Since at least the 1600s, sailors in the British Navy had been issued a daily ration of alcohol. In the early days this might have included beer and brandy, but by the 1700s it was now exclusively a “tot” of rum. 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. For these reasons, Black Tot Day might be the most important day for much of the rum community. There are some positive elements to Black Tot Day. For decades, it served as a way to bring rum drinkers together and introduce the spirit to a wider audience. It has also been an occasion to celebrate the different styles of rum produced in different regions of the English-speaking Caribbean.

Positives aside, it’s time to confront the dark side of Black Tot Day, and the dishonesty of the rum community on certain issues.

Black Tot Day celebrates the Profits of Slavery

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. In the context of Rum History, it meant that the slave owners who built the West India Docks were now compensated by the government for the freeing of their “property” with a sum equivalent to over seventeen billion pounds, equal to forty percent of the National budget at that time.

Nineteenth Century Painting of the West India Docks. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Much of this capital was used to develop business assets in England and allowed for 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. No money went to the former slaves or even to improve the conditions of the colonies in the Caribbean. According to Jerome Teelucksingh in his book Labour and the Decolonization Struggle in Trinidad and Tobago; “British Investors thrived on cheap labour and refused to upgrade their production system in the West Indies”. By design, the region was left with no resources for the newly freed slaves to improve their lives, and much of the extracted wealth was now stored in the rum warehouses of London and Amsterdam.

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 labour was simply 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 had not changed. Some of the first Portuguese labourers imported into Trinidad pleaded for an opportunity to return home after the majority of them perished under what they described as “the cruelties of the slavery system.” Other ethnic groups did not have the opportunity of escaping to their homeland.

Black Tot Day celebrates an Imperialist Military

Throughout the 1800s, The East India Company rearranged the economy of India to satisfy British needs at the detriment of native lives. This was done by forcibly removing rulers and government officials, forging documents, and flooding the market with cheap foreign goods to destroy local industry and agriculture. The rise of the East India Company owed much to the gunboat diplomacy of the Royal Navy and their willingness to commit what would now be classified as crimes against humanity.

The Nemesis destroying Chinese war junks during the Second Battle of Chuenpi, 7 January 1841, by Edward Duncan
British Naval Vessel The Nemesis destroying Chines Junks, an example of Gunboat Diplomacy. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Unlike the previously mentioned Portuguese labourers, many of the Indian Indentured Workers who came to the Caribbean had little option of returning home since their lives and livelihood had been dismantled by the East India Company and the British Navy. Academic Kusha Haraksingh describes the Indians as being easily exploited sources of labour as they were “politically defenseless enough for the work to be done cheaply and under discipline”. He also suggests that their presence was used by the planter class to keep workers divided along ethnic lines so that wages in the sugar industry remained low.

Over time, as workers in the cane fields across the Caribbean became united in the goal of demanding better conditions, the British Navy once again played a role in shaping rum history through oppression. In 1876, workers at the Roxborough  Estate in Tobago burnt cane fields and clashed with police to protest what journalist Dominic Kalipersad described as conditions “no different to  pre-emancipation times.” The British Navy was brought in to break up the protests and beat protestors. Similar oppression occurred several more times in Trinidad, notably during the labour protests of the 1930s when the British Navy imprisoned local activist Tubal Uriah Butler on an island off Trinidad’s north-western peninsula. Jerome Teelucksingh describes the “the menacing presence of British Naval Squadrons” as the lynchpin of “state suppression of the working class” during anti-colonial struggles all across the Caribbean one hundred years ago.

Archer Class Vessel used by the British Navy against labour movements within the Caribbean.
Archer Class Vessel used by the British Navy against labour movements within the Caribbean. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Between the Rum Bonds and the British Navy, Black Tot Day honours institutions that are directly responsible for the division and dependency that defines Caribbean society today. Celebrations on Black Tot Day are rooted in Colonial nostalgia and whitewashing Caribbean history. Yet, amidst growing discussion on accountability and transparency within the rum industry, none of these issues are ever mentioned.

Black Tot Day contributes to ongoing Imperialism in the Rum Industry

On the fiftieth anniversary of Black Tot Day, a British company called Black Tot Rum hosted a twenty-four hour event described by many as the definitive rum event for 2020. The event included discussions among bartenders, bloggers, and brand ambassadors from all across the world. Among the speakers included almost every single figure in the rum world praised for their progressive values and commitment to social justice. The type of rum influencers that speak a lot about community spirit and cultural appropriation while still maintaining close connections with conservative, right-wing leaning rum companies1 . They all participated without protest despite being aware of the issues of Imperial Apologism and Colonial Nostalgia associated with the West India Docks and the British Navy. The event then concluded with an after-party at a London bar also praised for being progressive.

To put this into some context, influencers in the rum world who have been praised and who have profited immensely for their progressive posturing openly and knowingly celebrated Imperialism and Colonialism and then held an after-party on Emancipation Day, the day that marks the anniversary of the end of slavery in the English-speaking Caribbean.

This is part of a broader problem within the rum industry where prominent rum influencers refuse to criticize any brand whose success they stand to benefit from. These benefits include free bottles of rum, funding of their activism and research, and even free flights to the Caribbean. Even worse, many of these same progressive figures in the rum industry have actively worked in recent times to suppress discussion about problematic issues when the conversation becomes directed at brands that they are connected to.

Hypocrisy within the small community of progressive rum influencers was observed in an incident that occurred a few months after the 50th Anniversary of Black Tot Day, but rooted in minor events that started during that same summer.These minor events involved the owner of a European Rum company making sinophobic comments, spreading far right conspiracy theories, and fetishizing underdevelopment in the Caribbean on social media. This is a topic deserving of its own post and subsequent discussion.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging Black Tot Day and treating it as a day to celebrate rum, but like anything else related to rum, recognize the dark side of it. Understand the issues with Imperialism associated with it, both in the past and ongoing.

  1. This sentence contains a link to two videos. Viewers are encouraged to recognize the issues being spoken about in those videos but also to recognize the hypocrisy in prominent figures in the rum community profiting from activism related to social justice while still maintaining close relationships