Review: Rum

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776
by Ian Williams

“The fulcrum of most European imperial ventures during the formative years of the thirteen colonies was not the North American mainland but the Caribbean. From the Spanish Main that hems it to its polyglot islands, the one universal uniting factor for the Caribbean is rum – lots of it, as a living liquid memorial to the time when the lands bedecked around that perfect blue sea were not the tourist playground of North America and Europe but the cockpit of all their rivalries.”

Perhaps no single paragraph throughout Ian Williams’ Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 more concisely summarizes this work’s content and tone than this, the opening segment of its tenth chapter. It introduces the idea that pre-revolutionary American history wasn’t centralized in Boston or Philadelphia, but actually the Caribbean – and that the one material that truly greased the wheels of rebellion wasn’t tea, but rum. Rum: A Social and Sociable History focuses largely on rum’s role in the colonies, and how its trade, regulation, and consumption ushered the founding fathers towards revolution. It’s a history that’s largely been lost, due in no small part to the days of prohibition when historians were encouraged to ignore some aspects of our colorful past. This is a shame, as rum played an enormous role in our early history – sugar cane and its byproducts at one time held as much influence on world events as oil does today, and Williams goes to great lengths to excavate this buried truth. From the creation of a nation founded on the principles of tax evasion and smuggling, to its irreparable damage to the American Indian population, and throughout an entire sub-history of wars and battles, rum was an ever-present catalyst in the United States’ birth. Williams recounts numerous aspects of this history, from rum’s invention in Barbados to its spread throughout the world.

Rum’s history is rich and fascinating, and Ian Williams strives to share it all. But this book does have a few qualities that detract from its success. It can be a very challenging read, and the aforementioned quote demonstrates Williams’ tendency to over-extend his train of thought, and indeed, overextend his vocabulary for the taste of many readers (if your eyebrow raised at the word “polyglot,” it will surely become airborne at words like “scofflawlishness,” “eleemosynary,” and “panglossianly.”)

Throughout his writing, Williams illuminates some absolutely fascinating snippets of rum lore, from the virtually comedic measures the colonial courts took to defy British smuggling laws, and to the reasons that today in the Caribbean, heart of rum production, Bacardi is strangely the only thing served in many hotels. But unfortunately Williams also passes judgment with many of his observations, and his writing sometimes comes across a little one-sided as a result. Any book that quotes a letter from Cotton Mather (of Salem Witch Trials fame) in which Mather suggests that bartering heathens for rum is a pious act, and then goes on to sign “yours in the Bowels of Christ” could surely be forgiven for viewing the puritans with a dubious eye, but to paint them all as “weird cultists” and calling them “incompetent” seems a rather broad stroke.

This quality becomes all the more prominent when Williams expands on points with contemporary analogies – analogies that almost invariably cast suspicion on the Bush Administration, the Iraq War, and even America itself. However, it doesn’t appear that Williams’ is seeking to actually editorialize on current events, but merely possesses a very specific worldview, and assumes the reader shares the same. As such, readers with different life experiences than Williams’ own might find some of his analogies more distracting than illustrative.

Williams’ work offers one last unfortunate quality that bears mention – his conclusions are not always well supported by the evidence offered. The most significant example of this would be his claim that the Boston Tea Party was “really all about rum.” He then goes on to explain, rather effectively, that the Tea Party wasn’t about taxes, but about eliminating competition from the East India Company – competition in the tea market, to be specific. That the entire affair was really about rum seems to rest solely on the claim that Samuel Adams was a smuggler of both tea and molasses – an explanation that leaves me wanting for more support. Williams offers a slightly more substantial, but still shaky, explanation of his claim that Lord Nelson was probably shipped home in a cask of brandy, rather than the rum of folklore. In both of these cases Williams offers many rare and interesting facts – it’s merely his conclusions that seem a bit of a leap.

Rum: A Social and Sociably History of the Real Spirit of 1776 covers a fascinating piece of American history, and does so in exceptional detail. Its effectiveness is sadly impacted by the writer’s strong opinions, occasional use of exceedingly rare words (eleemosynary,) and aptitude for winding, tangential sentences that require several re-reads to fully digest – but true rum enthusiasts would do well to check it out just the same. Rum is an integral part of our heritage, and unless you read this book you may never appreciate the full impact distilled molasses had in the formation of the world in which we live.