Rum, Oaths, and Slave Uprisings in the Age of Revolution

By Frederick H. Smith

Alcohol is an important prism through which to view the Atlantic world during Age of Revolution. Scholars have documented the political economic structure of the rum trade, its role in sparking the American Revolution, and the spectacular levels of alcohol consumption by European and American soldiers across revolutionary arenas. Alcohol use among enslaved peoples in revolutionary contexts, however, has been largely overlooked. This post explores how enslaved peoples in the Caribbean integrated rum into the many slave uprisings and conspiracies inspired by political upheaval during the Age of Revolution.[1]

Rum distilling emerged in the British and French Caribbean in the 1640s and rum was central to the economic development of Barbados, Jamaica, St. Domingue, and other Caribbean sugar islands. As a result, rum was readily available to enslaved peoples who lived and worked on Caribbean sugar estates. Planters doled out rum as part of weekly rations, for medicinal purposes, and as a work incentive. Drawing on diverse West African cultural traditions of alcohol use, enslaved peoples in the Caribbean used rum as a key component of sociability and as a vehicle to the spiritual world. Rum drinking offered a momentary escape from harsh labor regimens and the general anxieties of life on sugar estates. Rum, therefore, helped enslaved peoples temporarily transcend the physical bonds of slavery, which elevated its symbolic value in resistance ideologies.

Caribbean planters were ambivalent about enslaved peoples’ drinking. On the one hand, they feared it could serve as a liberating, fomenter of insurrections that threatened the social order. On the other hand, rum drinking calmed tensions that arose under a coercive system of slave labor. Colonial legislatures enacted numerous laws meant to curb slave drinking, yet these laws were rarely enforced and planters continued to dole out rum to the enslaved workers on their estates. In the early nineteenth century, a West Indian planter wrote, “[Slaves] who have been dancing, or drinking, or otherwise engaged on some nocturnal excursion, either on the business of love, or depredation, will be found at the hospital the next morning. They may be detected by the lateness of the hour at which they come there, and the soundness of their sleep, much greater than indisposition would admit. You will order them to their work, and wink at their transgressions, unless too frequently repeated.”[2] Although planters may have winked at a few transgressions, they rarely tolerated frequent bouts of drunkenness, especially if it challenged their authority or reduced plantation productivity. To the planter, enslaved workers were an investment in productive labor, and planters wanted their slaves sober. Like marronage, drunkenness was a form of escape that stole productive labor. Both forms of escape removed the planters’ resources and were thus considered acts of theft.

However, there were times when drunkenness was tolerated, and even encouraged, among the planter class. These were rituals of rebellion, liminal periods when the planter class sanctioned the temporary reversal of social roles. Rituals of rebellion, such as annual celebrations and festivals, provided regular opportunities for enslaved peoples to temporarily reverse social roles and release social pressures. The occasional release of tension, in turn, reaffirmed the normal social order. The physiological effects of alcohol drinking at these events helped make the change in status all the more convincing. And this tension-releasing function of alcohol was familiar to enslaved peoples in the Caribbean. Rituals of rebellion, such as the Akan odwira festival and the Igbo yam festival, have a long history in West Africa and were revived in a modified form in the slave societies of the Caribbean. Bacchanalian celebrations occurred at Easter, crop-over, Christmas, and New Year. Plantation accounts frequently mention the distribution of rum to enslaved workers for such celebrations.

Planters indulged the release of social pressures during these times, but the events did not always go according to expectations. The risk of slave revolt increased during holiday celebrations when extra allotments of rum were dispersed, social conventions were relaxed, plantation work was halted, and large numbers of enslaved peoples had greater opportunity to roam and assemble. For example, the Barbados slave revolt of 1816 occurred during Easter and the Jamaican slave revolt of 1831-1832 occurred at Christmas.[3] The increase in slave revolts during these periods indicates that some enslaved peoples took advantage of the more relaxed conventions and sanctioned freedoms in order to turn their temporary escape into an actual reversal of the social order. Alcohol became a powerful tool in that cause.

