On the thirty-first of July 1970 the British Navy issued the rum ration for the final time, ending a tradition that lasted for over 300 years. 

Known since then as Black Tot Day, it has become an occasion of celebration for rum fans.

Daiquiri Day and both Mai Tai Days celebrate cocktails rather than the spirit. National Rum Day always seemed like an arbitrarily chosen day rather than one rooted in any real event. Black Tot Day might be the most important day in the rum community.

A depiction of the rum ration being issued on the HMS Belfast

For the fiftieth anniversary, Black Tot Rum added another chapter by hosting the definitive rum event of the year, a Virtual 24 Hour Rum Festival.

The day was about unity in the rum community, and almost every recognizable name in rum was involved in some way.

Distilleries in Jamaica and Barbados were willing to put aside disagreements about Geographical Indications to discuss the importance of rum for the Caribbean region.

Rum influencers took a break from talking about decolonization and issues with Tiki Culture to take part in the traditions of the armed forces that enforced Imperialism on island dwellers in both the Pacific and Atlantic.

The spirit of compromise and cooperation was admirable and the majority of the speakers were informative, but proximity to important events in the history of Trinidad and Tobago to Black Tot Day has always left me uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating rum on this day.

In 1985, the government of Trinidad and Tobago declared a National Holiday in recognition of the day that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force. For a long-time, Emancipation Day was seen as an occasion to celebrate African heritage, but in recent times it has become a day to reflect on the realities of what Emancipation really meant for the Caribbean.

Emancipation Day celebration in Trinidad and Tobago
Emancipation Day Celebration in Trinidad

In the context of British Rum, it meant that the slave owners who built the West India Docks were now compensated for the freeing of their “property” with a sum so steep that British taxpayers only paid it off in 2015.

This money did not go to the former slaves or even to improve the colonies in the Caribbean. According to Jerome Teelucksingh, “British Investors thrived on cheap labour and refused to upgrade their production system in the West Indies.” 1 

Much of this capital was used to build business interests back in England including the expansion of the existing bonds used to store commodities from the colonies. The ability to horde stocks allowed these companies to control the demand and supply of rum and keep Caribbean based distilleries dependent on them for decades.

Painting of the West India Dock
Painting of the West India Dock

The newly freed “property” received absolutely nothing other than a forced apprenticeship that often never lead to actual employment back on the sugar estate. New laborers were imported from China, Portugal, and India. The Plantocracy realized that it was more affordable to import exploited people from other colonies, especially since the former slaves were well aware that the abhorrent conditions of the plantation would remain the same.

Slaves Cutting Sugar Cane in Antigua
Painting of slaves cutting Sugar Cane

Portuguese labourers pleaded to the Governor for an opportunity to return home after the majority of them perished under what they described as “the cruelties of the slavery system.”

The luxury of return was not an option for the Asians. Most were fleeing the atrocities of the East Indian Company and the gunboat diplomacy of the Royal Navy as they rearranged industry in India to satisfy European needs at the detriment of native lives. Some would even have been fleeing their homeland 2  after participation in events like the Siege of Jhansi or the Sepoy Mutiny.

The Nemesis destroying Chinese war junks during the Second Battle of Chuenpi, 7 January 1841, by Edward Duncan
The Nemesis destroying Chinese War Junks

These Indian labourers were ideal for replacing the African slaves because they were “politically defenseless enough for the work to be done cheaply and under discipline.” Their presence also helped the planter class to keep other ethnic groups divided.3 

British Merchants and French Creole Cocoa Planters actively campaigned against Indian immigrant labour. Their argument was that it kept wages low and stymied economic development. The slowly growing African middle class also recognized how exploitative and unsustainable Indian indentureship was and lobbied against it.4 

The capitalist Plantocracy took advantage of this by explaining to the Indians that the other groups disliked them while simultaneously explaining to those groups that the Indians were ungodly heathens.

They thrived on class division, and on rare instances of unity, armed forces were “invoked with impunity against working-class resistance to the combined injustices of imperialist rule and capitalist exploitation.”

On at least three occasions in Trinidad, and one in Tobago5 , it was British Naval Vessels that responded to popular movements for economic liberation lead by local labour leaders and human rights activists.

Archer Class Vessel used by the British Navy against Caribbean labour movements
Archer Class Vessel used to quell Caribbean Riots

There is some irony in British Navy Rum enthusiasts romanticizing marques and estates while ignoring the Navy’s role in suppressing movements that sought sustainability in the sugar cane industry.

The Royal Navy played a part in the dependency and division that defines the societies of Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad to this day.

