In the early 1600s sugar planters in the Caribbean began converting the waste products from sugar making into rum. Rum was first produced to meet the local demand for alcoholic beverages and to supplement the diet of plantation slaves. Before long, it was an important export. Like tobacco, rum was used as currency by some merchants. Like sugar, it was easily packed and shipped in barrels. But, unlike sugar, it could be warehoused for long periods of time and age increased its value.

From W. Clark, Ten Views in Antigua, 1823

Courtesy of the Burke Library, Hamilton College

Exterior of a Distillery

After the juice was squeezed from the sugarcane in mills, it was boiled in large cauldrons. Impurities rose to the surface and were skimmed off. The juice was transferred to smaller cauldrons and then to wooden barrels or earthenware molds. The remaining impurities became molasses, which was processed and distilled to make rum. The entire enterprise—making sugar, molasses, and rum—relied on the labor of enslaved people.


Gift of Catherine Bullowa (1788 coin)

Gift of Mrs. Olga E. Raymond (1792 coin)

Barbados Pennies, 1788 and 1792

Slavery and sea power were so vital to the sugar-producing economy of Barbados that symbols of each appear on these tokens, the earliest minted coins struck on the island.


The Sugar Craze

Sugar reached Europe and North America as semirefined loaves, powder, molasses, and rum. It quickly encouraged a change of diet, and became a cheap, sweet source of calories. People poured sugar into hot, bitter beverages like tea, coffee, and chocolate. It was also used in medicines and in new kinds of cakes, candies, and confections. The pleasures of sugar hid other risks—it sometimes replaced healthier foods in an era when malnutrition was common.