American Rum 15: The Molasses Act
It is difficult to understand this today, but in the eighteenth century the wealthiest part of the British Empire were the small islands of the Caribbean, which produced sugar, not the far larger and much more populated North American colonies. Those small islands were the central concern of the British government and for those islands long, expensive, bloody wars were fought against the other European Powers. Actually, the duties on sugar provided the British in land revenue with far more resources than all the taxes levied on the trade of the colonies.
The élite of the West Indies Planters amassed wealth on a colossal scale. After becoming so rich, they mostly went back to live in England and, as often in history, they wanted to achieve social respectability and political power. So they bought large estates and became Members of Parliament where around 40 of them constituted a powerful Sugar Lobby to defend their interests.
From the beginning of XVIII Century, the interests of West Indian planters were on a collision course with those of North American colonists and at the heart of the conflict were the trade relations between the Continental Colonies and the French West Indies. This is indeed one of the issues around which will revolve a great part of the history of American rum, and indeed of America, all through the century.
The French West Indies were made up of few small islands and of the bigger Saint Domingue, today’s Haiti. In the first decades of the XVIII Century, those islands became the greatest producers of sugar in the world, therefore they produced also huge quantities of molasses, and French planters didn’t know what to do with it. Unlike British planters, they could not turn most of their molasses into rum to sell on the great domestic market because it was forbidden by French law. Actually, rum production itself was not banned, what was banned was the export of rum to France, by far the biggest market possible.
French Planters were allowed to export rum to the little populated Canada, then a French colony, to Africa, where it was traded off for slaves, and to all foreign countries. But they all were little markets for such huge production of molasses. The overwhelming bulk of molasses was left unused and French planters were happy to sell it cheap to the only people who were keen to buy it, North American merchants. Therefore French molasses cost roughly half as much as the British one. In exchange for their molasses, French planters wanted mainly food for their many slaves and Americans supplied them with the fish which their seas had an abundance of, but also with rice and flour. Every tourist will notice that this exchange with food coming from the North is at the basis of Caribbean cuisine even now.
And then, staves, timber, work horses, in short, all that was needed by those islands specialized in sugar production. It was a perfect trade arrangement where the two parties involved sold what was in excess and, for them, of lesser value, while buying what they needed most and could not produce themselves.
The only real losers were the British West Indian Planters. Their molasses sold less and its
price tended to go down, whereas the price of the goods they bought from American merchants went up: they too needed food, timber and horses, they too could only buy from the North American colonies, and the increase in demand obviously pushed up the prices.
The Sugar Lobby reacted by promoting a veritable press campaign against North American colonists and their rum. By means of articles, pamphlets, speeches, their lack of patriotism was denounced, on the grounds that with their trade they enriched the enemy, France, while at the same time impoverishing their fellow countrymen. It was claimed that New England Rum was not only bad, it was harmful to their health, especially the health of the poor native Indians. Americans defended themselves, indeed they struck back on the moral ground, claiming that the legitimate interests of hundreds of thousands honest, God-abiding North American colonists should prevail over those of few incredibly wealthy and debauched Sugar Barons. But in London they counted for very little.
In 1733 Parliament approved the so called Molasses Act, imposing a duty of sixpence per gallon on molasses imported from non-British territories. This was not a revenue bill, it was effective prohibition because, if enforced, this duty would have doubled the pr ice of French molasses, putting them out of the colonial market.
On top of that, tariff barriers were imposed on the import of the American rum in the British Empire. In this way the only advantage that American rum had over the higher-quality West Indian rum, its low price, was nullified.
Parliament ’s approval of the Molasses Act was probably the first, significant rift between the Continental Colonies and the Mother Country. It was self-evident, in fact, that Parliament had not acted justly in the interest of the entire British Empire but had been pushed by a powerful lobby to defend only the interests of a small group. This wound would never be healed.
In the immediate future, however, there were no serious consequences. Of course, if enforced the Molasses Act would have destroyed the trade between the Continental Colonies and the French West Indies, causing great damage to the economy of all the Colonies and ruining many coastal towns. But the Molasses Act was not enforced, actually there was no real attempt to enforce it. Smuggling, which was already important, thrived and -in actual fact- trade went on as before.
-Article written by Marco Pierini-
My name is Marco Pierini, I was born in 1954 in a little town in Tuscany (Italy) where a still live. I got a degree in Philosophy in Florence and I studied Political Science in Madrid, but my real passion has always been History. And through History I have always tried to know the world, and men. Life brought me to work in tour ism, event organization and vocational training. Then I discovered rum. With Francesco Rufini, I founded La Casa del Rum (The House of Rum),that runs a beach bar and selects and distributes Premium Rums in Italy, www.lacasadelrum.it. And finally I have returned back to my initial passion: History. But now it is the History of Rum. Because Rum is not only a great distillate, it’s a world. Produced in scores of countries, by thousands of companies, with an extraordinary variety of aromas and flavors; it has a terrible and fascinating history, made of slaves and pirates, imperial fleets and revolutions. All this I try to cover in this column, in my FB profile, www.facebook/marco.pierini.3 and in my articles on the Italian webpage www.bartender.it