far.”
Change from within, as Marley and Summers have also suggested, is essential for the rum industry to begin to confront its past. This lack of accountability and reparatory measures, though, should not obscure or discredit the existing accomplishments of people of Caribbean descent in the rum business. Current prominent figures include Joy Spence, who became the world’s first female master blender for Appleton Estate in 1997, and Trudiann Branker, who was named Mount Gay’s master blender in 2019 (the first woman in Barbados to hold the title). Ten to One Rum founder Marc Farrell is from Trinidad; his company’s name was inspired by the original Caribbean Federation, which consisted of 10 countries, and as Trinidad & Tobago's prime minister at the time said, "One from 10 equals 0," making the point that if you remove one from the collective, the whole thing falls apart. Equiano Rum was co-founded by global rum ambassador Ian Burrell and named for Nigerian-born Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave and abolitionist whose story the brand aims to immortalize.
“The world is changing, [and] we are seeing greater diversity” says André Wright, the executive vice president at Standard International Group, a financial firm focused on infrastructure projects within the Caribbean and beyond. With more than three decades of work involving the Caribbean rum industry specifically, Wright has personally witnessed its evolution over time.
Wright shared his perspective on who’s seated at the table during important brand discussions, particularly where government representatives are present to discuss matters such as Geographical Indications. “In instances with the government as a partner, certain global rum producers have done a good job making sure there are local employees and local content providers in the regions where rum is being produced,” he says. “Given the structure of the rum market, it would behoove corporations to better diversify at the corporate level.”
In a similar vein to the 10-point call for reparations laid out by CARICOM, an organization that advocates for the economic integration, foreign policy coordination, development and security of Caribbean countries, Lightfoot outlines a handful of specific examples of measures for rum companies that have benefited from systemic oppression. “Material forms of reparatory justice, such as providing money and resources for education, technology and health care systems, are necessary and should be both continuous and publicly pledged,” she says. Companies with direct ties to the legacy of slavery, she adds, must share their disproportionate and unjustly earned wealth in order to begin to heal the relationship. Anything less is modern colonialism.