American Rum 17: The French Connection
All along the XVIII century Britain and France fought each other in a long series of wars which, according to some historians, were merely phases of one long conflict for supremacy in Europe and all over the world. In America, the decisive confrontation was the French and Indian War (1754-1763), part of a more global war better known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). After a long strife, France was defeated; Great Britain conquered North America and India and became the undisputed leader in overseas colonization. Thus, France, which at the beginning of the war held a dominant position over most of North America, disappeared from that continent. In contrast, British America spread uninterruptedly all along the Atlantic seaboard from the Northern reaches of the Hudson Bay to the Florida Keys, without any rival.
American Rum: The French Connection
Before the war, French Caribbean Islands were a very important trade partner of the Continental Colonies. Maybe Americans regarded French Canadians as blood enemies, but French West Indians were their best customers. Indeed, the prosperity of their commerce depended upon trade with them. Therefore, for exactly the same reason that they had always ignored the Molasses Act of 1733, American merchants tried to ignore the declaration of war and did not interrupt the exchange of their lumber and provisions for French molasses, they simply had to face new complications and resort to new stratagems. There were three ways to trade with the enemy French islands: through neutral ports, under a Flag of truce and, finally, of course, by “honest smuggling”.
In the West Indies, the ports belonging to neutral powers (Spain, Holland and Denmark) were numerous; perhaps the most important, and certainly one of the most widely used for American trade, was the port of Monte Christi on the border of Spanish Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic) and French Saint Domingue (present day Haiti).
Spain was neutral, so technically the trade was legal. But it was well known that Spanish Hispaniola neither grew nor processed sugar cane. The Spanish Governor tried to mask the thing by erecting a sugar mill in his province, so that traders could swear that their molasses might have come from the Spanish half of the island.
Then there was the flag of truce. It was a pass, usually issued by a Governor of the Continental Colonies, enabling a ship to visit enemy ports for official purposes, most often prisoner exchange. And merchant vessels carrying prisoners under flag of truce were allowed to trade in French ports to cover their expense. Soon, an Armada of American ships sailed to French West Indies with only one or two prisoners on board. French prisoners became a valuable commodity and when there were no real prisoners some French-speaking colonial would do as well, so to be a prisoner often became a good job. Some prisoners “have been taken by our cruisers four times in less than two months” lamented Commodore John Moore, the British naval commander at Antigua.
Finally, “honest smugglers” simply continued to trade with the French as in peacetime, with greater risks, but also with greater profits.
And that it helped the enemy a lot to the point of vanishing the effect of British control of the sea. For instance, in 1762, Admiral Augustus Keppel lamented that French forces in Hispaniola (now Haiti) did not risk want of food, because “the large supplies they have lately received from their good friends the New England flag of truce vessels”. Actually, from March 1761 the flag of truce was reserved only to the Navy, so Admiral Keppel probably used the terms to refer to smuggling.
Britain had well and truly won the war. With the Peace Treaty, Britain obtained the recognition of its conquest of Canada, of the French Empire in North America except for Louisiana and Florida, but handed back to France, and to Spain, the Caribbean sugar islands that it had occupied during the war. Even in this, the influence of the sugar lobby was crucial: British West Indian planters did not want dangerous competitors within the Empire.
Therefore, after the war the trade between the Continental Colonies and the French sugar islands was resumed, just like 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