Tag Archive for: Caribbean

I’ve been contemplating cruelty a lot lately. No, not inflicting it personally. There are already enough despots and apparatchiks around showing no remorse for what they do to their fellow man. I’m more interested in how we can all turn a blind eye to the suffering that may underpin our simplest pleasures. Easy to write off a legacy of organised humiliation and torture of entire races. War? No, Sugar.

Penning The Dark History of Sugar obviously disturbed food historian Dr Neil Buttery. At our meeting in a cafe near his Levenshulme home he came across as a gentle, civilised soul, slightly regretful of his own sweet tooth (we disagreed on the necessity for Bake-off) after putting our centuries-old sugar rush in often gruesome context. 

Gung-ho apologists may rage against the dumping of a slave master’s statue by trumpeting what a glorious boon the British Empire was for those under its yoke. But, in the crowded field of global exploitation between the 16th and 19th centuries, British  explorers, slave traders and plantation owners certainly ‘refined’ levels of cruelty exceeding those of colonialist rivals.

That 1791 political cartoon above, called Barbarities of the West Indias shows a cruel overseer plunge a slave, claiming to be ill, into a kettleful of boiling sugar syrup to ‘warm’ him up. Nailed to the wall behind are a dismembered arm and amputated ears (British Museum).

You survive the hellish boat journey from Africa and all that awaits you is the tyrannic treadmill of working in the cane fields and dangerous factories. Black lives didn’t matter.

Across the Caribbean as slaves heavily outnumbered masters and their downtrodden British servants there was always a fear of rebellions, so every savage means was used to break their spirit as much as their bodies.

From 1807’s The Penitential Tyrant below shudder at the iron mask, collar and spurs used to restrain slaves.The masks were often fitted with tongue depressors, preventing swallowing; collars had long spurs so they could not lie down or sleep.

Such revelations were all grist to the anti-slavery mill slowly grinding along towards Abolition in 1834, when vast amounts of compensation allowed slave owners to retire in luxury back to Blighty, country houses, statues and all. They left behind chaos as ‘freed’ slaves discovered they weren’t entirely free and sugar operations found all kinds of back door ways to continue to exploit a captive workforce. Production would shift across the globe with all kinds of political and social consequences.

Meanwhile, back across the Atlantic, from the mid 18th century onwards sugar had become an essential part of the middle class diet alongside fashionable coffee and tea, seen as healthy alternatives to booze. A far cry from the luxury spice it had been at the court of the extravagant Richard II as supplies filtered in from the East. Dr Buttery has done a terrific job in crushing a vast web of historical detail into barely 200 pages.

Our americano and latte have just been brought over. Neither of us takes sugar with them. Our chat has now moved onto the sugary legacy of ill health. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down but it’s the catalyst for billions of dental cavities.

The patron saint of tooth decay appears to be Queen Elizabeth I, whose licensing of what was essentially piracy opened up the New World to sugar cultivation and slavery. Her sugar kick addiction was fuelled by whole banquets given over to the stuff, shaped into dolphins, elephants mermaids and the like. Result her legendary rotten black ‘tushy pegs’.

After extraction of many of these and the consequent collapse of her lower face she constantly covered it up or stuffed her mouth with rags. A later monarch, Sun King Louis XIV, did the same after losing all of his teeth to sugar by the age of 40. He also banned smiling at court in Versailles. It was likely he suffered from Type 2 diabetes, a consequence of a sugary diet that has snowballed ever since. A dark history indeed.

Ironic that the day Neil and I meet up – and I put a face to the evolutionary biologist turned chef behind the podcasts – our bedevilled government backtracks on cracking down on the obesity epidemic. 

Delayed for at least a year is the proposed ban on “buy one get one free” deals on junk food and a pre-9pm watershed for TV advertising, Continuing to encourage cheap food and drinks high in sugar, salt and fat is apparently a measure to alleviate the cost of living crisis. Let them eat cake!

The Dark History puts our sugar-dependent diet in historical context, charting the rise of breakfast cereals (“by 1921 there 60 brands, most liberally laced with sugar”) and commercial cakes and biscuits. Then there’s jam, not the kitchen garden preserve of yore but, aimed at the working city dweller, an industrialised product – “made from fruit of inferior quality or even the left-over pulp from some other food manufacturing process and only made up around a third of jam by weight.” 

And, of course, it was advertised as good value and nourishing, a fitting partner for the white bread and strong tea which in the 20th century remained a working class staple meal. All not so far removed from today’s fast food conglomerates who disguise the amount of sugar and salt (and all sorts of unhealthy shelf-live extending additives) in their products. And don’t get me started on the diet advice scapegoating of healthy fats to get sugar off the hook.

Neil Buttery insists he didn’t set out to write a political book, but his hugely readable and recommendable Dark History chimes with so many current preoccupations about food poverty, obesity and, of course, Black Lives Matter. 

