Discussion of colonialism in the rum community is often complicated and controversial. Many people believe that Imperialism and inequality is something that happened in the past, and while it should be acknowledged, there is no point in constantly bringing it up.

An example of how prevalent the legacy of colonialism is in the rum world can be seen in how the French spirit conglomerate Maison Ferrand approaches the industry.

Their rum brand is literally named after the system of production that is seen as being responsible for underdevelopment in the third world; A system that they seem to actively practice and promote.

The idea of the Plantation economy is a core concept in socioeconomic theories that divide the world into dominant states and dependent states and seek to explain the relationships between them.

Historically, colonies existed solely to provide a single agricultural product to Europe and were never designed to be proper functional societies, leading to underdevelopment.

Slaves Cutting Sugar Cane in Antigua
A Sugar Plantation in Antigua

Combined with an over reliance on a single industry, and one export market, it now becomes easy for business interests in the core to exert undue influence on the politics of the periphery. It can be argued that Maison Ferrand’s stance on the issue of a Geographical Indication for Jamaican and Barbados rum is an example of this.

Another legacy of colonialism that Maison Ferrand readily embraces is the idea that European masters are required to refine raw materials from the colonies and turn them into quality products.

In the world of chocolate, people on the agricultural side monitor pests, manage shade, ferment, and finally roast the beans. Despite this, they are seen as mere farmers while the Belgians who just add milk and sugar are credited as craftsmen. These colonial ideas surrounding chocolate are often used to justify unfair trade deals with the Global South.

Cocoa Beans
Cocoa Beans

Maison Ferrand  seems to openly accept  this problematic practice on their labels, where they dismiss the spirit created from time honoured practices like extended fermentation, batch distillation and tropical ageing as a “Product of Jamaica” but then going on to call it “Rum created by Maison Ferrand” after spending a year in France.

In the introduction to Aloha Betrayed, author Noenoe Silva paraphrases Kenyan academic Ngugi wa Thiongo “The biggest weapon wielded by Imperialism is the cultural bomb” before describing how both the popular press and research were used by Haole as a tool to undermine Hawaii’s autonomy.1 

The close financial connection that Maison Ferrand has with rum influencers as well as their funding of rum writing and research is being increasingly questioned and may one day be seen as cultural imperialism that the Caribbean should have better rallied against.

Beyond a single rum brand, the reality is that Cultural Imperialism is an on-going process that shapes the world view of billions in subtle and unseen ways. A global pandemic this year means that rum events that would have been held in the Global North are now being streamed online, and viewed by people who would have never attended a rum festival in Europe or North America. Something that’s increasingly being observed is that even good intentions in the rum community are influenced by a civilizing mission mentality.

This is not ideal but it’s understandable. The majority of influencers in the rum community reside in the most lucrative markets for Caribbean rum and their worldview is shaped by this. What is more difficult to understand, but thankfully rare is active antagonism towards Caribbean voices.

Earlier this year, a Facebook group was formed with a description that stated “we believe that it is important to give back to the cultures that create the spirit we know and love. In regards to this, we seek to promote equity, intersectionality, and community in order to see beyond just the product”.

Any discussion on a group like this must begin by commending the creators for a social media space that centers on responsibility in the rum industry. There’s a growing rum consciousness within the Caribbean that appreciates ideas like this. However, it also serves as a reminder of how any discussion on the issues of the Global South that’s dominated and moderated by the Global North can easily descend into casual colonialist attitudes becoming the norm.

I have only ever engaged with that group twice, but they’re both incidents are worth talking about to bring some unpopular or unknown perspective to the online rum community.

The most recent was a discussion about the Levy Lane Rum Company calling a rum Kanaima.

That name refers to a mystical assault that leads to an extremely painful and long-winded death. It’s often recognized as a complex ethnographic issue that encompasses Amerindian attitudes towards outsiders.

An esteemed Guyana-born Historian advised caution in commodifying complex elements of indigenous culture in order to sell rum in Europe, a stance supported by the few people in the thread who actually reside in the Caribbean including myself.

