As part of a year-long exploration of immigration, I’m currently teaching a unit on African Immigration at the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And thanks to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’s Sugar Changed the World, I’m much more informed about sugar’s place in all of this, notably in the West Indies, today better known as the Caribbean. Thus, my wary interest in “On the Caribbean Rum Trail” in today’s Travel Section of the New York Times. At first there seemed to be next to nothing about the hideous history behind rum’s creation in this part of the world, but then as the article goes on, the reporter shifts gears, focusing more on history.
Nearby Saint-James [a Martinique distillery], the biggest, was overrun by French tourists lining up for rides through the cane fields on a Disneyesque “sugar train.” In its museum in a 19th-century Creole house, I pondered rum’s iconography: old ads depicting happy plantations with cheerful slaves, women with madras headwraps and seductive smiles.
My musings led to a dialogue with Michel Fayad, distillery manager and former history teacher. “Our whole history is wrapped up in this alcohol,” he said. “But what is it? Depends who you ask, yes? For the European visitors, it’s holiday. To the bekes” — white Martinicans, colonial descendants who still run the bulk of the island’s economy and all but one of its distilleries — “rum is pride. To blacks, locals, it’s also colonialism, slavery, alcoholism, sadness. We drink Champagne at weddings. Rum is for funerals.”
And powerfully ends it with this:
But during an audio tour that thoroughly covered rum history and production — maps, diagrams, photo exhibits, French-accented voice-overs — I decided that here lay the educational apex of distillery-hopping. I wandered through the plantation’s sculpture garden and, reflecting on the legacy of the liquid I’d been trailing, spotted something remarkable: blood on the leaves. A massive red statue of the word “Blood,” poised before a picture-perfect cane field. It evoked, of course, the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings in a pastoral Southern landscape: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” she sang. This scene, stunning yet haunted by perennial pain, struck me as perfect homage: Behold a spirit whose legacy contains all the paradoxes and complexity of the wistfully beautiful region that gave birth to it so long ago.