11/9/12 - american rum and slavery

In today's selection - the horrors of slavery. By the late 1600s, riding the discovery and exploding demand for sugar in Europe, slavery had become the largest economic enterprise on the earth. Horror attended the capture and transport of slaves -- it was commonplace for over half the slaves on a given ship to perish, often from heartbreak and despair alone. The horror attended the slavers as well, a large number of whom perished from murder, betrayal or disease. African slaves were purchased with rum -- and so a terrible cycle was established in which slaves were purchased from African chiefs and shipped to the Caribbean to harvest sugar cane, which was turned to molasses and then rum, which was then shipped back to Africa to purchase more slaves. America made this two sided trade into an even more terrible triangle when it learned a superior way to distill rum, and so the molasses was then shipped to New York, Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia and especially Newport, Rhode Island -- where is was distilled into a superior rum, then shipped to Africa to buy slaves to sell to Caribbean planters. It became for a time the largest business in the colonies:

"The logic of slavery was simple: of all the peoples of the world, Africans had proven the best suited to withstand the heat, disease, and back-breaking toil required to raise and process cane sugar in the American tropics. White men and indigenous Indians had been put to the test, but they died in such numbers that their impressment was abandoned. Africans succumbed as well -- as many as a third died during the first two years on a plantation, a phe­nomenon known as 'seasoning' -- but most survived, and the African trade thrived as a result. Slaves were used to raise coffee, tobacco, indigo, and other plantation staples, but most -- as many as 90 percent in the period before 1820 -- were employed exclusively in growing and processing sugar.

"By the end of the seventeenth century, slavery and the products of slave labor comprised the single largest economic enterprise on earth. Over the course of more than two hundred years, European carriers -- British, Spanish, French, and Portuguese -- had shipped more than 2 million Africans across the Atlantic in chains. But that was just the beginning. Spurred by an explod­ing European demand for sugar, traffic in slaves surged, and in the eighteenth century alone more than 6 million Africans were taken from their homeland to plantations in Brazil, the Caribbean, and, to a much smaller extent, British North America. ...

"In the first centuries of the slave trade, African and European middlemen on the western coast of Africa had narrowed the list of commodities that they would barter for slaves to guns, gold, and spirits -- primarily French brandy. Around 1700, interlopers from the West Indies introduced rum, and the stronger stuff quickly supplanted brandy as the preferred libation. By 1725, British traders at Sierra Leone reported to their home office that there was 'no trade to be made without rum.'

"This development accrued to the benefit of Rhode Island, as craftsmen there had learned to distill their spirits at a higher proof and consistently better quality. African chiefs and their European trading partners quickly learned to tell the difference, which led the governor of one British trading fort to ac­knowledge, in 1775, that 'West India rum never will sell here while there is any Americans here.' Consequently, almost from the time they entered the trade, New England slavers specialized in rum -- the Rhode Island captains came to be known as Rum Men -- and their merchandise took precedence in the slave markets of Africa. Rum became the practical currency on the coast and at the European forts, with prices for slaves denominated in gallons of rum as well as ounces of gold.

"Rhode Island rum first appeared in quantity on the African coast in 1725, when three slaving voyages sailed from Newport. Over the course of the next ten years, Newport merchants sent twenty-five ships to Africa, where they traded barrels of rum for an estimated four thousand slaves. Once their cargo was loaded, they sailed a southerly route to reach the Caribbean, where they disposed of their captives and invested the proceeds in molasses, which they brought home to Rhode Island to make more rum. This was the triangle trade, and a successful run brought profits from each leg. How much depended on the particulars of the voyage, and ledgers giving specific figures are rare. But one 1747 letter sent from a slave captain to a Liverpool shipmaster gives a sense of the high end: 'Negroes at Jamaica £50 to £55 a head bought on the Coast of Affrica at from £4 to £6 a head.' ...

"Grounded as it was in kidnapping, the slave trade bred fear and mistrust on both sides. Some slavers liked to shorten the bargaining process by grabbing the African traders as well as those captives offered for sale; retribution might be exacted upon the next slave crew to ar­rive. And even the most routine transactions involved an elaborate series of payments of tribute to the local king or his lieutenants, to various interpreters and intermediaries, and to the African trader on the beach. Wrangling over what was paid and what was delivered might quickly escalate into a 'palaver,' a dispute that required a formal sit-down between the parties, usually resolved through still another payment of rum, gold, or possibly tobacco. Both slavers and their African counterparts frequently resorted to 'panyaring,' or seizing hostages, to ensure the terms of trade.

"The greatest drawback in direct deals with Africans was time. Slaves were rarely available in quantity, and usually purchased one or two at a time. Even trading at the European forts, American slavers rarely made their cargo through a single transaction, or even several. Far more often, a slave ship would languish for three to five months on the south-facing coast, her crew members exposed to malaria, dysentery, and other mortal threats; some slave ships tarried as long as eight months to assemble a full complement of Africans."


Charles Rappleye


Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2006 by Charles Rappleye


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