Another coincidence on the day we met: a Home Office deportation flight took off to Jamaica, carrying British-raised Afro-Caribbeans guilty of various previous offences. Any excuse and an absence of compassion. Previous flights, to fix immigration loopholes, had strong Windrush generation connections. The legacy of slavery is not easily sugar-coated. 

A Dark History of Sugar by Neil Buttery is published by Pen & Sword in hardback at £20. Check out his blog British Food: A History. and the allied podcast. He has a further website, Neil Cooks Grigson, where he works his way through the great cookery writer Jane Grigson’s 1974 classic, English Food. 

A chilling brush with slave heritage

As a travel writer I’ve been lucky enough to visit Caribbean islands – Jamaica, St Lucia, Antigua, St Vincent, Mustique… and Barbados. On that latter island, after severing ties with Britain, there are plans to build a new heritage site next to a burial ground where the bodies of 570 West African victims of British transatlantic slavery were discovered. 

It will complement the existing Barbados Museum and Historical Society in Bridgetown. For a more vivid echo of a turbulent colonial past I was recommended St Nicholas Abbey. One of only three Jacobean mansions left in the whole Americas, the gabled old house set among mahogany trees summons up the ghosts of those early plantation owners.

At first encounter it’s a serene spot. Current owners the Warren family have been in situ for under two decades and lovingly preserve the old rum-making methods in a boutique distillery. So you get a steam-powered cane crush and a traditional pot still, using cane for the syrup that’s unique to the 400 acre estate, half of which is under sugar cultivation.

Tucked way behind the gorgeous old house is a museum addressing the tribulations of slavery on the estate and in the passage to the barrel rooms, easy to miss, are seven yellowing pieces of paper scribbled with lists of names, numbers, and pounds sterling, dating back to 1834.

Apparently in anticipation of freeing slaves, owners had to document the numbers and estimated worth of their slaves for the government to pay them out. £150 was the going rate for the most valuable male with farming skills with fertile women also valuable commodities. Tradable flesh. All this so that sugar could be on every table back home.

The Manchester Rum Festival 2022 is on my birthday. Saturday, June 18. No need to bake a cake then – unless it’s laced with an abundance of Plantation Pineapple or the like.

Last year’s event, the fifth, was a gas. The city was awash with thousands of Pride revellers, all just glad to flash the rainbow after months of crossing their legs in lockdown. Not that the Mercure Manchester Piccadilly was some sedate refuge from party central. The rum flowed. As it will again next June, pandemics permitting – at the same venue.

I was so happy to touch base with producers I’d met before in the Caribbean, Colorado or even up on Manchester’s Red Bank. So much jollier than those commercial suburban gin rallies which end with couples just a tonic short of oblivion.

My preview for this website was on the global  peripatetic side. No need to be blase. In 2022 I’m going to be introduced to world’s biggest-selling rum in Tanduay from the Philippines and local newcomers Tameside Distillers. Debuts for Streamertail from Jamaica and Trinidad and Scratch (from tropical Hertfordshire) are also confirmed by festival organiser Dave Marsland. No idea but I’m willing to give them a sip. Whatever, live dangerously. Buy tickets here.

Salford Rum pop-up

Meanwhile, if you are feeling ‘rum-bunctuous’, there’s a Christmas-themed bar from the Salford Rum Company called Bar Rumbug, launching on Thursday, December 2. It’s located at their forthcoming Dirty Old Town Distillery and rum garden at Arch 33 on Viaduct Street, Salford and will be open throughout December, Wednesdays to Sundays (12pm-12am). 

Hard to credit now but back in December 2019 Saint Lucia was the last foreign country I visited – before Covid turned the world upside down. There I consolidated my passion for rum. It will be consummated once again on Saturday, August 28 when Manchester Rum Festival makes its belated return. Among the many treasures to taste will be Saint Lucia’s own Chairman’s Reserve, Four Square from Barbados, Montanya from Colorado and our own Diablesse, all of which have been staging posts on my rum journey, which began among the sugar cane plantations of the Caribbean.


The two hour west coast road trip north from Soufriere to Castries is a clifftop, hairpin bend rollercoaster ride, requiring  strong nerves at the wheel (taxi recommended). En route, the views are fabulous, the fishing villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries worth a quirky stop-off, our only regret we hadn’t time to detour to picturesque Marigot Bay.

Inland consolation, a ‘Rhythm of Rum’ tour of St Lucia Distillers. The island no longer produces commercial quantities of sugar cane, importing molasses from Guyana or Barbados and this is the only producer left but the quality is high from the core brand Chairman’s Reserve upwards. At the end of the hourlong tour you get to sample their 20 or so products and access discounts on purchases at the Rhum Shoppe.

