Barbadians and visitors were reminded this week of the importance of sugar and rum to the island’s economic development when the Barbados Tourism Product Authority (BTPA) continued activities in its inaugural Sugar and Rum Season.
They were first taken on a tour of the cannon collection at the armoury at St Ann’s Fort, the headquarters of the Barbados Defence Force, before being taken on a historical tour of the sugar and rum industry by former Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Dr Frederick Smith.
Dr Smith told his audience that his research “doesn’t elevate rum to a spiritual level, but it also doesn’t demonize rum as some sort of evil in society”. He said, rather, that it appreciates rum as a major contributor to the Barbadian economy for the past 350 years.
According to the latest statistics from the Central Bank, Barbados earned $76.9 million from rum exports in 2016.
Smith noted that the export of rum surpassed sugar in 2004 for the first time in the island’s history.
“For the last ten years, you can’t go to a bar or a restaurant in the United States without finding a bottle of Mount Gay rum . . . and if you think about it, there is a picture in millions of restaurants and bars throughout North America and Canada and Europe.
“So it’s really important for tourism and trade, raising the profile of Barbados. Rum began here and it still plays an important part in the world economy. Rum is the world’s third most popular alcoholic beverage and much of it comes from here in Barbados, and it began here in Barbados,” Dr Smith said.
Barbados’ entry into the rum industry started with its sugar production in the 17th Century.
“In the 1640s, the Dutch were pushed out of northern Brazil. Many of them saw Barbados as a struggling economy, and helped the planters here establish a sugar industry, establish sugar plantations. They brought money, they brought capital, they brought the tools for developing sugar production, and it really transformed Barbados.
“Sugar was revolutionary; it was worth its weight in gold in the 17th Century. It was the oil of its age. Only the elite could afford to acquire sugar in the 17th Century. The British, in order to get their sugar at this time, had to rely on traders coming over on the Mediterranean, so only the elite could afford sugar. So, with the rise of sugar production in Barbados, Barbados and the English had their first direct access to sugar, and it made Barbados the brightest jewel in the English crown. And it made Barbados such a wealthy place – the wealthiest English colony in the 17th Century, worth more than all the other English colonies combined,” he said.
As sugar production thrived, so did production of rum, a by-product of the crop. And according to Smith, by the end of the 1600s rum contributed to about 15 to 20 per cent of Barbados’ income.
“By the end of the 17th Century, Barbadians are already producing a million gallons of rum per year. It’s an amazing amount of rum that’s being produced. And guess what? Very little of it is actually leaving Barbados. A lot of it is being consumed here,” the author of Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History stated.
Indeed, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart gave a similar assessment of the local rum industry last October, when he addressed the 50th anniversary celebrations of Mount Gay Distilleries. Stuart said at the time that, over the years, the export market for rum and the remittances from sales have been among the chief drivers of the local economy.
He added that the rum industry has been acclaimed as one of the most successful in the Caribbean and moreso in Barbados, with its three centuries of experience.
The BTPA said the aim of the Sugar and Rum Season is to celebrate the story of sugar and rum by highlighting Barbados’ unique position as the birthplace of rum, and showcasing its tangible and intangible cultural assets such as sugar cane fields, plantation great houses, rum distilleries, and rum shops. The season ends on April 1.