The moderation team was less convinced. The attitude was largely that he should show gratitude to a European brand for bringing publicity to the history of the pre-colonial Caribbean. A moderator mentioned that the owner of the brand was an insider to Guyanese culture and that Kanaima was not a religious practice so nothing wrong was being done. This is possibly because the Tamosi Rum website refers to the Caribs in the past tense and calls their religion “mythology”, but this is not entirely correct.

Caribs are very much alive and their religion is actually growing. In Trinidad, ceremonies of growing National importance are held in Port of Spain and Arima every year. Additionally groups from different South American countries cross the sea to go on pilgrimage at sacred sites on the island’s south coast. Simply being from one of those countries does not make a person an insider to these traditions.

Reducing their spiritual beliefs to mythology is something that a growing number of people in the Caribbean have issue with, because it’s used as a tool in marginalizing them, moving them, and enforcing “colonial modernities of mining”2  on their ancestral home. Treating them as extinct also plays a role in delegitimizing their claims to the Amazon, a controversial issue in the context of the constant encroachment on one of the most ecologically important areas on the planet.3 4 

The motivation behind a brand like Tamosi is commendable, but ignoring a prominent Caribbean expert might lead to the brand being openly criticized by the people it is supposed to empower.

Elements of Kalinago culture has existed without interruption for centuries in Dominica

The second post in the group was a bit more controversial and mentioning it now is probably going to upset people; I asked what was wrong with the C.E.O. of Goya expressing praise for U.S. President Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, it resulted in a warning and a unified stance from the group administrators and moderators to not entertain any pro-Trump perspectives.

Their group, their rules but is it really a fair stance for a global rum group that wants to give back to the cultures that make rum?

A representative of Haitians for Trump doesn’t think so. Her view is that Trump’s presidency was a welcome relief from the Imperialism that has defined America’s relationship with her country for decades, from the mismanagement of aid, the destabilization of democracy, and the complicity with France’s extortion of her homeland.

This stance isn’t unpopular in Latin America and the Caribbean. Even people who don’t like Trump are willing to admit that his relative non-interference in the region is in contrast to the policies of Past American presidents that typically involves the installation of far-right dictators, the funding of coups, and partnerships with narco-terrorists. All three of those things happened under the President just before Trump.

That particular thread revealed that the moderators seem to see conservative views of the Caribbean as “slow to change” in relation to Europe and ultimately backward. This in an over-simplification that is often used to justify the most modern forms of Imperialism.

The reality is that conservative political views in the Caribbean is one manifestation of a broader West Indian worldview that actively rejects Imperialism5 6. Other manifestations include the refusal of Africans and Indians to give up their traditional religious practices, or a preference for traditional rum distillation over more modern methods.

This creates a conundrum for some potential participants in a group like this since they risk being removed by the European and North American moderators if they aren’t willing to renounce their anti-Imperialist views.

This issue of the Global North attempting to define the agenda and then deciding on the problems and ultimately the solutions for the Global South is defined by Jamaican Professor Norman Girvan as Intellectual Colonialism7 . He goes on to denounce this as “Impertinence and Imperial Arrogance.” It is an exercise in futility to argue with arrogance, impertinence and intolerance. The growing rum consciousness in the Caribbean has to grow in its own independent space.

This website is an offshoot of a think tank that focuses on this Caribbean rum consciousness. Articles on problems with the celebration of Black Tot Day or the erasure of Caribbean drinking culture might seem controversial right now, but as more mixologists, rum enthusiasts, and academics from within the region share their views on rum related issues, I am confident that views will change.

All images used under a Creative Commons license

  1. Aloha Betrayed: Native Resistance to American Colonialism, Noenoe Silva
  2. Dark Shamans and the Shamanic State: Sorcery and Witchcraft as Political Process in Guyana and the Venezuelan Amazon, Silvia Vidal and Neil Whitehead
  3. Writing the Caribs Out: Construction and Demystification of the Deserted Island Myth, Dr. Maximilian Forte
  4. Amerindians in Guyana: A New Partnership, Laureen Pierre
  5. Organic Theorising in Inorganic Societies, or the Need for Epistemic Sovereignity beyond Radicalism and Rebellion, Kirk Meighoo
  6. Caribbean Dependence in the Phase of Informatic Capitalism, Paget Henry
  7. New World and its Critics, Norman Girvan