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Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History

Author(s):Smith, Frederick H.
Reviewer(s):Menard, Russell R.
R, Russell

Published by EH.NET (June 2006)

Frederick H. Smith, Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006. xvi + 340 pp. $60 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8130-2867-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Russell R. Menard, Department of History, University of Minnesota.

Frederick H. Smith, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, has written the most important study of the Caribbean rum industry since John McCusker’s masterful 1970 Ph. D. dissertation Rum and the American Revolution. Smith combines economic history and anthropology in the tradition of Sidney Mintz. Indeed, Caribbean Rum will surely remind readers of Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1985) for its focus on a commodity and skillful blending of economic analysis and ethnography. Smith goes beyond McCusker by tracking rum’s history into the twenty-first century and by exploring the cultural dimensions of rum consumption in the Caribbean. Smith notes that rum is not the inevitable by-product of sugar, as early seventeenth-century planters were little interested in it. He then uses a wide range of sources, drawing on manuscripts in several archives, numerous published items, and the evidence of historical archaeology to trace rum’s origins in the desires of Europeans and Africans to recreate the drinking patterns they had left behind in the Old World. He then goes on to trace rum’s transformation from a small colonial activity, concerned largely to supply internal demand, to a major export traded throughout the Atlantic World and finally to a multi-billion dollar industry controlled by multinational corporations. This largely economic history is paired with a close reading of rum’s changing role in Caribbean culture and society. Smith’s analysis of differing levels of rum consumption over time and of variations in drinking patterns among several Caribbean islands is especially successful. It is a fascinating story, and Smith tells it well.

While economic historians will find Smith’s contribution useful, those interested in the Caribbean economy will still want to consult McCusker to understand how rum production functioned within the context of the Caribbean sugar industry. Smith does an excellent job of revealing productivity gains within rum production. Indeed, his analysis of the experiments of planters with methods of rum making puts yet another nail in the coffin of those who would argue that Caribbean planters were a class of seigneurs with no interest in their bottom line. As Smith’s study shows, they were willing to experiment and take risks in order to raise profits. However, Smith is less successful in situating rum within the struggles of sugar planters to improve the productivity of their plantations in order to maintain profit levels in the face of falling sugar prices and rising costs. For that story one must turn to McCusker. On the whole, Smith ‘s thoroughly researched and nicely written analysis of rum consumption is persuasive. He is particularly good in uncovering the ways in which African experience with alcoholic drink shaped the use of rum by slaves in the Caribbean. While I found most of Smith’s conclusions in this area, persuasive, he does on occasion — as with the notion of “alcoholic maroonage” (p. 118) step off the deep end. In sum, Caribbean Rum is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the early Caribbean economy and a must read for all serious students of the early modern Atlantic World.

Russell R. Menard is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota. His most recent book is Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados (Charlottesville, 2006). He is currently working on Plantation Empire: Slavery and Plantation Agriculture in the Making of Britain’s Empire in America.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII