Martinique, Montreal, Rhode Island: Patterns in the Transnational Circulation and Consumption of French Caribbean Rum and Molasses

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 9:10 AM
Manchester Ballroom F (Hyatt)
Bertie Mandelblatt , Université de Montréal
Much recent work has refined our understandings of the political, intellectual and demographic history of slavery, of enslaved populations and of abolition in the Americas post-1492. However, less recent work has addressed the material histories of the circulation and consumption within the Americas of everyday Atlantic commodities made familiar by virtue of their slave-based production, and thus low price. This paper examines contrasting and transnational sites of the consumption of two emblematic Atlantic commodities: rum and molasses, produced in the Franco-Caribbean. Both by-products of sugar processing, molasses and the rum made from it were produced in increasing amounts throughout the Caribbean at the end of the seventeenth and into the eighteenth centuries as the European demand for sugar rose, the plantation system expanded, and within the French sphere, as Saint-Domingue in particular was developed as a sugar colony. They moved from being goods of little and specifically local value to goods of notable geopolitical and economic value, as they circulated legally through French inter-American exchange networks to Canada, Louisiana and Terre-Neuve and illegally to the British colonies of the North American mainland. After introducing the range of Atlantic sites of consumption of French rum and molasses, this paper will compare consumption patterns in three locations at the outbreak of the Seven Years Wars (1756): in Martinique by the enslaved populations who were both consumers and producers; by French-Canadians receiving shipments via a sporadic inter-colonial trade; and by New Englanders in Rhode Island, where these smuggled French commodities were absorbed by a molasses-based culinary culture and a dynamic rum-distilling industry. Examining these three sites together permits a reappraisal of how the inter-American circulation and consumption of commodities produced by slave labour contributed to the transformation of Atlantic ‘American’ cultures and economies across the national boundaries prescribed by eighteenth-century European mercantilism.
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