If you were forced to choose the spirit of Australia – not in the Qantas sense, but rather in the liquor sense – which would you choose? To many, perhaps most, the answer is obvious.
While Australia was certainly not the first to produce it, the fact that rum is made from sugarcane meant that the warm, humid climate of tropical and sub-tropical Australia was almost purpose-built to produce the drink. But while the Australian connection runs surprisingly deep, the rum story stretches far beyond the sugarcane plantations of Queensland; right back, in fact, to the beginnings of the Caribbean slave trade.
What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
“The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.”
So states a 1651 document from Barbados, referring to the island’s sugarcane plantation slaves using molasses to make alcohol. It’s likely that this practice began at the beginning of the 1600s, as evidence of distilled, purified rum – similar to what we know as rum today – is recorded as early as 1620. The plantation owners, it seems, saw what the slaves were doing, and stole the idea. The more you hear about these chaps, the less you’ll like.
Soon rum was the drink of choice for traders in the area, leading to the drunken sailor reputation that it struggles to shake to this day. With English, Spanish and Portuguese nationals operating in the area, it quickly spread up to Colonial North America and throughout Europe.
And by the time the first fleet sailed into Botany Bay on that fateful day in 1788, the importance of rum was cemented with ocean travellers who formed the fledgling colony of New South Wales.