Spirits And Spirituality: Alcohol In Caribbean Slave Societies

By Frederick H. Smith

Alcohol was familiar to newly arrived African slaves in the Caribbean and the symbolic meanings slaves attached to drinking reflect the continuity of African cultural beliefs. Despite occasional efforts by colonial officials to restrict slave drinking, slaves had easy access to rum and other alcoholic beverages. The ready availability of alcohol sparked the creation of new African-oriented drinking practices, which, at the level of the lowest common denominator, combined the social and sacred alcohol-based traditions of diverse African ethnic groups. As in Africa, alcohol helped foster slave spirituality and promote group identity. The construction of new drinking styles also strengthened resistance ideologies, which challenged European efforts to suppress African customs. Understanding slave alcohol use provides a prism through which to view underlying principles that helped shape slave life and highlights the way Africans and African slaves maintained cultural links across the Atlantic.

Alcohol in the Atlantic Slave Trade

Rum and other alcoholic beverages played a crucial role in the African slave trade. English slave trader John Atkins (cited in Craton, Walvin, and Wright 1976:28) described the specific demands at different trading regions, but believed alcohol was "everywhere called for." African historian Lynn Pan (1975:7) argued that the only exception to the alcohol-for-slaves model was in the northern stretches of the slave trade where Islam was strongly entrenched. Yet, even in Muslim controlled areas, alcohol use and the alcohol trade were strong. For example, in the early sixteenth century, Portuguese traveler Valentim Fernandes (1506-1510:16-18) described the availability of numerous types of locally made wine in the Senegal region, including wine made from honey, grains, and palm sap. According to Fernandes, the Wolofs, a partially Muslim group from the Senegal region, "are drunkards who derive great pleasure from our wine."

Much of the alcohol introduced into the African trades entered in the context of gift giving. European slave traders were expected to provide alcoholic beverages to all those involved in the securing slaves. Slave trader William Bosman's guidelines for the Dutch West India Company included regulations that the ship's captain make daily presentations of brandy to the King and the principal traders (cited in Postma 1990:365). The Dutch may have been to blame for what many traders considered a "disagreeable and burdensome custom." According to slave trader John Barbot,

Their design at first was only to draw off the Blacks from trading with Portugueses; but those having once found the sweet, could never be broke of it, tho' the Portugueses were actually expelled from all the places of trade they had been possessed of on the coast; but it became an inviolable custom for all Europeans. (Barbot 1746:260)

Dashee, dassy, and bizy became standard terms along the African coasts for gifts of alcohol dispensed prior to trading (Atkins 1735 cited in Craton, Walvin, and Wright 1976:32; Barbot 1746:142; Rodney 1970:180). According to Atkins (1735 cited in Craton, Walvin, and Wright 1976:32) the African trader "never cares to treat with dry Lips." Bosman (1705:404) reported that the Africans at Whydah were great lovers of strong liquors, who expected their dassy, and "he that intends to Trade here, must humour them herein, or he shall not get one Tooth [elephant tusk]." Gift giving, which often involved elaborate rules, was implemented to appease state leaders and integrate even peripheral African social groups into the Atlantic trade (Thornton 1992:66-67).

Table 1.
The relative distribution of imports in western Africa in the 1680s and 1780s
Decade: 1680s 1780s
Textiles 50.0 56.4
Alcohol 12.5 9.7
Tobacco 2.5 8.1
Misc. manufacture 12.5 10.5
Iron 5.0 3.5
Food 5.0 1.8
Guns & gunpowder 7.5 8.6
Raw material 5.0 1.7
Source: Eltis and Jennings 1988

Rum and other alcoholic beverages also entered Africa as part of larger trading packages. David Eltis and Lawrence Jennings (1988:948) estimated that in the decade of the 1680s, alcohol represented 12.5% of West African imports and that, a century later, alcohol represented 9.7% (Table #1). This ancillary use of alcohol is evident among all major slave trading nations. In the 1720s, brandy was reported to be one of the principal commodities imported by the French at the slave trading port at Whydah and documents of the Dutch Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie show that more than 10 percent of trading packages consisted of alcoholic beverages (Saugera 1995:247; Law 1991:202; Postma 1990:104). By the late eighteenth century, slave traders from New England and Brazil were each annually exporting about 300,000 gallons of rum to West and West Central Africa (Pan 1975:8; Williams 1944:80; McCusker 1989:492-497; Curto 1996).

The modern western perception of alcohol as a profane fluid has often been evoked to amplify the insidiousness of European slave trading. According to Cuban historian Fernando Ortiz (1947:25), rum "was always the cargo for the slaver's return trip, for with it slaves were bought, local chieftains bribed, and the African tribes corrupted and weakened." Historian Eric Williams wrote,

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 the taste for liquor on the coast. The Negro dealers were plied with it, were induced to drink till they lost their reason, and then the bargain was struck. (Williams 1944:78)

Modern attitudes about the vulgarity of alcoholic beverages have helped magnify the evils of the slave trade. But the reality of rum's part in the trade is more mundane than the images so passionately depicted. West and West Central Africans were familiar with the potentially disastrous effects of excessive alcohol use prior to European intervention, which precluded the type of social devastation that accompanied the alcohol trade to Native Americans in North America.

The Social and Sacred Uses of Alcohol in West and West Central Africa

Rum and other alcoholic beverages entered a pre-existing African social structure that embraced alcohol use. The accounts of early explorers, traders, and missionaries in West and West Central Africa attest to the popularity of indigenous alcoholic beverages prior to the expansion of the transatlantic slave trade in the late seventeenth century. Like ethnographic field notes, these reports detailed the production of alcoholic beverages from various local sources, including honey, plantains, and various species of millets (Fernandes 1506-1510; de Marees 1602; Ruiters 1623). Palm wine, produced from the raphia variety of palm, appears to have been one of the most ubiquitous drinks found along the West and West Central African coasts.

An examination of alcohol use among the Akan, Igbo, Kongo, and Aja-Fon [the people who French slave traders referred to as Arada] highlights the social and symbolic value of alcohol in the African trade and helps explain African demand. In addition, exploring alcohol use among these African groups provides a foundation for understanding African slave drinking in the British and French Caribbean. The Akan and Igbo were central to the British transatlantic slave trade while the Kongo and Aja-Fon Arada were the most significant in the case of the French.

Alcohol use in Akan and Igbo societies predated European intervention and the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. As early as the eleventh century, Al-Bakri of Cordoba referred to "intoxicating drinks" served at the burial of the king of the ancient kingdom of Ghana (cited in Pan 1975:20-21). Oral traditions collected in the late nineteenth century intimate a long history of palm wine use in the Gold Coast dating back to the Asante's initial migration into the region in the early sixteenth century (cited in Akyeampong 1997:27). Palm wine was also available in Igbo lands prior to the seventeenth century. In 1589, trader James Welsh (cited in Isichei 1978:9) wrote that, in the Bight of Biafra, "there are a great store of palme trees, out of which they gather great store of wine."

