Rum and Revolution, Part 1
Part 9 in a series
Excerpts from "Divers Information on The Romantic History of St. Croix" by Florence Lewisohn, 1963, St. Croix Landmarks Society
THE relationship between West India rum and the American Revolution is one often ignored by the history books, perhaps because its story is not the most savory. It is a complicated tale of smuggling, slave trading and evasion of the British Acts of Trade - all of which were respectable New England occupations at the time.
The British Molasses Act of 1733, the New Molasses Act of 1765 and the 1765 Stamp Act set up an economic chain of events leading directly to the Revolution. In effect the New Molasses Act prevented the North Americans from trading with the French, Dutch and Danish islands for molasses by imposing a stiff duty, and as a consequence would have forced the New Englanders to abandon their rum stills and buy rum from the British West Indies. The effect on the rum distillers (63 in Massachusetts alone) was incalculable, as it was tied directly to the whole economic structure of the area, based on the rum and slave trade.
The British themselves had been in the slave trade since 1562 to supply their own Caribbean colonies and those of Spain. In the 106 years from 1680 to 1786 there were some 2,130,000 slaves imported into their southern American and West Indian colonies. There were few slaves in New England, but this area flourished on the trade, sometimes flouting the laws of old England to do so.
It all worked on what might be called the Vicious Triangle, New England ships carried their rum and a few other supplies to the West Coast of Africa, where they traded for Negroes and gold dust. From there they made the infamous "middle passage" with their victims crowded in miserable, unhealthy conditions to Barbados and the other British islands where the surviving slaves were sold for cash or bills of credit. The ships then usually picked up cheap contraband molasses at the French and Dutch islands and carried it back to New England to be distilled into rum. The New England rum was consumed at home in quantities unbelievable to those brought up on a Puritan version of history. Still, there was adequate surplus to ship to Africa.
The smuggling and violations of British regulations arose mainly out of the molasses trade. Sugar was the main West Indian product, but its value and market fluctuated widely, and the planters depended on molasses or rum for the difference between profit and loss.
The French protected their European brandy interests by selling molasses very cheaply in their islands, as did the Dutch who acted as middlemen and were the leading Caribbean merchants. The British regulations were so complicated that they merely led to smuggling between islands. It was the perpetual imbalance of trade with England which made the colonists both in New England and in the islands feel not only justified, but obligated, to evade the rules.
The planters in St. Croix were compelled by a 1740 law to sell their molasses, sugar and rum to the Danish West India Company at less than one-half the price offered in the Dutch free port of St. Eustatius. This same year, the construction of Frederiksted Fort was begun specifically to stop the smuggling to the Dutch. Then later, during the actual Revolutionary period, this tiny Dutch island became temporarily the richest port in the Caribbean, and the hub of the supply line for the battling northern colonists until 1780. In 1779 alone over 3,500 ships put in at St. Eustatius.
The New England Britishers also supplied the various islands with barrel staves, horses salted and dried fish from Newfoundland, and other plantation necessities. They were paid in molasses or rum by the French, Dutch and Danish, and in sterling by the British islands. Other shiploads of dried fish went to Spain and Portugal for gold and silver payment which helped out on the balance of trade. Between times, they supplied the southern colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas with New England products, rum and slaves.