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Rum and Kill-Devil – A New Etymology. Part 3: When is rum a rum?

Titelbild - Rum and Kill-Devil, Part 3.

Having considered what the existing explanations are for the origins of the terms kill-devil and rum, we ask the question: when is rum a rum? An understanding of this is important, because the designation is sometimes used too imprecisely.

The problem

While researching the origins of rum and kill-devil, we noticed that the treatises about it are often inaccurate in their choice of words when it comes to the term ‘rum’, since this term is first documented for the year 1650. How then can one speak of rum having been produced before then, when this term did not yet exist? It would be more correct to speak of a sugar cane distillate to avoid unnecessary confusion. In addition, it would also have to be clarified from when a rum is also to be called rum. Are Cachaςa, Clairin, aguadiente de caña – to name just a few examples – all rum? The answer to this question can not be that a rum is a rum when it was produced from molasses, because this custom came much later, after the designation ‘rum’ had already established itself.

It can be stated: at the latest in the 1630s and 1640s, alcoholic beverages were distilled from sugar cane in the Spanish, French, British and perhaps also Portuguese colonies of the New World. [4-40] A uniform name for these distilled beverages did not exist even decades later. [4-40] For example, in 1657 Richard Ligon never uses the term ‘rum’, but instead speaks of ‘kill-devil’. Charles de Rochefort in 1658 in French-speaking St. Kitts calls sugarcane distillate ‘eau de vie des cannes’, distinguishing it from French grape-distilled spirits with the addition of ‘des cannes’.” [4-40]

Sugar cane distillates in the New World

To shed a little more light on this group of themes, let’s look at the beginnings of sugarcane distillation in the New World.

The time before Barbados

There is evidence that links the production of a rum to Brazil as early as the 1620s. Also, it should not go unmentioned that divers recovered a bottle of “rum” from the wreck of the Swedish ship Vasa, which sank off Stockholm in 1628, so it says in ‘The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol’ [2-671] – this is another example of the term rum being used too lightly. Correctly one should speak of a sugar cane distillate, but this is not really correct either. Since we were interested in this find, and also to clarify whether a “rum” was really found, we contacted the Vasa Museum. We were told that the light yellow liquid was found in a tin vial. In 1962, an analysis showed that this liquid most closely resembled rum, or possibly arrack, compared to modern spirits. In 2016, a new analysis was conducted. It was then thought that the alcohol content was closer to 10% than the 33% found in the 1962 analysis. Subsequently, an isotopic analysis of the C12/C13 structure was performed by Eurofins in 2017 to clarify the probability that sugarcane was the origin of the alcohol. The conclusion of Eurofins was: “As judged by the results of the analyses performed, and in comparison with industry standards, scientific literature and values at our disposal: The isotopic parameter Delta C13 (Raw product/V.PDB) measured and presented on this analytical report corresponds to a mixture of C4 (such as cane, maize) and C3 (cereals except maize, grape, etc.) organism plants.” [12]

We can see from this that it cannot be ‘rum’ or a pure sugar cane distillate; the presence of alcohol from C3 plants speaks against this.

Sugar cane was distilled even earlier in the New World. According to Brazilian historian Stuart Schwartz, something like ‘rum’ was distilled in small Brazilian sugar mills as early as 1587. [4-26] Again, our criticism is: is every sugar cane distillate automatically a rum? Sidney Mintz even believes that sugar planters in the Spanish Caribbean began distilling ‘rum’ as early as the early 16th century. [4-26] Where and when a distillate was first produced from sugar cane in the New World can hardly be said with certainty. Certainly it happened concomitantly with sugar production; but one must also consider that a strong national pride may play a role in some statements. For example, British Caribbean historian Darnell Davis writes “Rum was wholly unknown to Englishmen until its manufacture was established, if not discovered, in Barbados.” In contrast, French historian Alain Huez de Lemps believes that Martinique was the birthplace of rum production. [4-26] [4-27]

Sugar cane reaches Barbados and the Caribbean

Richard Ligon: A trve & exact history of the island of Barbados. 1657, page 85.
Richard Ligon: A trve & exact history of the island of Barbados. 1657, page 85. [7-85]

Dutch immigrants and planters from the sugarcane-growing regions of Pernambuco in Brazil eventually taught Barbadians and Martiniquians how to make sugar, bringing sugarcane plants, equipment, and capital to both islands, [2-1076] [4-32] as reported by Richard Ligon in 1647: [4-32] At the time we landed on this Island, which was in the beginning of September, 1647, we were informed, partly by those Planters we found there, and partly by our own observations, that the great work of Sugar-making, was but newly practiced by the inhabitants there. Some of the most industrious men, having gotten Plants from Fernambock [Pernambuco], a place in Brazil, and made tryal of them at the Barbadoes.[7-85]

James Holdip and James Drax are often cited as the planters who first brought sugar cane and the knowledge of how to make sugar from it from Pernambuco to Barbados. [4-32] Pietr Blower is also mentioned as having brought distilling equipment from Brazil to Barbados in 1636 and is said to have been the first to distill in Barbados. [11] It should likewise not be ignored that Pernambuco belonged to Dutch Brazil between 1630 and 1654 and was controlled by the Dutch. [9] After the loss of the colony due to the reconquest by the Portuguese, the Dutch colonists, with the support of the Dutch West Indies Company, reoriented themselves and established sugar cane plantations on the islands of the Lesser Antilles, helping to expand sugar production in British and French colonies. [4-32]

Father Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, who lived in Martinique in the 1640s and 1650s, believed that the development of the sugar industry in Martinique was due to the arrival of Dutch refugees from Pernambuco, [4-33] because after the Portuguese reconquered Pernambuco, a Dutch ship with Dutch citizens actually docked in Martinique. They brought with them capital and the knowledge of how to make sugar, as well as all the utensils needed for sugar production and African slaves. [4-33]

It may be that the Dutch had experimented with the distillation of sugar cane in Brazil and brought this knowledge with them to Barbados and Martinique, but there is no clear evidence for such a statement. [2-1076] [4-33]

Therefore, other historians, such as John McCusker, argue that Barbadians were producing alcohol from sugar cane as early as 1631. He argues that sugar cane was already present in Barbados at the time of the first British settlement in 1627 and that the traveler Sir Henry Colt wrote in 1631 about the Barbadians that they were“devouerers upp of hott waters and good distellers thereof.” [4-34] [11] Unfortunately, we do not learn which plant was distilled there. Maybe it was sugar cane, but maybe not.

John McCusker even thinks that this distillate was exported to New England as early as 1638, and justifies this with a memory of the year 1638 published in 1674, according to which “kill-devil, alias rum” was drunk on a ship. [4-34] To what extent this memory is correct, and whether the drink was already called so in 1638, can no longer be determined. In any case, we have our doubts.

Distillation of the skimmings

Richard Ligon: A trve & exact history of the island of Barbados. 1657, page 27.
Richard Ligon: A trve & exact history of the island of Barbados. 1657, page 27. [7-27]

Richard Ligon, who stayed in Barbados from 1647 to 1650 and acquired a sugar plantation, [6-20] [10] is the first to give the earliest specific details about the production of alcohol from sugar cane in Barbados and the British colonies. He wrote about “the drinke of the Iland, which is made of the skimmings of the Coppers, that boyle the Sugar, which they call kill-Divell.” [7-27]

He writes that the skimmings were used to make kill-devil, while molasses, according to him, was reboiled to make inferior sugar. [4-45] [7-91] [7-92]

In fact, it is not clear whether Caribbean distillers used molasses at all in the mid-seventeenth century. [4-45] Father Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, in his ‘History of the Antilles’ published between 1667 and 1671, also describes that in Martinique they used only the spent and exhausted sugar canes and likewise the skimmings. He does not mention the use of molasses. [4-45] Rather, he wrote that molasses was good enough to be used as a commodity in Europe for making gingerbread. [4-45] Charles de Rochefort, writing about French St. Kitts in 1658, also reported that the skimmings from the first kettle were good only for being fed to livestock, but that the skimmings from the other kettles could be used to make a beverage for servants and slaves. [4-45]

George Warren: An impartial description of Surinam. 1667, page 17.
George Warren: An impartial description of Surinam. 1667, page 17. [8-17]

G. Warrens also reports in his 1667 description of Suriname: [1]Rum is a Spirit extracted from the Juice of Sugar-Canes, commonly, twice as strong as Brandy, call’d Kill-Divel in New-England, whither ’tis sold, at the rate of Twelve pounds of Sugar per Gallon. Molasses relates also to Sugar, being that which drops from it, while ’tis Cureing, and is the same commonly sold in England for treacle.” [8-17]