Alcohol use among the Kongo of West Central Africa and Aja-Fon of the Slave Coast also predated the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. In 1570, Portuguese missionary Baltasar Alfonso noted that the people of Luanda drank walo, a beer made from fermented grain, and, in 1648, Portuguese missionary Jean-François de Rome described beer brewed from flour among the Kongo (cited in Curto 1996:57-59). Palm wine was also present. Portuguese missionary Filippo Pigafetta (1591:123) wrote that, at Luanda, "palm...grows here from which oil, wine, vinegar, fruits, and bread are all extracted." Grain-based beer, sometimes called pitau, and palm wine were also popular among the Arada (Isert 1788:127). According to Bosman (1705:391), there were many types of grain at Whydah, including "the great Milhio, ...which the negroes don't make bread of it, but use it in the brewing of beer." Arada women played a central role in beer brewing (Bosman 1705:392). Palm wine was less esteemed on the Slave Coast, but slave trader Dierick Ruiters (1623:227) described the availability of "two types of sour palm-wine, namely vino de palm and vino de Bordon."

Foreign spirits supplemented grain-based beer and palm wine. Africans valued imported alcoholic beverages for their newness, especially distilled spirits, which were much more concentrated, or "hot," than their usual fermented drinks. African elites also viewed foreign alcohol as a way to confirm status. For example, at Whydah, Bosman (1705:438) noted that "The Richer Sort" preferred brandy. The extent of the European trade, however, made foreign alcoholic beverages widely available and Bosman (ibid:403) believed that excessive brandy drinking was "the innate Vice of all Negroes."

Some parts of West and West Central Africa appreciated rum more than others. Obviously those areas of West and West Central Africa with the greatest amount of direct trade with rum making regions, such as Angola and the Gold Coast, had greater access to inexpensive rum. Eltis (2000:301) estimated that, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Gold Coast, which carried on a considerable amount of direct trade with rum-laden British American traders, received 48,000 gallons of rum annually. African states, like those on the Gold Coast, usually contained 20,000-30,000 people suggesting a relatively high rate of per capita rum consumption (Thornton 1992:105).

Foreign spirits were integrated into traditional West and West Central African cultural festivals, such as the Igbo yam festival, Akan odwira festival, and Ga homowo festival (Bosman 1705:158-159; Akyeampong 1997:40-41; Field 1937:22-24,47-56). More importantly, however, was alcohol's unique ability to facilitate communication with the spiritual world. The physical and spiritual worlds are closely aligned in Akan, Igbo, Kongo, and Arada religions, as well as the religions of many other West and West Central African groups. Ancestors, spirits, and deities played an active role in the daily lives of the living. According to historian John Thornton (1992:235-253), through revelations and divination augury, the spiritual world regularly left clues that guided believers through life. The physiological effect of alcohol, as with sleep deprivation, fasting, and other mind altering activities, was a medium, which helped induce interaction with the spiritual world. Historian Emmanuel Akyeampong (1997:21) argued that the Akan considered alcohol a sacred fluid that "bridged the gap between the physical and spiritual worlds." According to Akyeampong,

Rites of passage illustrated the conception of life as a progression from the spirit world, through the living world, and back into the spiritual world. Naming, puberty, marriage, and funeral ceremonies represented different epochal stages in life's journey. The human perception of the relative intimacy of the spiritual and living worlds associated with each phase was reflected in a minimal or profuse use of alcohol. (Akyeampong 1997:30)

Alcohol, therefore, helped link the physical and spiritual worlds ensuring the natural progression of life for the individual and community.

Libations highlight the way alcohol unites the physical and spiritual worlds. Libations are best described as prayer accompanied and punctuated by the pouring of alcohol (Akyeampong 1997:5n24). Individuals, families, and clans poured libations in order to seek favor from ancestral spirits and deities. Libations protected the community from evil, propitiated angry spirits, and accelerated an individual's recovery from illness. Libations, therefore, created a path to a spiritual world that secured community needs.

The Akan poured libations and made alcohol offerings to ancestors, spirits, and deities before most undertakings (Bosman 1705:151; Barbot 1746:314). In 1602, slave trader Pieter de Marees (1602:42-43) described an Akan drinking occasion in which the first drops of palm wine were poured on the ground in reverence for the ancestors. If the participants had "fetishes" tied to their arms and feet, they would spit the first mouthful of palm wine on them. Failing to do so risked the possibility that they would not be allowed to drink together in peace. One of the most powerful Akan spiritual symbols is the ancestral stool, a sacred representation of a deceased relative. Several times a year the Akan brought out their ancestral stools and placed alcohol offerings on them followed by the pouring of alcohol libations. In return, the living received ancestral blessings (Barbot 1746:308; Akyeampong 1997:40). The Igbo also poured libations and made sacrificial offerings of alcohol to their ancestors and deities in public and private ceremonies. Slave trader John Barbot (1746:392) wrote of them, "none drink without spilling a little of the liquor on the ground, for his idol." The Igbo ofo-stick, as with the Akan stool, represented an ancestral spirit. According to anthropologist Geoffrey Parrinder (1961:124), the Igbo periodically poured alcohol libations over the ofo-stick in the hope of appeasing ancestral spirits and receiving ancestral blessings in worldly endeavors.

Similar practices existed among the Arada and Kongo. For example, Bosman (1705:369) wrote that worshipers in the serpent cult at Whydah commonly left "drink offerings at the snake house." In the nineteenth century, British colonial administrators, recognizing the importance of alcohol to the serpent cult at Whydah, annually visited the "Boa house" and left offerings of rum to the priest (Burton 1864:63). Anthropologist Melville Herskovits (1964:57) noted that, in Dahomey, in the 1930s, rum continued to be the proper sacrificial offering for a vodou deity. In West Central Africa, alcohol also had a strong spiritual component. In 1705, Portuguese missionary Laurent de Lucques wrote that the inhabitants of Soyo "do nothing but drink." But anthropologist Georges Balandier (1968:160) believed Lucques misinterpreted the importance of drinking among the Kongolese and argued, instead, that "social necessity signified more than the pursuit of alcoholic stimulation; malafu [palm wine] was required on many occasions [especially at] rituals and ceremonies honoring the ancestors." In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, missionary Karl Laman wrote,

Here and there one still finds special houses for the safe keeping of the nkisi, idols and ancestral images. One also comes across small well-built ancestral houses in which there is only one mug, into which one pours palm-wine that is sacrificed to the ancestors. (Laman 1953 I:83)

In pre-colonial Akan and Igbo societies, birth represented a return to earth from the spirit world. The successful transition required the assistance of a powerful and sacred fluid. For example, a newborn was often given rum to wet his or her parched throat after the long journey from the spirit world. "The gesture [of giving rum] was an expression of welcome, an entreaty to the newborn baby to stay with its earthly family." According to Akyeampong (1997:31-32), an Akan child was believed to have two mothers: an earth mother and a spirit mother. Fear that the spirit mother would reclaim her child produced the 9-day moratorium on naming, during which time rum was offered to appease the spirit mother. The Igbo also connected newborn children and the ancestral world. In fact, a newborn represents the reincarnated spirit of a deceased relative and the Igbo performed special alcohol-based ceremonies to determine the particular ancestral spirit (Ilogu 1974:45-46). As a greeting to the reincarnated spirits, gifts of palm wine were given to newborn Igbo children. The naming ceremony soon followed and, according to Basden (1966:60), it "is a time of great rejoicing and feasting and large quantities of palm wine are consumed in celebrating the occasion."

Similar alcohol-based ceremonies occurred at births events in the Kongo. According to Laman (1957 II:10-11), pregnancy, childbirth, and naming were critical stages in a Kongolese child's life and, therefore, required elaborate rituals involving alcohol. New fathers spent lavishly and provide plenty of palm wine for the feast that followed his child's naming ceremony. Moreover, ancestral spirits were evoked during childbirth and naming ceremonies with alcohol. According to Laman,

When the mother and child have been blessed, all in the house who have not given birth to children or consecrated themselves to some nkisi [spirit] must go out. Then big calabashes with palm wine are called for, so that everyone may drink according to his nkisis-formula. (Laman 1957;II:12)

Death marked the end of physical life and a return to the spirit world. Again, alcohol was central in this transformation. Proper Akan and Igbo funerals included great amounts of alcohol, which helped ensure the successful transition of the deceased to the spirit world. Offerings of alcohol also guaranteed the future assistance of the deceased and prosperity for the family and community left behind. The Akan, according to de Marees (1602:184), put food and drink on the grave of the deceased believing that the dead "live on it, and [thus] pots of water and palm-wine are constantly renewed." Barbot (see also Field 1937:196-205 and Parrinder 1961:107) noted that in the Gold Coast,

As soon as the corps is let down into the grave, the persons who attended the funeral drink palm wine, or rum plentifully out of oxes horns; and what they cannot drink off at a draught, they spill on the grave of their deceased friend, that he may have his share of the liquor. (Barbot 1746:283)

Akyeampong wrote that alcohol was not poured down the throat of someone who was dying for fear that it would impeded their journey to the ancestral world. However, once the individual was deceased, alcohol libations helped the deceased's transition to the spiritual world. The Igbo also made copious use of alcohol at funerals. According to Basden (1966:112-126), alcohol was sprinkled on the deceased prior to burial. During the important second burial feast, "cases of gin and an unlimited supply of palm wine [were] consumed." Anthropologist Francis Arinze (1970:87-88) also noted that the Igbo made offerings of alcohol to their ancestors at funeral ceremonies so that the ancestral spirits would welcome the newly departed soul.

In "the city of Benin," Bosman (1705:448) wrote, "publick mourning commonly lasts fourteen days...during which they drink very plentifully." At Whydah "much rum is distributed [at funerals], and all night there is shouting, firing, and dancing" (Forbes 1851:49). In the 1930s, Herskovits (1938) detailed the role of alcohol and its ability to open lines of communication with the ancestral world at burial wakes in Dahomey. In West Central Africa, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the people of the Kongo were known to "bury their dead on the mountains in cool pleasant places...[and] leave wine and food" (Balandier 1968:251). According to historian Joseph Miller (1976:177n6), in the seventeenth century the Imbangala of West Central Africa "made extensive use of palm wine in their rituals...pouring the wine over the graves of their ancestors in an attempt to contact the dead."

The use of alcohol in birth and funeral ceremonies may reflect the need to bring the community through an anxious period of spiritual liminality. These transitions were times of community stress when living and spiritual worlds were closely and precariously aligned. The pacifying effect of alcohol on individuals, and indirectly on spirits and deities, may have produced a perception of order and control that helped stabilize the community during uncertain times.

Drinking together also strengthened the cohesiveness of the community. These social gatherings required the participation and economic assistance of the family, clan, and lineage. For example, de Marees wrote, when Akan women give birth

all the people -men, women, boys and girls - come to her...They give the child a name upon which they have agreed, and swear upon it with the Fetissos and other sorcery...on which occasion they make a big feast, with merry-making, food, and drink, which they love. (de Marees 1602:23)

Community events celebrated a shared identity and reaffirmed social commitments. The liberating effect of alcohol helped remove obstacles to social discourse.

The alcohol-for-slaves model developed in the early years of the African trade. Rum and other alcoholic beverages were distributed in gift-giving ceremonies and integrated into a larger trading package. The social and sacred value of alcohol increased the West and West Central African demand. The heavy emphasis on rum in the African slave trade may, however, also reflect a special appreciation for African slave-made products and symbolic respect for brethren stranded overseas. In the 1930s, Melville Herskovits recorded oral histories in Dahomey concerning the slave trading days. Included among the oral histories was a chant that the Dahomeans performed to their ancestors and kin sent across the Atlantic.

The English must bring guns. The Portuguese must bring powder. The Spaniards must bring the small stones, which give fire to our fire-sticks. The Americans must bring the cloths and the rum made by our kinsmen who are there, for these will permit us to smell their presence. (Herskovits 1966:87)

Alcohol in Caribbean Slave Societies

If slaves were not already familiar with rum in Africa, they were quickly introduced to it during the middle passage or upon their arrival in the Caribbean. Dr. Collins (1811:59), a planter and physician in St. Vincent, advised that, as part of the seasoning process, newly arrived slaves should be given rum "in small quantities, not pure, but diluted in water into a pretty strong grog; for it is the business of the Planter to conciliate them by many compliances with their humour." Rum, therefore, was used as a salutation to try and ease the transition into Caribbean slavery.

British Caribbean sugar planters provided huge amounts of rum to their slaves as part of weekly plantation rations (Long 1774:490). In the late eighteenth century, managers at York estate, Jamaica (GMP) set-aside 800 gallons of rum each year for use on the plantation. If this rum was reserved entirely for the estates' slave population, which at that time was about 450, the rate of per capita rum consumption would have been about 1.8 gallons. At Worthy Park, Jamaica, plantation managers annually distributed seven or eight puncheons of rum and, between 1784 and 1813, it would have provided each of Worthy Park's slaves with about 2.5-3.0 gallons per year (Craton and Walvin 1970:136; Craton 1991; Phillips 1914:543). In the mid- to late eighteenth century, between 1.3 and 1.9 gallons of rum was annually made available to each slave at Drax Hall estate, Jamaica (Armstrong 1990:43,248). Although these rates represent maximum distribution to slaves, some planters and plantation managers dispensed rum even more liberally. According to Jamaican missionary William Gardner (1873:389-390), plantation managers at Halse Hall estate, Jamaica distributed one pint to one quart of rum a week to each adult slave, or 6.5 to 13 gallons per year.

French Caribbean sugar planters also portioned out rum to their slaves. In Martinique, French missionary Father J.B. Labat (1724;II:323) estimated that 10% of the rum produced on his model sugar plantation, or about 402 gallons, should be annually set-aside for the plantation's 120 slaves, which gave an annual per capita rum consumption rate of about 3.4 gallons. When "infants" are removed from Labat's equation the level of rum consumption jumps to 4.2 gallons each year. Some planters used rum as a dietary supplement in their efforts to cut plantation costs. In 1685, the French government passed the Code Noir, which was meant to standardize and improve the treatment of slaves in the French Caribbean. Article 23 of the Code Noir specifically forbade sugar planters to substitute un-nutritious rum for substantive food in their slaves' diet (Peytraud 1897:196). In 1755, Frederik V of Denmark also instituted a slave code, which prevented sugar planters in the Danish islands from engaging in this same cost-cutting practice (Hall 1992:59).

Slaves also received allotments of rum as part of rewards and incentives systems. For example, in 1797, an anonymous Jamaican wrote,

In the country where the rats are numerous, and destructive to the canes, they make basket traps and catch them in abundance, for which on some plantations they receive a quantity of rum proportioned to the number taken, which is known by the number of tails they produce. (anonymous 1797:14)

Jamaican sugar planter Charles Leslie (1740:34) indicated that slaves received a bottle of rum for every 50 rat-tails collected. This practice of exchanging rat-tails for rum was widespread and existed for many years. Rum was also given as a reward for good work. Jamaican sugar planter Thomas Roughley (1823:90-91) argued that, as an incentive to the principal headman to do his duty well, "a weekly allowance of a quart or two of good rum...will be found of salutary effect." Planters devised an effective incentives system, which used rum to improve discipline and elicit a favorable slave disposition.

Slaves received rum and other forms of alcohol as an incentive to perform particularly difficult and unpleasant tasks. Labat (1724;II:331) advised giving slaves rum when doing arduous work, such as dunging and cane holing. Some planters in St. Croix dispensed rum to their slaves two or three times a day during planting season (Hall 1992:72). In Dominica, sugar planter Thomas Atwood wrote,

The field negroes, when digging cane holes, have usually, in the afternoon, half a pint of rum and water, sweetened with molasses, given to each of them, which is a great refreshment in that labour, and causes them to work with chearfulness. (Atwood 1791:257-258)

In addition, Atwood believed singing "has a good effect in soothing their labour, and is much promoted by giving them rum and water." Sugar plantation work, in general, was grueling and some planters simply distributed shots of rum to their slaves each morning before they headed out to the cane fields and when they returned at the end of the day (Labat 1724;II:331; Roughley 1823:101,122).

Slaves also got rum through barter and purchase at weekend markets. For example, Jamaican sugar planter Matthew Monk Lewis wrote that among his slaves were some

choice ungrateful scoundrels...[including] a young rascal of a boy called 'massa Jackey,' who is in the frequent habit of running away for months at a time, and whom I had distinguished from the cleverness of his countenance and buffoonery of his manners, came to beg my permission to go and purchase food with some of the money I had just given him, 'because he was almost starving; his parents were dead, he had no provision-grounds, no allowance, and nobody ever gave him anything.' Upon this I sent Cubina with the boy to the store-keeper, when it appeared that he had always received a regular allowance of provisions twice a week, which he generally sold, as well as his clothes, at the Bay, for spirits. (Lewis 1834:128-129)

Lewis also noted that some of his slaves sold their provisions to "wandering higglers" for the same purpose. Many such transactions occurred at Sunday markets and, as a result, some planters, including Collins (1811:80, 65-66), began the practice of distributing food and drink allowances in the middle of the week rather than the end because "as Sunday is their holiday and market-day, they are apt to carry their allowance to market, and to barter it for rum." The exchange of rum for sexual favors provided another opportunity to get rum and one, for example, that Jamaican plantation manager Thomas Thistlewood frequently gave to the female slaves under his care (cited in Hall 1989:18).

Planters and plantation managers dispensed rum on holidays and special occasions. According to Lewis's diary (1834:73), January 6, 1816 "was a day given to my negroes as a festival on my arrival. A couple of heifers were slaughtered for them: they were allowed as much rum, and sugar, and noise, and dancing as they chose." At crop-over, Thistlewood (cited in Hall 1989:47) "served the Negroes 15 quarts of rum out of the butt a filling in the curing house, and two large bottoms of sugar to make them merry." In 1762, slaves at Codrington estate, Barbados were given a cask of rum to help celebrate New Year's (SPG). At Christmas, planters doled out extra rations of rum, flour, corn, herring, and pickled pork (anonymous 1830:54; Marsden 1788:33). In 1769, estate managers at Drax Hall plantation, Jamaica reserved five puncheons of rum, much of it for "all the Estates Negroes at Christmas time and Easter" (Armstrong 1990:248).

Although planters had great control over the distribution of alcohol, slaves also took initiative in procuring rum. In the mid-seventeenth century, French missionary Father J.B. du Tertre (1667-1671:491-492) wrote "I have seen one of our negroes slaughter five or six chickens in order to accommodate his friends, and spend extravagantly on three pints of rum in order to entertain five or six slaves of his country." Slaves also found clandestine ways of securing alcohol. In Barbados, sugar planter Thomas Hendy (1833:34) wrote "one of the great prolific sources of crime [was the] free use of ardent spirits in which the slaves indulge." Hendy argued that the slaves' desire to drink led them to steal rum, or other goods that could be traded for rum. William Belgrove (1755:57), plantation manager at Drax Hall plantation in Barbados, wrote, "The blacks are commonly addicted to Thieving... [and if] they are taken stealing Sugar, Molasses, or Rum they must be severely handled." A young domestic slave at Newton plantation, Barbados was executed for just such an offense (Handler and Lange 1978:90-91). In Jamaica, "pilferage" may have accounted for as much as 5% of all the rum produced on the island (Long 1774;II:499). Theft was also a problem in the French Caribbean. Labat (1724;II:332) believed that the rum sold by slaves at Sunday markets in Martinique was often stolen from their masters and neighboring estates. Many planters recognized that, in order to prevent theft "a due attention to the distillery, assisted by good locks and bars" was required (Collins 1811:101).

Slaves also took advantage of local rum markets and sometimes became crucial links in the local distribution chain. According to du Tertre (1667-1671:119), slaves in Martinique collected the skimmings that spilled over during the sugar boiling process and made "intoxicating drinks from it, which do a good trade in the island." Nearly two centuries later, Saint-Just, an enterprising slave on the sugar estate of Pierre Dessalles in Martinique, sold rum with his common law wife in a shop set up on the plantation (Forster and Forster 1996:20). Dessalles apparently encouraged the commercial pursuits of his slaves and, in 1823, he took his slave Madeleine to his coffee plantation, Caféière, where she too sold rum (Forster and Forster 1996:55). Among the runaways advertised in Saint Domingue in 1791 was an enterprising 28 year-old Mozambique man who bought rum at the gates of sugar estates and sold it in the mountains (Geggus 1986:125-126).

The Social and Sacred Uses of Alcohol in Caribbean Slaves Societies

Historical ethnographies of slave life commonly stress the survival of African cultural traits in the Caribbean. Beginning with the pioneering work of Melville Herskovits, historically minded anthropologists have sought to connect Caribbean slave traditions to Africa. Although Herskovits used broad culture area concepts of West Africa to reconstruct African survivals, his research also illustrated the specific origins of particular cultural influences (Herskovits 1941). For example, Herskovits (1937, 1947) linked Haitian vodou and the religion of Fõn-speaking peoples of Dahomey and identified the Yoruba roots of the Shango cult in Trinidad.

In 1976, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price (1992) revised the Herskovitsian model in an attempt to explain commonalities across the African diaspora despite the cultural heterogeneity of slave societies. Mintz and Price's model emphasized the Creolization of African slave culture rather than the identification of specific West and West Central African cultural traits. They believed that the randomized nature of the slave trade, the violence of the middle-passage, and the brutality of plantation slavery deculturated slaves and forced them to construct a new African American culture. The Creolization process began between shipmates on the very ships that transported slaves to the Americas and continued once they arrived at their destination on American plantations. According to Mintz and Price, the birth of African American culture represents a dialectic between the shared mental constructs of enslaved Africans and the colonial social contexts in which slave societies developed. For example, they argued that shared beliefs about the active role of ancestral spirits led to syncretic religious adaptations that transcended cultural differences on the plantation. Thus, Jamaican obeah and Haitian vodou combined underlying principles of West and West Central African belief systems. Moreover, the "additive" nature of West and West Central African cultures encouraged syncretism in slave religions (ibid:44-46).

More recent work on the Atlantic slave trade has returned to the earlier emphasis on the impact of particular African ethnic groups on particular parts of the Americas (Eltis and Richardson 1997a). The slave trade evidence has renewed the search for specific cultural influences in the Americas. For example, historian Robin Law (1999) identified the particular influence of Arada slaves from the Dahomean region of West Africa in the famous Bois Caiman ceremony that preceded the Haitian revolution. Based on the oaths taken at the ceremony, Law argued "The ceremony at Bois Caiman in 1791 is clearly interpretable as a Dahomean-type ritual oath." Douglas Chambers (1997) used the slave trade data to hunt for "igboisms" in Jamaican slave culture. According to Chambers, some of the most celebrated Jamaican slave cultural practices, such as jonkonu and obeah, represent Igbo customs.

Do the drinking practices of Caribbean slaves reflect the direct transfer of particular African drinking customs or the construction of new drinking behaviors based on the shared beliefs of various African ethnic groups? Answering this question is difficult because most of our information about both African and African slave drinking comes from Europeans who often failed to explore the nuances of complex drinking customs. Moreover, African and African slave drinking rituals were usually private events conducted away from the eyes of Europeans. Thus, we may simply lack the raw evidence that would allow us to make a strong correlation between the drinking practices of particular African nations with those observed among African slaves in the Caribbean. Yet, the evidence does show that, at the level of the lowest common denominator, African slaves in the Caribbean created drinking customs, which embraced their shared West and West Central African beliefs about the spiritual meaning of alcohol.

John Thornton's (1992) study of the rise of the Afro-Atlantic world provides a good model for exploring the drinking practices of Caribbean slaves. Thornton argued that Mintz and Price overstated the randomized nature and deculturating effects of the Atlantic slave trade. Rather than seeing a heterogeneous mix of West and West Central African cultures, Thornton, as Herskovits, focused on broad bundles of cultural traits and saw West and West Central Africa as very homogeneous. Moreover, Thornton argued that West and West Central Africans became increasingly homogeneous as a result of the rise of large African states and the expansion of European trade. Although Thornton conceded that diversity between groups was an obstacle to the transfer and re-commencement of particular ethnic beliefs on American plantations, it did not prevent the construction of a new African-oriented culture in the Americas. Thornton stressed the cultural flexibility and adaptability of Africans who were able to merge their beliefs and ideas with those from various parts of Africa and Europe. What is most original in Thornton's argument is his belief that the processes that led to the rise of this new Afro-Atlantic culture emerged in colonial Africa and began to shape Africans long before they arrived in the Americas.

Thornton's examination of the rise of Afro-Atlantic religion is particularly germane to the study of alcohol use among Caribbean slaves. At a basic level, Africans and Europeans shared similar beliefs about the nature of religion, especially the belief in a spirit world that was home to ancestors. Africans and Europeans also believed that the spirit world revealed its demands and desires through revelations. As a result of increasing interactions between Europeans and other Africans groups, a new Afro-Atlantic religion emerged "that was often identified as Christian, especially in the New World, but was a type of Christianity that could satisfy both African and European understandings of religion." According to Thornton,

This new African Christianity allowed some of the African religious knowledge and philosophy to be accommodated in a European religious system and represented a merger of great influence similar to the creation of Chinese (or East Asian) Buddhism or the Indianization of Islam. (Thornton 1992:254)

African priests, brought to the Americas as slaves, produced new revelations that helped build Afro-American cosmologies from the various African beliefs. Like a lingua franca language system, African Christianity functioned as the link that brought together slaves from various nations.

One similarity that Thornton overlooked in his analysis of Afro-Atlantic religious systems was that most Africans shared similar beliefs about the spiritual importance of alcohol. West and West Central Africans, with the exception of those at the northern margins of the slave trade who closely followed the teachings of Islam, believed that alcohol facilitated communication with the spirit world. Through libations, offerings, and alcohol-induced spirit possessions, Africans opened lines of communication to the spirit world and showed reverence to ancestors, gods, and deities. Moreover, these practices were not entirely unfamiliar to Christian Europeans who used sacramental wine to strengthen their own sense of spiritual attachment. Common beliefs about the spiritual importance of alcohol merged in Africa and on the slave plantations in the Caribbean and helped unify Africans from various nations. The sacred uses of alcohol observed among African slaves in the Caribbean highlights the construction of new African-oriented drinking customs based on the lowest common denominator of those shared beliefs.

Whether we accept the argument of cultural lumpers like Herskovits and Thornton, who defined broad African culture areas, or cultural splitters like Mintz and Price, who saw African cultural heterogeneity, the millions of slaves transported to the New World in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries came from diverse West and West Central African cultural backgrounds. Historical evidence from travelers' accounts, mission reports, and trade records indicates that alcohol figured prominently in pre-colonial West and West Central Africa and that most slaves came from societies with strong traditions of alcohol use. While the argument advanced here emphasizes the braiding of shared West and West Central African beliefs about alcohol, the recent work on the Atlantic slave trade has shown that certain African ethnic groups were concentrated in particular regions of the New World. These slaves presumably had a major impact on the drinking behaviors that developed within those regions. Moreover, we must concede that European writers may have simply failed to provide us with enough information to pinpoint particular African influences. In order to account for the new evidence and strike a balance in the debate over the emergence of slave culture, I focused on the drinking patterns of four African ethnic groups viewed by most historians as having the greatest impact on French and British Caribbean slave life. As that discussion showed, all shared similar views about the basic spiritual role of alcohol.

The Igbo from the Bight of Biafra and Akan from the Gold Coast had a significantly greater cultural impact in the British Caribbean than other African groups. According to Douglas Chambers (1997:77), between 1700 and 1809, the Igbo represented as much as a third of all slave arrivals in the British Caribbean, a higher percentage than any other African ethnic group in this period. The Akan also greatly influenced slave life in the British Caribbean due to their seventeenth century presence in the region. This early presence suggests that Akan slaves would have had a profound socializing impact on later slave arrivals from other West and West Central African cultures (Herskovits 1966:96-98; Mintz and Price 1992:42-51). There are good grounds for believing that the drinking practices of Igbo and Akan slaves significantly shaped drinking behaviors in the British Caribbean and understanding traditional Igbo and Akan forms of alcohol use should reveal new insights into the meanings of slave drinking.

Slave societies in the French Caribbean were in the same way deeply influenced by particular African ethnic groups. In the eighteenth century, more than 75% of Africans brought to the French Caribbean came from the Bight of Benin and the Congo/Angola region of West Central Africa. In the first half of the eighteenth century, and probably before, most Africans destined for the French Caribbean departed from the Bight of Benin (Geggus 1998; Eltis and Richardson 1997b:16-35; Law 1999). A series of wars in the early eighteenth century during the rise of the Dahomey kingdom produced numerous slaves and helped make Whydah a flourishing French slaving station. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Congo/Angola region of West Central Africa became the major departure point of African slaves. European competition in the Bight of Benin forced French slavers to move south to the Portuguese controlled regions along the Congo/Angolan coast (Stein 1988:18-19). Africans transported to the older French colony of Martinique disproportionately came from the Bight of Benin reflecting the early settlement and development of that colony (Geggus 1990, 1998). The French slave traders' shift to West Central Africa in the mid-eighteenth century and the increasing demand for slaves in Saint Domingue meant that West Central African "Congos" were the most numerous ethnic group in the colony and they dominated the coffee sector that expanded after the mid-eighteenth century (Geggus 1989:9).

Beliefs in the sacred nature of alcohol in these African societies survived the violence of the middle passage and took hold in the slave societies of the British and French Caribbean. The ready availability of alcohol during the slavery period allowed African slaves to continue traditional African drinking practices. In the eighteenth century, Moreau de Saint-Méry (1797-1798;I:58) wrote, "When the slaves come off the ship they are not greatly surprised at the various natural products of the island. These are all too similar to what they knew in Africa." Alcohol was among those products. In fact, according to Caribbean traveler Charles de Rochefort (1658:447), in the early years of settlement, newly arrived African slaves in St. Kitts made incisions in palm trees, extracted the juice, and made "liqueur similar to white wine." This description of palm wine making parallels those left by European travelers to pre-colonial West and West Central Africa and indicates that African slaves attempted to recreate traditional palm wine production once they arrived in the Caribbean. Yet, with the rise of sugar making in the Caribbean, rum became the alcoholic beverage of choice. Under the harsh conditions of Caribbean slavery, rum was used to help maintain a symbolic connection to Africa and the ancestral world. For those slaves who were not already familiar with rum in Africa, the ability to incorporate new varieties of alcohol into traditional forms of spirituality highlights the cultural adaptability of African slaves in a changing Afro-Atlantic social environment. The ritual uses of alcohol on the plantations also helped define slave identity, which made it a vital weapon in the arsenal of slave resistance.

The spiritual component of alcohol was not unique to the African slaves. Alcohol played an indispensable role in the spiritual beliefs of all major social groups in the Caribbean, including Caribs, Jews, Catholics, and Anglicans. The use of alcohol for religious purposes was familiar to slave owners and, therefore, was probably not seen as an overt challenge to the stability of the slave system. However, the hostile social climate of the Caribbean generated new anxieties that sometimes led African slaves to embrace the more aggressive spiritual aspects of alcohol use. The more violent expressions of slave spirituality concerned the planter class and alcohol often defined that threat.

The religious practices of British and French Caribbean slaves demonstrate the link between alcohol and the ancestral world. In the British Caribbean, obeah was a common form of slave healing and spirituality that integrated ancestor worship and a traditional system of doctoring. Scholar Joseph Williams (1932:120) argued that the practice of obeah derived from Akan religious practices. However, Chambers (1997:88) has challenged this explanation claiming that the term obeah stemmed from the Igbo dibia, meaning a doctor or diviner who had close contact with the spirit world. In all likelihood, obeah largely represented a mixing of various West and West Central African religious practices that venerated ancestors and sought spiritual assistance in worldly endeavors. According to Jerome Handler (2000:80), "For whites, Obeah became a catchall term for a range of supernatural-related behaviors that were not of European origin." Obeah rituals relied heavily on the sacred use of alcohol. Colonial whites saw obeah as a threat to the stability of the colonies and tried to outlaw its practice. The laws made numerous references to the use of alcohol in obeah fetish oaths and ancestor ceremonies. For example, in 1782, Neptune, a slave, was transported off Jamaica "for making use of rum, hair, chalk, stones, and other materials relative to the practice of Obeah, or witchcraft" (cited in Williams 1932:191). According to Jamaican sugar planter Bryan Edwards (1819;I:111-112), colonial officials identified obeah practitioners by their fetishes, which typically included rum. In the context of British Caribbean slavery, rum replaced the traditional palm wine as the vehicle to the spiritual world. The use of rum in obeah practices reveals the persistence of African, especially Igbo and Akan, beliefs about the sacred nature of alcohol.

