Island author of 'Rum Drinks' probes the historical expedition of the spirit
Rum on the Vineyard
by Jessica B. Harris
“A spot in Massachusetts where there is no crime? The rum traffic on Martha’s Vineyard has been outlawed for more than eighteen years… What has been the result? Crime has not only diminished, but it seems to have almost entirely left the Vineyard. We are informed that no case of crime has come before the courts for something like sixteen years. The judges go down in one boat and back in the next.”—The Boston Telegraph, 1855.
This selection of the telegraph is a great reminder of the Vineyard’s connection with rum. Even before Prohibition’s ugly head was raised, the Island was one of the stops for the clipper ships that brought red rum up from the Caribbean to the distilleries of Massachusetts. Rum was consumed in great quantities, as it muted the edges of a harsh life. Taverns were the hubs of social life. Going to the tavern was so popular in Massachusetts that a law was passed requiring tavern keepers within a mile of churches to ask all patrons of able body to leave the establishment and go to church during the hours of service. By 1670, rum, “a strong water drawn from sugar cane,” had become profitable for New England. John Ligon, an English settler in Barbados, was the first to describe the beverage as “Rumbullion alias Kill Devil—a hot, hellish and terrible liquor.” Known under such names as ockuby or rumbooze, it became so popular that by 1686, Increase Mather was bemoaning the beverage’s popularity and affordability: “They that are poor, and wicked too, can for a penny or two-pence make themselves drunk.” For much of the 18th century, rum was astonishingly cheap: a gallon of Massachusetts distilled rum cost three shillings, and West Indian rum, considered superior, costing only tuppence more. In 1728, more than two million gallons of West Indies rum were imported. Needless to say, drinking was extremely heavy. As one wit put it: There’s but one reason I can Think / Why people ever cease to drink, / Sobriety the Cause is not / Nor Fear of being deam’d a Sot / Not if Liquor can’t be got.
When rum began to be used as trade goods, the business of distilling the beverage became a bonanza for those in Massachusetts. For more than three centuries, rum fueled the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade by being exchanged for human cargo in the ports of Western and Central Africa. The Triangular Trade brought raw molasses up from the Caribbean to be processed in northern ports, and transformed into rum for export and for local consumption. By the late 18th century, rum had replaced French brandy as a means of exchange all up and down the West African Coast. Caribbean molasses was shipped to the American colonies, where it was transformed into Guinea rum, an especially distilled variant that was concentrated for shipping and had to be watered down upon arrival on the African coast. In 1767, the standard price at Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) was 130 gallons per man, 110 per woman, and 80 per girl. By 1770, the price had risen to as much as 220 gallons per slave.
The beverage also lubricated the wheels of power in 18th century colonial America. Then, voters were lured to the polls with rations of the beverage, and the average colonist drank vast amounts of it. Taverns, as reported by E.L. Bynner, “were the centers of life and affairs, the resort at once of judges and jury, of the clergy and the laity, of the politician and the merchant, where the selectmen came to talk over the affairs of the town, and higher officials to discuss the higher interests of the province…” For much of the 18th century, rich and poor alike consumed rum, whether as Stonewall (a mix of rum and cider), calibogus (a mix of rum and beer), black-strap (a mixture of rum and molasses), or straight Boston-brewed rum. Flip— cream, eggs, sugar, beer, and rum mixed together and beaten with a poker until frothy—was extremely popular. Flip glasses testify to the gargantuan capacity for consumption of many New Englanders: some hold as much as three or four quarts apiece, and as one scholar put it, the size “testifies to the unlimited bibulous capacity of our ancestors!”
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing with greater zeal throughout the 19th, concerned United States citizens began to campaign for the reformation of drinking habits, including lobbying for laws that regulated the consumption of alcohol. In response, tavern keepers became creative about the ways in which they sold rum. For example, this was the period of the Striped Pig scam. Patrons would pay a sum to see a “striped pig” (an animal gaudily painted with garish stripes). While viewing the pig, they would be given a free glass of rum, thereby circumventing all of the newly-established temperance rules. Then the axe fell: on January 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment signaled the start of Prohibition, and a tradition older than the country itself was outlawed. No sooner was the ink dry on the document than folk began to think of ways to thwart the law. Up and down the eastern seaboard, wherever there were inlets, rum-runners offloaded their barrels of booze from the Bahamas and the US Virgin Islands. The liquors’ value doubled in the transfer, and again doubled after it was watered down on the mainland for customers in speakeasies and other illicit spots. Rum-running provided the wealth of more than one of Nassau’s elite Bay Street boys; it lined the pockets of the illustrious and the criminal, and more than one Vineyarder got in on the bonanza. With Prohibition’s repeal in ‘33, happy days were here again.
Today, rum on the Vineyard is likely to mean Dark ‘N Stormy Fridays at the Lampost, a Mojito or two at the Oyster Bar, or a sip of Mount Gay at the Atlantic Grill in Edgartown, where both Islanders and visitors lift a glass in a nod to the beverage’s seafaring past. It may also mean a sip of the deliciously lethal rum punch prepared for me by a friend or a Hurricane to calm Nor’easter nerves. Sometimes it’s just a simple ‘Ti punch or a lovely glass of the Zaya rum from Trinidad that tastes so good by itself. Whatever it is and wherever it is consumed, as we sip it, it’s hard not to glance into the amber and appreciate, not only the deep flavors of the drink, but also the history that lurks at the bottom of the glass.