W. Hughes: The American physitian. 1672, page 33-34.
W. Hughes: The American physitian. 1672, page 33-34. [13-33] [13-34]

W. Hughes also confirms these statements. He writes in a book published in 1672: “Now, if there be six Coppers, the first two are thinnest and biggest, in which the juyce is first boiled; but not by a very strong fire, for that will make the Scum to rise, by casting in Temper, as they call it: the first of which that ariseth is little worth; but afterwards, what is scum’d off, they make a very good drink of, called Locus-Ale, much used by the servants; or else they convey it into a Copper-Still (as they do all their other setlings and dregs of Sugar) to be distill’d, and make a sort of Strong-water they call Rum, or Rum-bullion, stronger then Spirit of Wine, and not very pleasant, until a man is used to it. This strong liquor is ordinarily drank amongst the Planters, as well alone, as made into Punch.” [13-33] [13-34]

As an explanation of these passages, we would like to refer to a description from the year 1892. There it is described how sugar is produced: “In the sugar refinery, which we present to our readers, there are five boiling pans or kettles, into which the juice of the sugar cane is put one after the other. The first is called the ‘big kettle’; into it the raw juice is scooped from the vat and then boiled with lime; soon the liquid begins to foam and the worker diligently scoops off the skimmings; thus the raw juice boils for about an hour, after which it is transferred to the second, the ‘purification kettle’. … Now the juice is freed from the coarsest impurities, plant acids and salts, and goes into the fourth kettle, which is called “syrup” because in it the juice is boiled down to syrup thickness. From here, the thick liquid moves to the fifth vessel, the “battery”, where it is boiled until it draws thread or small sugar crystals begin to shoot out on the surface. Now the mass is quickly transferred to a cooling kettle, where it is covered with crystals in a short time. As long as it is still liquid, it is poured into molds with holes; the sugar crystallizes out in these molds, but the excess water, the salts still present in the juice, and a portion of the sugar that could not crystallize out, flow off as molasses.” [14-463]

Stanislaus von Jezewski: Der Zucker. Die Gartenlaube, 1892, page 463.
Stanislaus von Jezewski: Der Zucker. Die Gartenlaube, 1892, page 463. [14-463]

– “In der Zuckersiederei, die wir unseren Lesern vorführen, giebt es fünf Kochpfannen oder Kessel, in welche der Reihe nach der Saft des Zuckerrohres gethan wird. Der erste heißt „großer Kessel“; in ihn wird der Rohsaft aus dem Bottich geschöpft und dann mit Kalk gekocht; bald beginnt die Flüssigkeit zu schäumen und der Arbeiter schöpft fleißig den Schaum ab; so kocht der Rohsaft etwa eine Stunde, worauf er in den zweiten, den „Reinigungskessel“ gebracht wird. … Jetzt ist der Saft von den gröbsten Verunreinigungen, Pflanzensäuren und Salzen, befreit und kommt in den vierten Kessel, welcher den Namen „Sirup“ führt, weil in ihm der Saft bis zur Sirupdicke eingekocht wird. Von hier wandert die dicke Flüssigkeit in den fünften Kessel, in die „Batterie“, in welcher sie solange gekocht wird, bis sie Faden zieht oder auf der Oberfläche kleine Zuckerkrystalle hervorzuschießen beginnen. Nun wird die Masse rasch in einen Kühlkessel gebracht, in dem sie sich in kurzer Zeit mit Krystallen bedeckt. Solange sie noch flüssig ist, wird sie in Formen, die mit Löchern versehen sind, gegossen; in diesen krystallisiert der Zucker aus, das überschüssige Wasser aber, ferner die im Safte noch vorhandenen Salze und ein Theil des Zuckers, der nicht auskrystallisieren konnte, fließen als Melasse ab.[14-463]


The existing descriptions agree: initially, kill-devil and rum were made from sugarcane juice or the skimmings produced in the manufacture of sugar, but not from molasses. This is confirmed by Richard Ligon in 1657, [7-27] George Warren in 1667 [8-17] and a letter of 1651. [5-78]

Indeed, molasses was not initially used in alcohol production. It was simply waste. It is what remains after sugar production and after boiling down. [6-24]