Leaders of slave revolts often evoked various African cultural traditions in order to mobilize and strengthen the resolve of rebels. Among the traditions used to excite slave rebellion was the powerful symbol of alcohol. Alcohol was a key to spiritual and physical escape and this is evident in the use of alcohol in slave uprisings and in the ritualistic manipulation of victims. Alcohol was necessary for integrating ancestral spirits into revolts and receiving ancestral guidance. For example, Jamaican maroons, after defeating British troops during an uprising in 1795 “returned to their town to recruit their spirits by the aid of rum.”[4]

Rum-based oath drinks were an important feature of Caribbean slave uprisings in the British Caribbean, and they reflected the transfer and modification of a diverse array of West African oath-taking traditions, especially Igbo- and Akan-styled oaths. As in Africa, these oath drinks strengthened alliances and reaffirmed individual obligations to the community. During the organizational stages of the 1736 slave conspiracy in Antigua, the participants consumed oath drinks that consisted of rum, dirt from the graves of deceased ancestors, and cock’s blood.[5] During the Jamaica slave conspiracy of 1765, participants had oath drinks made of rum, gunpowder, grave dirt, and blood.[6] In 1795, slaves in Curaçao consumed an oath drink called awa hoeramento, consisting of rum and ground ox horns prior to their uprising.[7] And the consumption of rum and gunpowder oath drinks preceded the slave uprising in St. Croix in 1848.[8] Even after emancipation, the oath drink continued to be an important facet of black resistance. During the peasant uprising at Morant Bay, Jamaica in 1865, captured police officers were forced to consume oath drinks of rum and gunpowder in order to show loyalty to the rebels.[9]

Oath taking was also evident in the French Caribbean where Kongo and Aja-Fon (Arada) influences seem to have been particularly strong. The Bois Caïman ceremony that preceded the 1791 St. Domingue slave uprising, which led to the creation of Haiti, provides an excellent example. On the night of August 21, 1791, slaves gathered in the forest of Bois Caïman for a clandestine meeting.[10] At this meeting a black pig was slaughtered and its blood was consumed as part of an oath ritual. Most have argued that the Bois Caïman ceremony represented a Kongo-influenced Petro ceremony, because the ceremonies are nowadays associated with black pigs. Petro appeared in the late eighteenth century and was distinguished by the consumption of rum and gunpowder.[11] The rum and gunpowder concoction used by devotees of Petro was probably an oath drink used to bind participants. While the sketchy historical accounts of the Bois Caïman ceremony do not mention the use of alcohol, we know that this was a common ingredient in both Arada- and Kongo-oriented oaths, and it is likely that it was used in the oath drinks consumed at the Bois Caïman ceremony.

When the slave uprising in St. Domingue erupted in 1791, one angry colonist complained, “The Africans against whom we fought are a cowardly people…and without rum there would never have been any fighting with those people.”[12] And later, revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture, while personally abstemious, appears to have understood the value of this beverage when he stated that his followers would offer any form of support for “a glass of rum.”[13] Although this particular remark may have been meant disparagingly, the sacred nature of rum and its links to ancestral guidance made it an important symbol of resistance during the uprising. In fact, the rebels operated a distillery during the fighting to supply troops. The French Creole soldiers from St. Domingue probably also recognized the symbolic value of rum to the rebels, which is why they destroyed rebel rum supplies after their battlefield victories.[14]

The power attributed to alcohol is also evident in the ritualistic treatment of victims in Caribbean slave uprisings. For example, during Tacky’s rebellion in Jamaica in 1760, enslaved rebels, after killing servants at Ballard’s Valley Plantation, drank the blood of their victims mixed with rum.[15] During a slave revolt at a plantation in St. Anne’s parish, Jamaica, rebels cut off the head of the plantation owner and “made use of it as a punch-bowl.”[16] According to reports of the 1701 slave uprising in Antigua, rebels cut off the head of a victim “and washed it with rum.”[17]

Although rum was widely used in slave uprisings, its particular link to alliance-building also made it an important symbol of peace. Disputes between enslaved peoples from neighboring plantations were sometimes resolved over shots of rum.[18] Even peace treaties between British colonial officials and maroon groups in Jamaica and Surinam were sealed by the pouring of libations and the drinking of rum mixed with the blood of both parties.[19]

Drawing on diverse West African traditions, enslaved peoples in the Caribbean integrated rum into resistance efforts during the Age of Revolution. The social and spiritual meanings of alcohol survived the violence of the Middle Passage and were modified and revived on the sugar estates in the Caribbean. Rum-based oath drinks cemented alliances and served to strengthen the resolve of rebels. Rum, therefore, offers a unique view into the revolutionary uprisings that accelerated the emancipation of enslaved peoples throughout the Atlantic world.   

