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Rum and Kill-Devil – A New Etymology. Part 1: Introduction

Titelbild - Rum and Kill-Devil, Part 1.

We seem to have solved a centuries-old mystery: Why is ‘rum’ called rum and ‘kill-devil’ called kill-devil as an alternative name for rum? The previous explanations do not seem to be correct. We show: both terms mean the same thing and something completely different than previously assumed. Join us on our journey to the Caribbean, which is about West African religions, voodoo, the crocodile, and the abducted and enslaved Africans.

When we analysed the mixed drinks around the Punch, we came across a strange drink called Bumbo. Sometimes it was also called Rumbo. It has no consistent recipe, but seems to have been basically some diluted alcohol, sometimes something like a punch, sometimes something like a toddy, or something else.

W. G. Wood: The illustrated natural history. 1871, page 27. Crokodils.
W. G. Wood: The illustrated natural history. 1871, page 27. Crokodils. [1-27]

Furthermore, while researching a book published in 1747, we came across the reference in the index that the “devil of the negroes” is called Bumbo. The corresponding text is about crocodiles in West Africa.

We don’t want to anticipate our reflection, but this reference aroused our interest. As it turned out: rightly so, because it provides the key for a new etymology of the terms rum and kill-devil.

For several hundred years there have been assumptions as to why rum and kill-devil got their designation, but we will show by evidence that these derivations are probably not correct, even if they are well thought of. We would like to make a new proposal that also shows that both ‘rum’ and ‘kill-devil’ have the same meaning. The previous explanations do not do this.

You may wonder why African crocodiles were chosen as the cover picture. Well, quite simply because the crocodile plays a leading role in the new etymology. Voodoo too. That’s all we have to say at this point.

We begin our series with a brief look at Barbados, because that is where the term ‘rum’ is said to have originated. This is followed by a summary of the etymology so far, which is the explanation for the word origins of the terms ‘rum’ and ‘kill-devil’. Due to generally widespread ambiguous word choice, we then still have to ask ourselves when rum is a rum at all.

After these basics, it gets exciting: we turn our attention to West Africa. Important are the religions there, drinking habits and the West African crocodile. The abducted and enslaved Africans took their traditions with them to the Caribbean and developed them further there.Based on these considerations, we will then be able to propose a new etymology of the words ‘rum’ and ‘kill-devil’.

As you can see, an exciting journey to West Africa and the Caribbean awaits you. You will learn many interesting and new things and finally understand why ‘rum’ and ‘kill-devil’ have the same meaning and why this is so.


Our journey begins in Barbados. Since the term ‘rum’ is said to have originated there, we should briefly look at the importance this island had at that time. The following remarks can then be better placed in context. For our etymological considerations, only the early years of the colony are interesting.

The importance of Barbados

A prospect of Bridge Town in Barbados 1695 by Samuel Copen.
A prospect of Bridge Town in Barbados 1695 by Samuel Copen.[2]

In the early British Empire, Barbados was the richest and most populous colony. More sugar was produced there than in all the other British West Indian islands put together. As late as 1715, the value of Barbadian exports exceeded that of all other British American colonies combined, whether on the mainland or on other islands. Bridgetown in Barbados was then larger and more prosperous than Manhattan. [5-19]

The beginning

The English settlement of Barbados began on 17 February 1627 with 80 settlers and 10 labourers. [3]

Barbados and Rum

People drank heavily in Barbados, and by 1652 there was one tavern for every 20 inhabitants in Bridgetown. [5-30]

By 1655, it was estimated that Barbados produced between 900,000 and 1,700,000 gallons of kill-devil, or roughly between 4.1 to 7.7 million litres. [4-52] [5-29] However, only 5% to 20% of this was exported. Consequently, local consumption was enormous. [4-51] [4-52]

However, export volumes soon changed. Between 1665 and 1666, some 150,000 gallons of rum were exported annually from Barbados. By the late 1680s this had more than doubled, and by 1700 Barbados was exporting nearly 600,000 gallons of rum. [4-49] [4-51] At the same time, the value of rum also increased. In 1665-1666, the value of rum exported from Barbados was equivalent to about 7% of total Barbadian exports of sugar and sugar by-products. By 1700 this had risen to 29%, so that by the end of the 17th century rum accounted for 19% of the total value of Barbadian export trade. [4-49]

With this general information about Barbados in mind, we turn to our actual topic in the next part of this series. We will start with the etymology, that is the word origin, of the words ‘rum’ and ‘kill-devil’.

  1. https://archive.org/details/b21779405_0003/page/26/mode/2up?q=%22Mecistops+cataphractus%22  J. G. Wood: The illustrated natural history. Reptiles, fishes, molluscs, &c. &c. &c. London. 1871. Therein: Illustration on page 27, »African crocodiles at home«.
  2. https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.12842/ A prospect of Bridge Town in Barbados 1695 by Samuel Copen / I. Kip fecit London.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbados Barbados.
  4. https://archive.org/details/volatilespiritsh00smit/page/n35/mode/2up?q=%22Negroes+are+in+general+much+addicted+to+drunkenness%22 und https://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/AA/00/02/65/65/00001/volatilespiritsh00smit.pdf Frederick H. Smith: Volatile Spirits: The historical archaeology of alcohol and drinking in the Caribbean. A dissertation presented to the graduate school of the university of Florida in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of doctor of philosophy. University of Florida, 2001.
  5. Wayne Curtis: And a Bottle of Rum. ISBN 978-0-307-33862-4. New York, 2007.

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Hi, I'm Armin and in my spare time I want to promote bar culture as a blogger, freelance journalist and Bildungstrinker (you want to know what the latter is? Then check out "About us"). My focus is on researching the history of mixed drinks. If I have ever left out a source you know of, and you think it should be considered, I look forward to hearing about it from you to learn something new. English is not my first language, but I hope that the translated texts are easy to understand. If there is any incomprehensibility, please let me know so that I can improve it.

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