The Rum Story is a fascinating museum that tells the story of one of Whitehaven’s imports. It’s housed in the original shop, courtyards, cellars, and warehouses run by the Jefferson family. The coast of Cumbria was perfect for rum smugglers. The museum tells about this part of the rum story.
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The office of the original business is just as it was left when the business was closed. The story of rum begins in a Caribbean rainforest and includes elements of the slave trade, American prohibition, the history and processing of rum, and the use of rum by the British navy. Stone barrel vaults—part of the warehouses—are on view along with historic documents charting one of the rum trade ships and other interesting artefacts. The vaults housed the barrels and bottles of rum that were awaiting duty payments. The original machinery is still on view. A large rum barrel, still in the building, held £250,000 worth of rum.
As European demand for sugar grew, Britain as a trading nation became involved. The country established plantations in Barbados in the 1620s. Slave labour was used to cultivate the land, and the expanded cane crop from this labour allowed the production of rum. By the 1770s the West Indian islands supplied ¼ of all Britain’s imports. On view in the museum is a mock-up of a slave ship.
The first sugar plantation in Antigua was established by Sir Christopher Codrington in 1674. Afterwards the whole island was turned into plantations—160 in all. There was a shortage of fresh water on the island, and in 1731 a bucketful sold for three shillings. (10 shillings was all that was needed for expenses for a week to live life as a planter).
The slaves lived at the plantations and created their own “African villages”. Rations were poor so they grew supplementary produce for their own tables. Some slaves traded fruit, vegetables, goats, and chickens at local Sunday markets, trading them for rum and tobacco. They were required to work 12 hours a day planting the cane. The planting season went from August to October. It took 14-16 months for the cane to grow. It was then harvested.
A film shows the steps in traditional rum making. Raw cane arrived in carts at the mill where it was crushed between heavy rollers. The refuse from this stage of rum making was called bagasse, and it was burned to produce the heat needed in the manufacturing process. The juice would then be piped to the sugar workshop. Conditions in the sugar workshop were intolerable, being hot and humid.
It was necessary to clarify the raw cane juice by boiling and cleansing it in huge vats. The liquid was then put into smaller and hotter vats and then into trays for cooling. The sugar would turn into brown crystals on top of molasses. Finally all was put into perforated barrels. These barrels allowed the molasses to drain off, leaving the sugar behind. The molasses was fermented and distilled into rum.
Other interesting rum information includes the fact that it was given to sick babies in colonial America and also used to keep well babies quiet. Adults used it as a painkiller. Rum was substituted for morning and afternoon tea breaks. Consumption ran so high that the colonial government in America decided to ban rum as an import into Georgia between 1735 and 1743. In Massachusetts public drunks had to wear shirts with a big ‘D’ on them standing for drunkard.
Rum was given to British sailors as part of their daily ration. It was said it was used to pickle Lord Nelson’s body for the long journey home from the battle of Trafalgar.
Lord Byron said of rum: "There's nought no doubt so much the spirit calms as rum and true religion".
The Rum Story
Tel. 01946 592933
Open: year round, 10am-4.30pm; closed 25/26 Dec, 1 Jan, and 3rd week Jan
Website: Rum Story
Café on site