This legacy of dependency and division can often be ignored since it usually manifests itself in petty crime, minor corruption, and underdevelopment that are generally accepted as the norm.

Sometimes however, the country is forced to come face to face with it via violent anti-Imperial political action. On the twentieth anniversary of Black Tot Day Members of Parliament were being held hostage for the fifth day of an attempted overthrow of the government.

Of the three Government Ministers shot during that insurrection, one of them was a former trade unionist who remarked in the 1970s that “total dependence on the metropolitan market has remained the pivot of the industry’s survival” and lamented on “our dependent status as far as sugar is concerned.”6 

Another was the Prime Minister who had declared Emancipation Day a National Holiday just a few years prior. They survived, the third of these Ministers succumbed to his injuries.

Memorial to the Attempted Coup in Trinidad
Memorial to the Attempted Coup

Another similar event was the February Revolution of 1970, the culmination of spontaneous discontent from the year before that included a bus worker strike, protests by students of the University of the West Indies, and an increasing solidarity among trade unions.

A growing view among Trinbagonians at the time was that despite Emancipation, the end of Indentureship, and the granting of Republican status “foreign domination of our economy made a mockery of the very term independence.”

Groups that were typically antagonistic towards each other were unified by their willingness to peacefully resist Imperialism. The unification of Indians and Africans in a peaceful march from San Fernando to Port of Spain was called “The high point in the History of Trinidad and Tobago” by historian Brinsley Samaroo.

When a State of Emergency aimed at ending the activism against Colonial era Capitalism was declared, the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment mutinied. This mutiny and ultimately the entire revolution came to a premature end because the Coast Guard demonstrated that they were willing to use anti-aircraft weaponry against their countrymen.

In understanding the willingness and haste of the Coast Guard to use violence, many have proposed the idea that senior Coast Guard officials were staunchly Imperial and in support of the Colonial status quo, a mentality most likely developed from training with the British Navy.

Newspaper clipping about the Regiment Revolt
Newspaper clipping about the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment Revolt

In his paper on Development in Trinidad, sociologist Dylan Kerrigan references Ivar Oxaal’s idea that “Island Scholarships to institutions in the UK were designed by Imperial Powers to shape future leaders of the colonies and produce persons who followed the ways, views and positions of the West and capital interests.”7 

Recent graduates of the Britannia Naval College who attended on scholarship and eventually served as Officers in the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard also share this opinion.

Their view is that their training with the Royal Navy had little relevance to Maritime security in the Southern Caribbean but was more of an indoctrination into the idea that protecting Imperial interests in the now-Independent colonies is of utmost importance. In that context, it seems that the British Navy is still a participant in the ongoing neo-colonialism of the West Indies.

The University of Plymouth at Britannia Royal Naval College training booklets
Royal Navy training booklets

CLR James described the working class as the “chief motor in transforming society.” In their attempt at developing a sustainable and successful post-Emancipation society, the Royal Navy stood in their way as the most menacing Imperial agent. Stocks of British rum built on exploitation of the Caribbean still dominate the market to the detriment of distilleries in the Caribbean.

This is not a condemnation of Black Tot Day or a call for it to be cancelled. It’s simply the introduction of a Trinbagonian view, a view that questions the celebration of British Rum and the Royal Navy on the eve of Emancipation Day.

Black Tot Day is still very much a European occasion. Of the rum clubs and mixologists featured during Black Tot Rum’s event, the majority of them were based in Europe. The Caribbean companies involved all have an interest in getting European customers to buy their rum.

Countries like Guyana, Nigeria and Bangladesh that were exploited by England are experiencing continuous economic growth, and would eventually be the most lucrative markets for long aged rum. To what extent would the growing rum consciousness of the Global South reject the rum culture of the Global North? How would the fiftieth anniversary of Black Tot Day be looked at fifty years from now?

All images used under a Creative Commons license

  1. Labour and the Decolonization Struggle in Trinidad and Tobago, Jerome Teelucksingh
  2. Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Gaiutra Bahadur
  3. Control and Resistance among Overseas Indian Workers: A Study of Labour on the Sugar Plantations of Trinidad, Kusha Haraksingh
  4. Advocates for Change within the Imperium: Urban Coloured and Black Middle Class Reform Activists in Crown Colony Trinidad
  5. Post-Emancipation Protest in the Caribbean: The Belmanna Riots in Tobago, Bridget Bereton
  6. What Future in Sugar?, Trevor Sudama
  7. Woodbrook on the Path to Independence, Dylan Kerrigan