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The Secret Jewish History Of Rum

Today is National Rum Day. Little-known fact: Rum has some very Jewish origins.

Sure, it’s not the syrupy, cloyingly sweet atrocity known as Manischewitz. But rum, which is derived from the molasses of sugarcane, was perfected by Jews escaping another atrocity: the Inquisition.

In the year 1500, Brazil was claimed by the Portuguese and many Sephardic Jews emigrated seeking refuge from growing intolerance. However, the Inquisition soon followed them overseas, when it expanded the scope of its operations to include Portugal’s colonial conquests. It wasn’t until 1630, when the Dutch seized control of northeast Brazil, that Sephardic Jews were able to settle there once again.

The Dutch were not known for cultivating and developing sugar plantations; they were satisfied with the import/export business, bringing in goods produced by others. But when they conquered the northeast corridor of Brazil, they continued to work the sugar fields near Pernanbuco and took ownership of the slaves left behind by the Portuguese. The Dutch, with the aid of Sephardic Jews, some of whom owned their own sugar plantations, developed and perfected the process of making rum.

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles from Dutch-owned Brazil, the English had staked a claim to the Island of Barbados. Barbados was discovered in 1609 by Sir John Summer when a hurricane that nearly capsized his ship drove him and his crew there. According to Ian Williams in his book, “Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776,” Sir John Summer and his crew turned to alcohol and the making of alcohol for comfort:

“And there we have the equation in a small tot — thirsty settlers who knew how to make spirits, and sugarcane, the most potent source of fermenting alcohol for the still. Barbados had the year-round heat, the water, and the flat lands that sugarcane needs for growing.”

But it was only through working with their Dutch neighbors that the English were able to make Barbados the “(almost) undisputed home of rum.”

Around the year 1640, Colonel James Drax purchased a triple-roller sugar mill and a set of copper cauldrons from Dutch Brazil for Barbados. These rollers were invented in Sicily, and came to Brazil through the Canary Islands. But it was the Dutch and their Sephardic Jewish collaborators who developed the roller technology further, perfecting the extraction technique. With the introduction of these rollers, Colonel Drax set in motion the switch to a Barbados sugar monoculture, which set the tone of overall Caribbean agricultural production for the next three centuries.

In 1645, the Dutch — and, by extension, Sephardic Jews — were finally expelled from Brazil when the Portuguese reconquered northeastern Brazil.

Many expelled Jews headed for Barbados. But while under Dutch rule they were allowed to own slaves and sugar plantations, under English law a Jew could only own one slave each. A major sugar plantation required hundreds of slaves to operate, and so the Jews who arrived in Barbados made money the old-fashioned way: as merchants and traders.

Years laters, in 1706, the restriction against Jews owning hundreds of slaves was lifted, and some Jews did end up owning their own sugar plantations. But, for the most part, the Jews had left the sugar-making, and, by extension, rum-making business behind once they were expelled from Brazil.

Michelle Honig is a writer at the Forward. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.


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