French Caribbean writers also provided valuable information about the connection between alcohol and slave spirituality. Alcohol helped facilitate communication with the ancestral world in French Caribbean slave societies. Moreau de Saint-Méry (1797-1798;II:56) wrote, "The Negroes' belief in magic and the power of their fetishes follow them from overseas." The spiritual uses of alcohol followed as well.

Vodou has become a blanket term for African-oriented religions in the French Caribbean, especially in Haiti. In the 1930s, Herskovits (1937:139) wrote vodou "is a complex of African belief and ritual governing in large measure the religious life of the Haitian peasantry." It is accompanied by dances, spirit possession, and ceremonial rituals. The term vodou, meaning deities, comes from the Aja-Fõn people of the Bight of Benin, where in the eighteenth century, Dahomey became the most important state. Known to the French as Arada, they worshiped the principle of sinuosity and snake deities (Geggus 1991:41-42). Dahomey invaded and conquered the kingdom of Allada in 1724, which resulted in the shipment of many Arada to the French colonies in the New World. Similarly, according to Ellis (cited in Williams 1932:19), slaves from Whydah, conquered by Dahomey in 1727, also significantly influenced vodou in Haiti. More recently, scholars have reevaluated the impact of West Central Africans in Saint Domingue and challenged notions about the purity of Arada and Whydah influences in vodou. David Geggus (1991:35), for example, showed "a very strong Kongo content in what eighteenth century colonists called voodoo."

Vodou and ancestor worship were transferred to the Americas, where they continued to play an active role in the lives of French Caribbean slaves. For example, Moreau de Saint-Méry provided a rare description of the use of alcohol in a vodou dance among the slaves of Saint Domingue.

If by mischance the excess of his [the dancer's] transport makes him leave the circle, the chant ceases at once, the voodoo King and Queen turn their backs on him to avert misfortune. The dancer recovers himself, reenters the circle, begins anew, drinks, and finally becomes convulsive...The delirium increases. It is further aroused by the use of spirituous liquors which in the intoxication of their imagination the devotees do not spare, and which keeps them up. (Moreau de Saint-Méry 1797-1798;I:51)

Geggus (1991:33-34) examined the case of Jérôme Poteau, a mulatto who attracted large gatherings of slaves and sold maman-bila (small chalky stones), for ritual purposes. According to the eighteenth century reports on the case, these stones were placed in rum and gunpowder "to make them angry" and, thus, to intensify their power. Participants also consumed mixtures of rum and crushed maman-bila during voodoo ceremonies.

Modern ethnographic reports have also captured the essence of alcohol use in vodou ceremonies. Herskovits (1937:181) described vodou dances in which it was the obligation of the family giving the dance to provide clarin (raw bush rum). Anthropologist Erika Bourguignon (1964:1393-1394) analyzed the particular importance of alcohol in spirit possession in Haiti. According to Bourguignon, "it is the spirits, rather than the cult members, who drink...The spirits have particular preferences for rum, tafia, occasionally even whiskey, depending on their personalities and presumed attributes as to social class, ethnic status, etc." Anthropologist Seth Leacock (1964) identified similar instances among Afro-Brazilian cults in which spirits possessed cult members at curing rituals and public ceremonies. According to Leacock, these ceremonies functioned to integrate members of the cult, relieve anxiety, and help problem-solve through spiritual guidance. The spirits represented various personalities, most of whom liked to drink and demanded alcohol. At public ceremonies, these spirits possessed individuals and encouraged them to drink excessively. The possessed cult member was not accountable for his or her actions during possession. According to Leacock, those spirits who preferred rum were generally the more disruptive, aggressive, and evil.

Besides its role in vodou rites and ceremonies, rum was an important ingredient in witchcraft and as a garde in many protective charms (Williams 1932: 230). According to writer William Seabrook, a vodou sorcerer's formulas, which Seabrook called "death ouanga," included the passage

Old Master, now is the time to keep the promise you made, Curse him as I curse him and spoil him as I spoil him. By the fire at night, by the dead black hen, by the bloody throat, by the goat, by the rum on the ground, this ouanga be upon him. May he have no peace in bed, nor at his food, nor can he hide. Waste him and wear him and rot him as these rot. (Seabrook 1929 cited in Williams 1932:97n56)

In Haiti, the spirit of Mait Carrefour, an important force behind all magic, was commonly conjured up on All Saints day and asked to protect the family and community in the coming year. During the ceremony,

Clarin is thrown three times at each fork of the crossroads and some is also sprinkled in the center and at each corner of the container of food. Three bits of earth are finally lifted from the corners of the crossroads and taken to the home of the worshiper. Here they are put in a plate with clarin, which is first lighted and then extinguished, so that the members of the family can anoint themselves with it and receive strength with which to face the new year. (Herskovits 1937:226)

The African tradition of using alcohol at birth ceremonies continued among the slaves of the British and French Caribbean. Planters were generally removed from slave birthing practices, celebrations, and rites. Slave midwives usually assisted birth and birth ceremonies took place away from the planters' view. Accounts of birth ceremonies are, therefore, rare and details about the use of alcohol at these ceremonies even more scarce. However, du Tertre (1667-1671:492) wrote that the slaves have a big celebration at the birth of their children, invite the other slaves of their country, and sell "everything they own" in order to have enough rum for the birth ceremony. Long (1774;II:479) believed that the 9-day moratorium on naming was due to the high rate of slave infant mortality, which he blamed on the practice of giving rum to newborns. As late as the 1920s, folklorist Martha Beckwith (1929:57-58) recorded a birth ceremony in Jamaica in which "On the ninth day, a bath is prepared for the child [with] a little rum thrown into it."