Dave Marsland, organiser of the Rum Festival, also happens to be UK brand ambassador for Chairman’s Reserve. His favourite of the range? “It would be Chairman’s Reserve Forgotten Cask. It’s smooth with plenty of the ex-American oak barrel flavours coming through, whether I drink it straight, with coconut water or as an Old Fashioned. Works fantastic with cigars too.”

My own? The real knockout is the Denros Strong Rum – 80% ABV, 160º proof. Well maybe  not a tot on a school night.


Rum’s heartland is the northern parishes. Historic plantations still dot the landscape in various states of desuetude. Movable wooden worker’s dwellings called chattel houses add to the sense of transience. The clue to where all the sugar cane fields once were are the windmills. 

In 1846 the island had more than 500 – only Holland had a greater density – and the remaining mills, in whatever state, are all now under a preservation order. The Barbados National Trust maintain the  Morgan Lewis Working Mill. in the parish of St Andrew’s. From December to April visitors can see cane ground into juice there.

Under 10 minutes away and much more enjoyably hands on is St Nicholas Abbey, the island’s best historic day out. One of only three Jacobean mansions left in the whole Americas, the gabled old house set among mahogany trees summons up the ghosts of those early plantation owners with its museum addressing the slave issue, while current owners the Warren family lovingly preserve the old rum-making methods in a boutique distillery they set up a decade ago.

So you get a steam-powered cane crush and a traditional pot still, using cane for the syrup that’s unique to the 400 acre estate, half of which is under sugar cultivation. The quest for a premium quality spirit was consolidated by enlisting the advice – and starter rums – of Richard Seale, owner of the island’s multi award-winning Foursquare distillery.

So the older rums (10 years) we tasted with Larry Warren after our tour originated at Foursquare before being barrel-aged at the Abbey, most of whose own rums still need to serve their time in oak. There’s no church connection, by the way; Abbey’s just a landowner’s affectation from way back. 


The little town of Crested Butte is not as glamorous as Rockies mecca Telluride. Indeed the folksy mountain charm is it selling point alongside – for me – its rum distillery. Whoa! We a long way from sugar plantations, so why did Karen Hoskin decided to set up Montanya Distillers here on Main Street? It’s the pure mountain water apparently that is the key, the stuff that makes spring so special.

So the flowers were in full spate in the high meadows above Crested Butte 150 miles north of Telluride. Like its rival destination, this former coal mining town is divided into a ski resort village and the original settlement below, rescued by hippies in the Seventies and still not insufferably gentrified. 

I loved its bookshops and coffee hang-outs, kids selling homemade lemonade on the streets and, above all Montanya, for its sustainable ethos and the quality of its acclaimed small batch product. Rum sounds an odd drink to be making in the mountains but owner Karen Hoskin believes the 9,000ft altitude helps the progress. 

“Our non-GMO sugar cane comes from family farmers in Louisiana, who grow and mill for us,” she says. “ Our water comes from one of the purest spring and snowmelt charged aquifers in the USA. Our rums are made by hand, from scratch, in a very traditional way using alembic copper pot stills from Portugal.”

One bonus of booking a Montanya tour is you get a complimentary cocktail in the garden bar. Karen discovered her taste for rum in Goa – try her signature, spicy Maharaja. You may never leave.


South Manchester is the least exotic rum address I know, but then Cleo Farman has always taken the Odd route. That was the name of her pioneering NQ bar on Thomas Street. That spawned Odder and Oddest and then they all all faded away leaving ebullient Cleo with the kind of midlife crisis we’d all want when she decamped back to the Caribbean where she had once worked for Richard Branson on Neckar Island. Retrenchment meant nine months researching rum blends, out of which arose in early 2019 her own bespoke blends.

They bear the name Diablesse – inspired  by a Caribbean folklore spook, La Diablesse, born human but turned demonic after a pact with the Devil. Makes for a striking bottle  label. They say you should use a long spoon to sup with the Devil. 

Diablesse Caribbean Rum (40% abv) is Cleo’s benchmark blend of three distinctive rums, serious stuff, while Diablesse Clementine Spiced Rum (42.3%) is a crowd-pleasing demerara rum from the Diamond Distillery, flavoured with clementine and a spice mix of spice mix of vanilla pod, ginger, cinnamon, cinnamon and clove.

Lovely glugger the latter, but it is the Caribbean Rum that really makes you sit up and pay attention. Some canny blending has gone into its creation with a major contribution to its complexity and smoothness coming from ageing in American bourbon barrels. No added sugar or caramel either.

Manchester Rum Festival 2021 will be going ahead on Saturday August 28, 12pm-7pm at new venue Mercure Manchester Piccadilly Hotel. Check out the full list of rums via this link. I suspect it may be a sell-out even after a handful of extra tickets were squeezed out. Priced £30 + booking fee, please check here.