by Arley Gill
Rum can be defined as an alcoholic drink distilled from the by-products of sugarcane.
The distillate is a clear liquid that is usually aged in oak barrels. The word rum is widely believed to come from the Latin word for sugar “saccharum”.
It is well established that the Caribbean is the world’s leading producer of quality rums. The Caribbean here includes not only the English-speaking nations but also the Spanish and French islands. Our common history of colonialism and slavery conspired for us to share in the art of rum making.
The development of fermented drinks produced from sugarcane is believed to have first occurred in ancient India or China. However, it is in the Caribbean that the art was perfected. The first distillation of rum began on the sugarcane plantations by our African ancestors who were then enslaved by Europeans. These Africans learnt that molasses could be fermented into alcohol. Over time, the Africans mastered the skill of removing the impurities from the liquid and created drinkable quantities.
Barbados is credited for the early development of rum. A 1651 document from Barbados gave a colourful description of this recreational liquid. “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbuilluon, alias Kill-Devil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquid,’’ the document reads.
The fact is, rum is very much a part of Caribbean culture; as much a part of our culture as are calypso, reggae and carnival. As a people, we oftentimes do not consider rum as intrinsic to the cultural milieu. Indeed, in many circles, rum and the leisure of rum drinking are discriminated against, snubbed at; people would turn up their noses, very much like the “high society’’ people or the well-to-do’s in Grenada once did at the Jab Jabs.
In the Caribbean, “high society’’ people would traditionally “show off’’ their class and privileged status by drinking alcohol that came from Europe. Their preferred alcoholic brew were drinks like whiskey, cognac and other brandy. Rum, as far as they were concerned, was always the drink for the lower classes. Just as on the plantations, rum was for those enslaved Africans.
Nowadays, rum is synonymous with having a good time and having fun. It is celebrated as the main drink at carnival time; the calypsonians would make one believe that one cannot enjoy carnival without indulging.
However, rum is also related to alcoholism. So many rum drinkers are driven to addiction over time that they become reliant on it and ruin their lives. It has become a serious health issue and Caribbean countries are scrambling to construct rehabilitation facilities and provide medical care to those who need it. In Grenada, we are badly in need of such a facility. The fact is, persons must drink moderately and avoid becoming addicted. I suspect that the addiction is one of the reasons why, in several quarters, rum is scorned. This discourse is simply to make the point that the production and consumption of rum is cultural, rather than a celebration of alcohol addiction.
The point must be made, however, that there is alcohol addiction in over-indulging in consuming wine, beer, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages in societies where they are produced. Hence, the Caribbean is not unique in bearing the afflictions that emanates from alcohol consumption.
A few weekends ago, some of my great personal friends in Grenada staged a wonderful event called the “Wine and Beer Festival’’. Well intentioned and purposeful, of course. But, we do not have vineyards and a culture of brewing. Wine and beer will forever be the celebration of someone else’s culture.
The organisers of the “Wine and Beer Festival’’ were widely commended on this “novel’’ initiative and interviewed and promoted on some of the most conservative media outlets in Grenada. But, consider for just a moment what the reaction would have been – even from some of our legislators in the Senate and in the House of Representatives – if someone had decided that he or she was going to organise a “White Rum Festival’’. It’s not hard to imagine the hue and cry, the condemnation – from coast to coast, on every radio and television talkshow, in parliament – at the audacity of a festival focused on made-in-Grenada white rum.
In my musing on this subject of Caribbean culture and regional rum production, I ran into Ayanna Webster-Roy, Minister of State in the Office of Prime Minister of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. She hails from Tobago. In her passionate promotion of the culture and festivals of Tobago, which was once a member of the family of islands known as the Windward Islands, she posited that “Festivals should be a celebration of what is uniquely you.’’ I concur!
Minister Webster-Roy elaborated on the concepts and cultural backgrounds of the Easter Goat Race and Crab Race Festival; the Tobago Heritage Festival; the Blue Food Festival; and the Maypole and May Queen Festival, as well as the Jazz Festival. All festivals of character.
We have many festivals throughout the region; some of them are promoted for tourism purposes and I have no economic quarrels with that. However, at the end of the day, the preservation and promotion of our culture ought to be – in my mind – at the heart of these celebrations.