Alcohol also figured prominently at slave funerals, for which evidence is more abundant. According to Long (1774;II:421-422), "drinking, dancing, and vociferation" characterized the funerals of British Caribbean slaves. In 1688, John Taylor (cited in Burton 1997:18), a visitor to Jamaica, recognized the central role of the ancestors at funerals and observed that, after offerings, including rum, had been placed in the grave, they "fill up the grave, and eat and drink thereon." In 1740, Leslie (1740:307-310) wrote that slaves were buried with "a pot of soup at the head, and a bottle of rum at the feet." In 1791, Atwood (1791:268) described the role of alcohol at slave funerals in Dominica. "Their superstitious notions with respect to their dead are truly ridiculous, for they suppose that the deceased both eat and drink in their coffins; and for that purpose, they put therein articles for both." Atwood also noted the annual custom of making offerings to the deceased. These events typically occurred at the Christmas holiday, when alcohol was widely distributed to slaves. According to Atwood,

At this time too, they perform their offerings of victuals on the graves of their deceased relations and friends; a piece of superstition which all negros are addicted to, and which, were they to neglect doing, they firmly believe they would be punished by the spirits of the deceased persons. This offering consists of meat, whole kids, pigs, or fowls, with broth, liquors, and other matters; and is performed in the following manner: a man or woman accustomed to the ceremony, takes of each meat laid in dishes round the grave, and pulling some of it in pieces, throws the same on the grave calling out at the name of the dead person as if alive, saying, "Here is a piece of such a thing for you to eat; why did you leave your father, mother, wife, children, friends? Did you go away angry with us? When shall we see you again? Make our provisions to grow, and stock to breed; don't let anybody do us harm, and we will give you the same next year;" With the like expressions to everything they throw on the grave. After which, taking a little of the rum or other liquors, they sprinkle it thereon, crying out in the same manner, "Here is a little rum to comfort your heart, good bye to you, God bless you;" and drinking some of it themselves to the welfare of the deceased, they set up a dismal cry and howling, but immediately after begin to dance and sing round the grave. (Atwood 1791:260-261)

In the French Caribbean, the successful return to the spirit world at death also necessitated the use of alcohol. French Caribbean historian Lucien Peytraud (1897:208) wrote "the dead drink, eat, enjoy, like the living; therefore they offer them food and liquors, arms and furnishings, and, are like their required servants and women in the other world." According to Herskovits (1937:209-211), clarin was a central element of a Haitian funeral. "When drinks are passed, the recipients must make three libations before drinking." As among the Akan of the Gold Coast, Herskovits noted alcohol was not given to the dying or put in the mouth of the deceased for fear that he or she might become drunk and not reach the spirit world. After the individual had died, libations were poured to help his or her transition to the spiritual world. Death and clarin are also linked through the rum guzzling vodou deity Gede, ruler of cemeteries (Herskovits 1937:318).

To date, evidence from graves of the use of alcohol has been hard to come by in the few slave cemeteries that have been excavated. For example, in the early 1970s, Jerome Handler and Frederick Lange (1978) excavated 92 burials at Newton plantation, Barbados. They discussed historical evidence of placing bottles of alcohol in the graves of the deceased and recovered a large number of tobacco pipes that were used as grave goods, but recovered no bottles associated with any of the burials. A tobacco pipe, too, was recovered from a burial at an unmarked eighteenth century slave cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados. The grave contained shards of green wine bottle glass, but the fragmentary and incomplete nature of the glass suggests it entered the burial accidentally and not as a grave good (Smith 1998). At the eighteenth century Harney slave cemetery in Montserrat, archaeologist David Watters recovered a "Turlington Balsam of life" bottle from the cemetery that may have contained rum and been a grave good buried with one of the deceased (Watters 1994). Despite Leslie's claim that British Caribbean slaves buried bottles of rum with the deceased, the lack of bottles recovered from slave burials indicates that the demand for bottles among the living outweighed the need for bottles in slave funerary rites. Bottles were prized for practical purposes and slaves probably modified West African customs to meet local conditions. Thus, slaves probably sprinkled alcohol into the graves of the dead rather than relinquish useful bottles.

The link between alcohol and ancestors was evident during an event that occurred immediately following the excavation of the burial in Bridgetown, Barbados. At the end of the day, construction workers stated that libations needed to be poured in order to appease the "duppies" [spirits] of those buried at the site. One construction worker immediately brought forth a bottle of rum and poured libations on the ground and on all those involved in the excavation. This was followed by requests that the disturbed spirits "rest in peace and leave us alone."

As in West and West Central Africa, a small ruling class, who held the land and labor necessary for rum production, largely controlled the flow of alcohol in the Caribbean (Akyeampong 1997:12-14,41-45; Parkin 1972). Caribbean sugar planters, as with African tribal chiefs and elders, therefore, had possession of a powerful fluid that was essential for opening communication with the spiritual world, receiving spiritual guidance, and ensuring a successful transition during rites of passage. Moreover, the sugar planters' distribution of alcohol at births, funerals, and other important events paralleled the pattern of alcohol distribution found among chiefs and elders in West and West Central Africa. This hierarchical control of alcohol would have been familiar to African slaves in the Caribbean and may have helped legitimate the power of the Caribbean planter class. Slaves, however, also took initiative in getting alcohol for spiritual events and rites of passage and, according to an anonymous writer in Jamaica (1797:15), "the best victuals and some liquors are procured [by slaves] in great plenty" on these occasions. Feasts and ceremonies, like those described above, reinforced social ties on the sugar plantations. Alcohol acted as a social lubricant at these events, which helped create of a more unified slave community.

Shared West and West Central African beliefs about the sacred nature of alcohol and the active participation of the ancestors in daily life took root in the slave societies of the Caribbean. As in Africa, alcohol-based libations, offerings, and spirit possessions helped African slaves in the Caribbean facilitate communication with the spiritual world and learn the desires of ancestral spirits. Within the diverse African cultural context of the Caribbean slave plantation, alcohol became a catchall substance for all dealings with the spiritual world. But why did highly concentrated rum operate in the same spiritual manner as traditional alcoholic beverages in Africa? The powerful physiological effect of alcohol, especially a highly volatile spirit like rum, altered consciousness and made it a powerful vehicle for escape to the spiritual world. Moreover, since the seventeenth century, West and West Central Africans welcomed rum as a spiritually-oriented fluid and often used it in place of indigenous alcoholic beverages. Many slaves, therefore, were already familiar with rum and its spiritual uses when they arrived in the Caribbean. The anxieties generated by the hostile social environment of the Caribbean sugar plantation motivated the African slaves' continuing embrace of alcohol as a temporary means of escape to the spiritual world, as well as to Africa. The spiritual use of rum by diverse African and African slave ethnic groups in the Caribbean also highlights the adaptability of the Afro-Atlantic community. Like the rise of Afro-Atlantic Christianity, rum became a unifying feature of the Afro-Atlantic world. Just as the consumption of slave-made Caribbean rum helped Africans in Africa make a symbolic connection to their brethren overseas, it also helped those Caribbean slaves form a link to their African homelands.

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Frederick H. Smith
Visiting Instructor
Honors Program
University of Florida
140 Tigert Hall
PO Box 113260
Gainesville, Fl. 32611
352-271-9313
E-mail: fhsmith@ufl.edu
Institutional affiliation: University of Florida
Ph.D. supervisory chair: Kathleen Deagan, Department of Anthropology
Ph.D. supervisory co-chair: David Geggus, Department of History