Academic journal article ARIEL

Under the Influence: Thinking through Rum

Academic journal article ARIEL

Under the Influence: Thinking through Rum

Article excerpt

 
  Rum was indispensable in the fisheries and the fur trade, and as a 
  naval ration. But its connection with the triangular trade was more 
  direct still. Rum was an essential part of the cargo of the slave 
  ship, particularly the colonial American slave ship. No slave trader 
  could afford to dispense with a cargo of rum. It was profitable to 
  spread a taste for liquor on the coast. 
 
  (Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery) 

This passage from Eric Williams's classic study of the economics of slavery captures the ways a commodity produced primarily with slave labour implicates dispersed populations--fur traders, sailors, African chiefs, etc.--in colonialism's most oppressive and violent practices. As a commodity, rum can appear severed from its conditions of production, but its circulation through global markets transforms distant consumers and traders into beneficiaries of and practical apologists for exploitation. (1) William Cowper opined regarding slavery and the British diet, (2) "I pity them [the slaves] greatly but I must be mum, / For how could we do without sugar and rum?" (11. 5-6). Cowper's poem exposes a psychology of acquiescence in which material conditions affect individual and communal worldview. Economic conditions cycle into cultural norms: "how could we do without ..."

Although scholars have devoted considerable attention to the significance of sugar, (3) rum passes relatively unnoticed despite its availability as an image for the powerlessncss Cowper describes. Rum is an intoxicant; it makes people drunk and drunk people are not fully in control of their actions and words. This apparent powerlessness, however, enjoins its opposite: the power to decide when to pay attention to the political ramifications of consumption, when and how to engage broader meanings for local or persona] economic transactions. Despite its fraught history, rum is usually glossed (over) as a realistic plot detail in literature referencing or set in the West Indies. Rum's presence on the scene anchors such novels in West Indian reality; the absence of rum would likely cause more comment. Reading practices, both in the world and the text, are deeply structured by the histories of colonialism. So, what might insisting on rum's broader rather than incidental significance reveal about those reading practices? Three postcolonial West Indian novels considered in this essay--Earl Lovelace's While Gods Are Falling (1965), George Lamming's Water with Berries (1971), and Sylvia Wynter's The Hills of Hebron (1962)--allow for both the glossing and the glossing over of rum, thus offering an opportunity to examine the contingencies of interpreting rum. Close examination of rum's role indicates the force with which "post"-colonial subjects resist fully understanding the degree to which personal experience might remain materially and historically shaped by colonization. Moreover, these readings propose that metropolitan and peripheral populations share a model of consumption that misrecognizes these effects.

As a literary figure, rum may have particular purchase during decolonization because economic weakness was a barrier to independence for the West Indian colonies. (4) This weakness cycled into notions of West Indian culture and subjectivity as negotiations for self-government stalled. British control over the West Indian economy was particularly tight: London directed activity on the islands as surely in the 1950s as in the 1800s. According to contemporary evidence from Kathleen ML Stahl's 1951 study The Metropolitan Organization of British Colonial Trade, the sugar industry of which rum is a subset was still headquartered in England (32); like many industries, it is dominated by "family businesses, handed down in the same family for several generations, sometimes from their foundations up to the present day" (7). As decolonization was discussed in the 1960s and 1970s, Rogozihski reports that British officials "were convinced that the smaller colonies were too poor to survive as viable states" and thus planned to introduce self-government gradually (267). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.