Molasses does not seem to have been used for rum production until later in the 17th century, or at least it was rarely used for that purpose. Instead, it was either sold or used to make lower-quality sugar. [4-45]

That’s why they had a problem in those days. There was too much molasses to sell all of it, especially since there was no demand for it. In Barbados, for example, the sale of molasses in 1665 accounted for less than one percent of Barbadian exports. It is true that molasses was fed to cattle and also given to slaves as food, or a mortar was made from it by adding water, horsehair, lime, and eggshells. Most of the molasses, however, had to be thrown away. It was industrial waste that was dumped into the sea. A traveler of the time reported that the molasses produced on the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies was “never esteemed more than Dung; for they used to throw it all away.” It is said that in the French islands alone, more than half a million gallons of molasses, or more than 2 million liters, were thrown away in the 1680s. [6-25] [11]

Hans Sloane: A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. 1707, page xxx.
Hans Sloane: A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica. 1707, page xxx. [15-xxx]

At the beginning of the 18th century, this seems to have changed, because Hans Sloane reports in his book published in 1707 that molasses was also used in rum production: [4-45]Rum is made of Cane-juice not fit to make Sugar, being eaten with Worms in a bad Soil, or through any other fault; or of the Skummings of the Coppers in Crop time, or of Molossus and water fermented about fourceen days in Cifterns, … .” [15-xxx]

The Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Labat also reported the use of molasses for rum production in 1724. [4-45]

Carribbeana. Vol. 2. 1741, page 242-245.
Carribbeana. Vol. 2. 1741, page 242-245. [3-242] [3-243] [3-244] [3-245]

A report from 1737 is very interesting in this context, because it tells us that even in those days rum was not necessarily made only with molasses and its use was also viewed critically. It is about the fact that a certain Mr. Moe from Barbados had shortly before decisively improved the way of distilling and thus could produce twice as much rum as usual. This statement called a knowledgeable critic from Antigua onto the scene, who replied in his letter to the editor that such a rum yield could only be achieved by using not only molasses but also skimmings and other waste from sugar production, and at the same time reducing the sugar yield: – »For to say that he can make this or that Quantity of Rum with the Help of Scummings, or what he may please to call so, is to say nothing at all; because, with the help of Scummings, and other Offals of the Work, he may make just what Quantity he pleases, with, or without, Molosses; in which Case, the more Rum, the less Sugar. … The Reader will easily observe, that I speak of making Rum of Molosses only, without any other Offals of the Work. … Do not these Distillers imitate those Adepts in Chymistry, who lead the World to hunt after the Philosopher’s Stone, to the utter Ruin of many Men and their Families? Let a Thousand Gallons of Molosses be delivered to one of those great Distillers that do Wonders, and let him have this Quantity after the Crop is over, that he may have no Manner of Opportunity to come at Scummings by any Means, and then see how much Rum he will make, nine Degrees upon the Proof. [note: this is 54,5 vol.alcohol by volume [4-102]] … For the Overseer, who gets the Business upon the sole Credit or Promise of making a deal of Rum, will be sure to do it, tho’ he makes the less Sugar. Observe, he did not engage to make any Quantity of Sugar; the Rum is all; that is his Point of Honour; he rises or falls by that. … a Planter may convert his whole Crop into Rum, if he finds an Advantage in it, and in some Cases, in some Years, it may answer; but if he has Reason to believe that it would be more profitable for him, in the general, to make it all, if possible, into Sugar, than into Rum; surely then it will be good Management, and, I may say, Oeconomy too, to stop the Hand of his Overfeer from converting fo much of his Liquor and Syrup, under the Denomination of Scummings, into Rum. … It is not to be forgotten, that the excessive Quantities of Rum made in Barbados and in Antigua, more than in St. Chriftophers, is entirely owing to the plentiful Discharge of Molosses from their Sugar, and the Stream of hot Scummings continually running into the Still-Houfe in Boiling Time;  … St. Chriftophers, June 30, 1737.« [3-242] [3-243] [3-244] [3-245]


The term ‘rum’ is sometimes used too unspecifically. One uses the designation often also in contexts, in which it would be more correct to speak of a sugar cane distillate, without distinguishing however more exactly, which one means. This sometimes gives the impression that Cachaςa, Clairin, aguadiente de caña, eau de vie des cannes – to name just a few examples – are also all rum. One thus avoids the central question: when is rum a rum? The answer to this question cannot be that a rum is a rum when it is produced from molasses, because this custom arose much later, after the term ‘rum’ had long become established. It must also be taken into account that decades after sugar cane was distilled on the Caribbean islands, there was still no uniform name for the product.