Frederick Smith is the author of Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History. He teaches Anthropology at the College of William & Mary. You can reach him at


[1] Frederick H. Smith, Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).

[2] Dr. Collins, Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves, in the Sugar Colonies (London, 1811), 224.

[3] Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982); Robert Dirks, The Black Saturnalia: Conflict and its Ritual Expression on British West Indian Slave Plantations. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1987).

[4] Robert Dallas, The History of Maroons, from Their Origin to the Establishment of their Chief Tribe at Sierra Leone. 2 vols. (London, 1803), 191.

[5] Craton, Testing the Chains, 122. See also David Barry Gaspar, “The Antigua Slave Conspiracy of 1736: A Case Study of the Origin of Collective Resistance.” William and Mary Quarterly 35(2): 308-323, 244.

[6] Joseph J. Williams, Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West Indian Witchcraft (New York: Dial Press, 1932), 163.

[7] Cornelis Goslinga, The Dutch in the Caribbean and the Guianas 1791/5-1942 (Assen: Van Gorcum Press, 1990), 9.

[8] Neville A. T. Hall, Slave Society in the Danish West Indies: Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix, B. Higman, ed. (Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1992), 223.

[9] Gad Heuman, The Killing Time:” The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 6.

[10] David Patrick Geggus, “Haitian Voodoo in the Eighteenth-Century: Language, Culture, and Resistance.” Jahrbuch für geschichte von staat, wirtschaft, und gesellschaft Lateinamerikas 28: 21-51; David Patrick Geggus, “Marronage, Voodoo, and the Saint Domingue Slave Revolt of 1791” in the Proceedings of the 15th Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society” David Patrick Geggus, “La ceremonie du Bois-Caiman.” Chemins critiques 2(3): 59-78; Robin Law, “On the African Background to the Slave Insurrection in Saint-Domingue (Haïti) in 1791: The Bois Caiman Ceremony and the Dahomian ‘Blood Pact’.” Paper presented at the Harriet Tubman seminar, department of history, York University.

[11] M. L. E. Moreau de St.-Méry, Description topographique, physique, civile, politique et historique de la partie française de l’isle Saint-Domingue. 2 vols., Philadelphia, 1797-98), I: 51.

[12] Marcel Dorigny, Leger-Felicite Sonthonax: La premiere abolition de l’esclavage: La revolution francaise et la revolution de Saint Domingue, texts reunis et presentes M. Dorigny, Saint-Denis, societe francaise d’histoire d’outre-mer, Paris: Association pour l’etude de la colonization europeenne, 1997), 58.

[13] Toussaint cited in Jean Price-Mars, “Toussaint-Louverture.” Revue de la société d’ histoire et de géographie d’ Haiti 16(57): 1-33.

[14] Althéa de Puech Parham, My Odyssey: Experiences of a Young Refugee from Two Revolutions, by a Creole of Saint Domingue. Translated by A. de Puech Parham. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959), 62.

[15] Bryan Edwards, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, 5th edition, 5 vols. (London, 1818/19), II: 78.

[16] Edward Long, History of Jamaica or the General Survey of the Ancient and Modern State of That Island. 3 vols. (London: Frank Cass, 1970), II: 447.

[17] Craton, Testing the Chains, 118.

[18] Jean-Baptiste Père Labat, Nouveau voyages aux isles de l’Amérique. 2 vols. (La Haye, France, 1724), II: 66.

[19] Silvia de Groot, “A Comparison Between the History of Maroon Communities in Surinam and Jamaica.” In Out of the House of Bondage: Runaways, Resistance, and Marronage in Africa and the New World. G. Heuman, ed. London: Frank Cass, 1986), 180.

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