Thursday 25 August 2011

The History of Rum and Sugar Cane Part 2

“We weighed anchor with the morning breeze, and stood down gently before its refreshing breath to the modern capital of the colony, Port of Spain. I shall not be weak enough to attempt a detailed description of the enchanting scenery which presented itself to us; nothing but painting could hope even faintly to convey an image of it to the inhabitants of the temperate zone.

The Gulf of the purest ultramarine, just wreathed into a smile and not more; on the right hand the mountains of Cumana with their summits lost in the clouds; on the left the immense precipices of Trinidad covered to the extremest height with gigantic trees which seemed to swim in the middle ether; the margin fringed with the evergreen mangroves, which were here hanging themselves rising out of the midst of the soft waves; behind us the four mouths of the Dragon of Columbus with the verdant craggy isles between them; before us Port of Spain with its beautiful churches, the great Savannah, and the closing hills of Montserrat.

Meanwhile the Eden gracefully bent beneath the freshening wind, the long dark canoes glanced by us with their white sails almost kissing the sea, and enormous whales ever and anon lifted their monstrous bodies quite out of the water in strange gambols, and falling down created a tempest around them, and shot up columns of silver foam. We came to anchor two miles from shore, and had a boat race in the evening.

Port of Spain is by far the finest town I saw in the West Indies. The streets are wide, long, and laid out at right angles; no house is now allowed to be built of wood, and no erection of any sort can be made except in a prescribed line.”

The English writer Henry Coleridge visited Trinidad in 1829. In his description, the little town on the edge of the beautiful ‘lake’ of Paria is as fair as paradise.

The huge primeval forest was slowly being cut away by the slave labour, imported by the French planters. The Otaheite cane was yielding significant crops from which was produced sparkling brown sugar, pungent molasses and a fiery rum which one day blended and refined, would be amongst the best in the world.

Coleridge saw Trinidad a decade before the abolition of slavery. He saw it during the administration of Sir Ralph Woodford, after the tumultuous times of the military administrators Picton, Hislop and Munroe.

But ‘pax Woodford’ was not to last, for by 1839 the island was gripped in another round of turmoil. This time, it was not war, but an economic crisis brought on by the shortage of labour on the estates. To deal with this, the planters, aided by the British colonial government, brought in some 10,278 West Indian labourers over a ten year period. This did not work, as those immigrants were former slaves themselves, and they soon left the eststes, set up small holdings or drifted into the town.

As is stated in the book ‘From Colonial to Republic’, William Burnley, planter and Trinidad’s first millionaire, encouraged other immigrants to come to Trinidad, many of whom, however, stayed only for a short time. By 1847, 1,301 U.S. immigrants had arrived, but most of them were skilled craftsmen and did not want to work as labourers, and they returned to the U.S. Some Africans from Sierra Leone and St. Helena, who had been freed from non-British slave ships, also came to Trinidad, as well as a few French and Germans who arrived in 1839, and in 1846 some Portuguese. All these sources of labour failed, since the immigrants were not able to work under tropical conditions.

Chinese immigration was ended in 1866, because the Chinese government insisted on free passages for their people. 2,500 Chinese had entered the island until that date, and those who stayed on became shopkeepers and market gardeners - again no labour force for the sugar estates!

This was to change when in 1845, indentured labourers were brought from India. The Indians were unskilled, thus cheap labourers; they were used to the climate and since India was another British possession at the time, there were no administrative obstacles.

In 1846, the Sugar Duties Act worsened the situation of the West Indian planters. Indian immigration stopped around 1848, but was resumed in 1851 under a better organised system, with a Protector of Immigrants appointed to look after the the interests of the Indians. The cost of the immigration was mainly paid for by the planters.

Under the indentureship contract, the Indians were offered a free return passage to India after having worked for five years on an estate. In 1854, a new ordinance was passed which required the Indians to spend another five years in Trinidad after their five year contract with the estate was over before repatriation to India. From 1869 onwards, Indians who had resided here for at least 10 years, were offered 10 acres of crown land in exchange for their free return passage. Many accepted that offer, and the temporary nature of Indian immigration to Trinidad changed into a permanent arrangement. By 1871, there were almost 27,500 Indians in Trinidad, one-sixth of whom were born here.

