Interview with Jordan B. Smith, Wayne D. Rasmussen Award Recipient

Why did you choose to research the making of rum in Barbados? What led you to explore the role of Indigenous people and enslaved Africans in the creation of rum?

This article is part of a larger project examining the invention of rum and its emergence as a quintessentially Atlantic commodity in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. The project has several inspirations. One was an undergraduate thesis that I wrote at Carleton College on tavern culture in seventeenth-century Jamaica. I was struck by how different segments of the population interacted as they served and consumed alcohol. Another was working at the Mount Vernon distillery and questioning how eighteenth-century makers of alcohol knew things that authors of contemporary published guides to distillation either did not know or did not share. These observations led me to wonder what a study of rum that connected multiple sites of production, trade, and consumption, and centered the diverse experiences of a variety of people whose lives were touched by rum would tell us about the Atlantic world writ large.

My emphasis on Indigenous and African cultures of alcohol production and consumption is part of an attempt to question how new products emerged in the early modern Atlantic world. When I initially started this project, I thought that I may ultimately argue that rum was invented by people enslaved or colonized by Europeans. But my interpretation of the evidence has led me toward another conclusion: that it was the collision of Angolan, Kalinago, and English and Scottish people in Barbados that allowed the creation of something that was substantively new to all participants.   

Your article addresses a number of different historiographical debates. What do you think is the most important contribution your research is making to the field of agricultural history?

I’m not sure that I would have previously identified myself as an agricultural historian, but the field’s commitment to understanding the interplay between material conditions, the environment, work, and commodities definitely aligns with the sorts of questions that I am interested in. I hope that scholars engaged in this subfield might find it useful that I tracked how enslaved people coerced to labor in plantation environments brought their own ideas and desires to bear on what they produced. It has implications for how we balance narratives of individuals inventing things with the social contexts shaping what was possible.     

Figure 1. Caption. Samuel Copen, “A prospect of Bridge Town in Barbados,” (1695). Etching. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

What do you think is the most interesting source you looked at as part of your research?

I am really interested in how attention to Kalinago people and their culture can help us read somewhat sparse documents such as deeds and inventories differently. In this case, I think that references within the Recopied Deed Books at the Barbados Department of Archives to “mobbie tubs” are fascinating because they demonstrate the survival of Indigenous foodways–and people–within an archive that often overlooked their presence. 

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your article?

This article appeared in a special issue of EAS reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sugar and Slaves. As I participated in the workshop and worked on this piece, I thought a lot about how Richard Dunn located, read, and analyzed many of the same documents that my fellow authors and I did. It can be tempting to question what else a limited archive shaped by extreme inequality can reveal, but I hope that my work–and that of other participants–shows that an array of scholarly interventions over the last half-century have created room for historians to ask many additional questions that are enhancing our understanding of the colonial Caribbean and the broader Atlantic world.

Jordan B. Smith is an assistant professor of history at Widener University. He teaches courses focused on early American, Atlantic, and public history. His current book project examines the emergence of rum as a quintessential Atlantic commodity in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world.

Read Smith’s award-winning article “’The Native Produce of this Island’: Processes of Invention in Early Barbados in EAS’s Fall 2022 issue.