We don’t want to give an exact answer to the question when rum is rum here; rather, we want to show through the given examples how important the exact choice of words is when writing texts; otherwise, misunderstandings quickly arise.

After this short excursion, we return to our actual topic: the true meaning of the terms rum and kill-devil. The origins are in West Africa and the importance that alcohol played there in society and religion. This is important to understand because it is also the basis of the African American religions of the Caribbean.

  1. https://blog.oup.com/2010/10/rum/ The Rum History of the Word “Rum”. By Anatoly Liberman, 6. October 2010.
  2. https://books.google.de/books?id=ANm5BgAAQBAJ&pg=PA1163&lpg=PA1163&dq=what+did+barbadian+slaves+drink&source=bl&ots=–BgFcp98B&sig=ACfU3U3b8qNTQeK8fVHSyKfR7ti-bOHhtA&hl=de&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj8zqHXm7jqAhXN2KQKHWkACBgQ6AEwDXoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=what%20did%20barbadian%20slaves%20drink&f=false Scott C. Martin (editor): The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives. SAGE Publications, 2014.
  3. https://archive.org/details/b30528550_0002/page/242/mode/2up?q=rum Anonymus: Carribbeana. Containing Letters and Dissertations, Together with Poetical Essays, on various Subjects and Occasions; Chiefly wrote by several Hands in the West-Indies, And some of them to Gentlemen residing there. Now collected together in Two Volumes. Vol. 2. London, 1741.
  4. https://archive.org/details/volatilespiritsh00smit/page/n35/mode/2up?q=%22Negroes+are+in+general+much+addicted+to+drunkenness%22 and 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. https://archive.org/details/timehrijournalr09guiagoog/page/n93/mode/2up?q=%22Brandy+and+Rum+in+Tippling+houses%22 N. Darnell Davis: The Etymology of the word Rum. In: Timehri being the journal of the Royal agricultural and commercial society of British Guiana Volume 4. Demerara, 1885.
  6. Wayne Curtis: And a Bottle of Rum. ISBN 978-0-307-33862-4. New York, 2007.
  7. https://archive.org/details/trueexacthistory00ligo Richard Ligon: A trve & exact history of the island of Barbados. London, 1657.
  8. https://archive.org/details/animpartialdesc00warrgoog/page/n26/mode/2up?q=rum George Warren: An impartial description of Surinam upon the continent of Guiana in America. With a History of several strange Beasts, Birds, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Customs of that Colony, &c. London, 1667.
  9. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pernambuco Pernambuco.
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Ligon Richard Ligon.
  11. https://www.amazon.de/-/en/Tristan-Stephenson/dp/1849758239#reader_B07FG7QBTH Vorschau von Tristan Stephenson: The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution. ISBN 978-1-84975-823-9. 2017. Therein the chapter: Kill Devil.
  12. E-Mail by Kristin Ytterborg, Intendent Samlingsenheten Vasamuseet / Curator,
  13. https://books.google.de/books?id=syhVAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22The+American+Physician%22&hl=de&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj7j4qjvd7rAhVM_aQKHXDqBwEQ6AEwAHoECAMQAg#v=onepage&q=punch&f=false W. Hughes: The American physitian; or, a treatise of the roots, plants, trees, shrubs, fruit, herb &c. Growing in the English plantations in America. Describing the place, time, names, kindes, temperature, vertues and uses of them, either for diet, physick, &c. Whereunto is added a discourse on the cacao-nut-tree, and the use of this fruit; with all the ways of making of chocolate. London, 1672.
  14. https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Der_Zucker Stanislaus von Jezewski: Der Zucker. Eine kulturgeschichtliche Skizze. In: Die Gartenlaube, Heft 15, page 462–464 . Leipzig, 1892.
  15. https://archive.org/details/mobot31753000820123/page/xxx/mode/2up?q=rum Hans Sloane: A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the natural history of the herbs and trees, four-footed beasts, fishes, birds, insects, reptiles, &c. of the last of those islands. Vol. 1. London, 1707.

explicit capitulum


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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