While money had been invested in the sugar industry was invested in the 1840s, and the 1850s had marked the beginning of the recovery of the industry, and the 1860s and the 1870s saw its expansion. Modernisation of the sugar mills had taken place, and new techniques such as the vacuum pan method were put in place, increasing production quantitatively and also producing sugar of a higher quality.

In 1874, when England removed import duties from all types of sugar, consumers in Great Britain did not buy the lower-grade ‘muscovado’ sugar anymore, and instead turned to more refined, white sugar.

Even when in 1880 there was no longer a shortage of workers, the colonial office continued to permit Indian immigration. This created an over-supply of labour, allowing the planters to lower the wages. Indentured labourers received about 25 cents per task, non-indentureds about 30 cents. When a crisis occured in the sugar industry in the mid-1880s, planters increased the tasks for indentured labourers and lowered the wages of non-indentureds. Many plantations survived thanks to this availability of cheap labour when the sugar duties were removed in 1874, and their prices had to compete with sugar from places like Brazil.

The story of the sugar cane industry and its derivatives, molasses and rum, must now describe the people from that distant subcontinent and that ancient culture who made the journey here, and in so doing drove their roots deep into the soil of their adopted homeland. As Dr. Bridget Brereton points out in her article ‘Indians and Indentureship 1845 - 1917’, published in ‘Book of Trinidad’ (abridged):

“A total of 143,939 people came to te island from the subcontinent. The great majority had lived in the provinces along the Ganges river, expecially in Bihar and Orissa, while a smaller group came from south India. Hindi (with its variant Bhojpuri) was the majority language of the immigrants and Hinduism the majority faith, representing the caste spectrum found in north Indian society. A significant minority were Muslims.

The overwhelming majority were simple rural folk, accustomed to hard work and poverty, deeply attached to the land. It was essential to tie them to the plantations and to extract a guaranteed minimum of labour from them by some legal restrictions.

Hence the indenture system. This was not slavery, yet the immigrant so long as he remained under indentureship, was not free. He or she could neither change their employer, nor refuse to perform any lawful tasks, nor leave the plantation without written permission during working hours. Any breach of this contract (and indenture simply means contract) could be punished by jail sentences. At any point in time between 1845 and 1917, hundreds of Indians were in jail for breach of the immigration laws.

Gradually, although attachment to Mother India remained strong, more and more Indians began to put down roots in the island. Locally born people with no first-hand knowledge of India reinforced this development. So did the emergence of a large Indian land-owning group, since from 1869 onward, it became possible for ex-indentured labourers to obtain land. A large Indian peasantry soon developed, growing rice, cocoa, cane, all kinds of food crops and raising livestock.

They settled all over the island, helping to open it up after 1870 and creating new villages. By the time indentureship ended in 1917, the Indians were deeply rooted in the island, making a vital contribution to the economy especially as agriculturists and plantation workers. They contributed a great deal to their new society by practising their rich diversity of religious and cultural forms. Temples and mosques were built; Hindu and Moslem festivals introduced. Indian dance, music and song enriched the already complex culture. The island’s cuisine was enlivened by the addition of roti and all kinds of curried dishes. Indian jewellers and workers in gold and silver practised their traditional crafts. Thus the mosaic that was Trinidad and Tobago society and culture received new patterns, new colour and new beauty from the people from India.”

Rum Glossary

Rhum agricole: Rum distilled from fresh cane juice

Rhum industriel: Rum distilled from fermented molasses

Distillation: Separating and concentrating of a certain component in a liquid (alcohol, medicines, perfumes). Invented in China in 800 BC, distillation came to Europe in the the 13th century.

Heavy’light rum: Depending on the purity to which the alcohol is distilled, that is, at which point in the distillation process it is taken out of the still, a lighter or heavier rum is the result. The later it is taken out, the higher the alcohol content, and the lighter the rum. Also, cane juice or molasses (called ‘wash’) that has fermented quickly (less than a week) will yield lighter rum.

Aging: When it comes out of the still, rum is clear and strong. Transported to Europe in barrles, it improved and darkened - the aging process was discovered!

Blending: Mixing rum from different stills, adding spices, flavouring like caramel and water.

Alcohol content:

Degrees: used in French islands for percentage of volume (40º)

US proof: twice the percentage of volume (86 = 43% alcohol of volume)

British proof: percentage of alcohol of volume divided by 0.571

Overproof: 40 overproof+ (100+40) x 0.571 = 79.94% alcohol of volume. Got it?

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