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tv   Invention of Rum  CSPAN  October 19, 2019 1:10pm-1:27pm EDT

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c-span3. >> professor jordan smith talks -- >> professor jordan smith talks about the invention of rum. and it's impact on the atlantic world during the 17th and 18th centuries. we recorded the interview at the organization of american historians annual meeting in philadelphia. >> jordan smith, you are here at the organization of historians annual meeting talking about rum. why? >> i'm working on a book project that examines the production of rum in the 17th and 18th century atlantic world. at the heart of the project is an attempt to ask how rum was invented over centuries as different groups of people from the americas, europe, and africa converged and combined their experiences. >> why rum?
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>> what is interesting about rum is it is ubiquitous. it is something, we look at the example of george washington's mount vernon, everybody is drinking rum. it is served on washington's table. martha washington says rum may always be had. it is being imported from a distillery locally in alexandria, virginia and also from the caribbean. it is having an internal economy bringing in workers who get their wages in rum. enslaved people receive rum for anything from childbirth to rescuing a cow. it is one of these moments where you can see how different groups of people we don't always think of interacting around an item part of everyday life. >> where and when is it invented? >> i argue in the book it is
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invented in barbados in the early to mid-17th century when europeans from england and scotland and native people from south america and africans arrived in barbados within about 18 months of each other. it is a moment when people want alcohol. all of those individuals were used to having alcohol. they are far removed from where they had lived previously. certain alcohols don't travel well over the atlantic ocean. and so there are people interested in making alcohol, with some experience making alcohol. there are new products they experiment with, fermenting to turn sugar into alcohol. some of the equipment is necessary to make rum arrived on the island for different purposes. there is experimentation, drawing in different groups of
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people and in a couple of decades, they are producing a number of different beverages from bananas and plums, which becomes rum. i argue it is invented in barbados and reinvented as a commodity but also the knowledge to make that commodity travels from barbados to other parts of the caribbean and north america, england and scotland. >> what are they using? >> when the native people are brought, they bring sugarcane. the base ingredient for rum is the waste product of sugar. that is the base ingredient. >> how is it made? >> you would take whatever waste product you had, we are talking about sugarcane that might have
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been damaged, eaten by rats, or the molasses that is taken out of the sugar as it is turned into granular sugar. they are taking all of these waste products together and mixing them together with water, yeast, allowing the fermentation process to take place for two weeks as the sugar becomes alcohol and then they are put in a close topper where you can check most of the alcohol to create a more concentrated beverage. >> who is drinking it? >> again, everybody. it is consumed on plantations. early on, producers are the consumers. that is important because it suggests when we figure out why rum gained the quality it does, whoever is making it is also thinking about what they want to consume and what properties they want.
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it is being traded locally. smaller plantations may not have a distillery. it is being traded to africa as part of the slave trade. alcohol is the second-most traded item in the transatlantic slave trade. it becomes a part of the european trade with the native people. just about everybody, including people who are children today would have been drinking rum in large quantities. >> is it a lucrative commodity? >> the thing that might differentiate rum from beer or wine or brandy and whiskey is that it is value-added. you are able to harness the waste product of sugar production and turn it into rum. it increased the value of sugar production. it is very lucrative.
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beyond just making money, it encourages industrialists in north america to centralize production. >> when you look at documents from that time, or in your research, how much are people paying for or trading for to get rum and in what quantities? >> it depends. individuals might go to a backcountry tavern and buy a small quantity of rum for personal consumption. >> how much would that cost? >> cents. pennies. again, you could get a little bit of rum for very little money. there is a lot of variety. this is in an era where as people are trying to invent rum is, they experiment with aging, experiment with different qualities and types of product. it also depends on, rum from the
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caribbean ended up being more valuable than rum in america. >> describe the evolution of who is making it and where does it go from there? >> in the larger book project i document how rum merges from the margins of society in barbados as the cultivation is in hand. native people, enslaved africans start experimenting with alcohol production. early on, it is not a commodity yet. there is room for individuals to experiment with making it. it becomes a commodity. it becomes incredibly lucrative. plantation owners and enslavers start to corral the process. eventually requiring enslaved individuals to carry out the
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fieldwork associated with rum production. it becomes over time the work becomes concentrated in the hands of enslaved individuals. the process and credit given to inventors is given to enslavers rather than the actual bodies and minds. >> where does it get exported and why? >> anywhere a british ship is going, rum is going with it. a lot of rum, and also the knowledge of how to produce, is being circulated between the caribbean, north america, and britain. later on in the 18th century, you also see rum in south asia and australia. rum is always on these ships.
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sometimes as a trade item. >> what impact does this industry have on the colonies? >> it becomes one of the largest industries in north american cities. by 1770, there are about 140 distilleries throughout the british colonies. all the way from georgia, to new hampshire, even canada. this is a type of production, a larger scale of production that brings slavery that resembles plantation slavery from the caribbean. to places like boston, new york, philadelphia. >> what do you mean by that?
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>> the way the distilleries work in the northern cities, they would have as many as eight or 10 enslaved people working in them. they were supervised by a distillery. that is different than other industries as far as shipbuilding or making iron where the workers tended to work alongside each other. it is one of the larger uses of industrial slavery in the north. >> what impact does it have on slavery and the institution? >> the production of rum has several influences. it is one of the most frequently traded items in the slave trade. it shows the connection between places like boston and newport, rhode island and this trade in human beings. it encourages the movement of an enslaved body.
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i document in the book cases where individual enslaved people are moved against their will from plantations in barbados to boston where they are valued. i tell the story of a man in 1730 who is removed from barbados and carried around in boston and advertised as an expert in rum production, or making the barrels. this is a powerful reminder of how slavery was not just taking a physical body. it was also taking the mind. it tells us something about the intellectual slavery where individuals are producing knowledge. they are producing expertise
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that adds value. >> was that person worth more because of his expertise? >> yes. there are other complications that make it harder but in general i have looked at the sorts of plantation records to understand how they value skilled workers. i find that enslaved distillers or those who made the barrels to carry rum were often valued higher than other enslaved people. >> when did you develop your interest in the history of rum? >> even as an undergraduate student when i was falling in love with history i thought alcohol was a way to think about how a variety of people interact.
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it was so ubiquitous in society. initially i was interested in how it was consumed. i spent some time working at mount vernon, they have a distillery. it was part of efforts to make different types of alcohol and it was hard work. sometimes it did not go as planned. this suggested there was information and expertise that individuals in the 18th century and enslaved individuals must have had that we took for granted. it caused me to rethink the part of the alcohol process, the production and what that might tell us about the history of the atlantic world and how we think about expertise. >> you were making rum the way people were doing it? >> i was making whiskey, i had a chance to make rum as well.
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not always exactly how it was done. the physical process raised questions that dovetailed with what i was learning about industry and work. >> when you say it did not turn out, did you taste bad rum? >> i remember we did not know how to mix the fermented batches. we came in one morning and the floor was covered in foam. we had some time to reflect as we were cleaning up the phone -- the foam because it was not really written in distillation guides. but that people would have known from their own experience. >> what should people know about learning history by doing history?
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>> we have to, it can add to our understanding of certain processes and what it means to create alcohol or any commodity. that can be valuable. we have to be mindful when we use that technique we are never going to replicate the broader milieu of the 18th century. nor should we want to. it will never be the same. i can't speak to certain experiences. i can learn something momentarily working with the same tools people might have worked with. >> jordan smith, thank you. this is american history tv, on c-span three. for each weekend we feature 48
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