The source of the rums in the British navy’s blend is a topic of much speculation and misunderstanding. I’ve already debunked one myth here. Historical records are clear that the navy’s rum blend changed substantially over the decades prior to 1970’s Black Tot day. However, one seemingly fundamental truism is that the admiralty purchased rum from Empire sources, i.e. British colonies such as Trinidad, and British Guiana.
World events sometimes pushed the navy to buy from its colonies that they ordinarily wouldn’t have. For example, two documents suggests Barbados rum came into the navy’s blend during WW II. The 1939 Navy victualling manual doesn’t cite Barbados in the navy’s blend, but 1944 documents do. Also during WW II, the admiralty strenuously sought to avoid purchasing Jamaican rum, but ended up doing so, as you’ll soon see.
However, Barbados and Jamaica were British colonies, so we could still confidently believe that British navy rum was British (colony) made-rum.
However, even that’s not true.
Despite buying all available and suitable empire rum during WW II, the navy still required substantially more rum to keep their Jack Tars provisioned with daily tots. Thus, the navy had little choice but to buy from outside their empire. To not do so would mean cutting the rum ration, and nobody would be foolish enough to do that during times of war.
This leads to an interesting tale involving the Cuban, British and American governments. The end result is that as World War II drew to a close, British navy sailors quaffed Cuban ron, French rhum, and British rum concurrently in their daily tot!
The story of this unprecedented rum blend is woven through two extensive document portfolios [i] in the British National Archives. They contain the long running, multi-party correspondence between the British Admiralty, ED&F Man (their brokers), ED&F Man’s agent in Cuba (Mendoza), the Cuban government, the British Foreign Office, and the American Foreign office. A few other surprising players make guest appearances as well. More on that later.
Teasing out what happened from the hundreds of individual letters and telegrams was quite a challenge. What follows is a brief synopsis, illustrated extensively using excerpts from the portfolio.
Our story begins in 1943, when the admiralty realized they needed substantially more rum during 1944 than previously – around three million gallons.
Jamaican rum, which they normally deemed unsuitable, became unavoidable, since Jamaica had the ability to supply large quantities:
After looking under every couch cushion for more empire rum to buy, they were still well short of their three million-gallon target.
Casting a broader net meant going to the islands of Martinique (France) and Cuba (once a Spanish colony.) The Admiralty believed that by purchasing 750,000 gallons of Martinique rum and one million gallons of Cuban rum, they’d hit their target.
Since the Cuban rum is the focus of what follows, let’s first address the Martinique rum so as to be done with it.
Modern readers may be surprised to see Martinique rum here, given its flavor profile. However, 1944-era Martinique made millions of gallons of molasses-based rum. The island hadn’t yet fully transformed to making cane juice rhum almost exclusively. The Martinique rum the navy purchased was undoubtedly molasses-based rather than cane juice. If Jamaican rum wasn’t considered the right flavor for the navy’s rum, cane juice rum wouldn’t have been either.
We don’t know who supplied the Martinique rum for the navy’s purchase, but informed sources suggest St. James as a likely candidate.
Returning to our main story, to initiate the foreign rum acquisition, the Admiralty instructed ED&F Man to make initial purchases of Cuban and Martinique rums, 250,000 gallons from each:
The purchase of the Cuban rum started uneventfully, other than being quite expensive. Even the lowest quality Cuban rum available were fifty percent more expensive than Empire rums. ED&F Man evaluated samples from several Cuban distilleries and selected the Lavin distillery to provide 220,000 American wine gallons (832,000 liters).
Early on, the Bacardi family got wind of the deal in progress and tried to sabotage it in favor of themselves:
The Arechabala family (Havana Club) would later try to get a piece of the (rum) pie as well:
Neither Bacardi nor Arechabala were ultimately successful in their bids for a share of the purchase. Lavin had the contract, and it was just a small matter of shipping the rum to London.
Unfortunately for the Admiralty, before Lavin could ship the rum, the Cuban and U.S. governments signed a deal allowing the U.S. to purchase Cuba’s 1944 sugar crop, i.e. sugar, molasses, and rum. This meant the U.S. had first dibs on buying those items from Cuba. Thus, the admiralty had to run the purchase past the American government and get their OK.
While the Americans were seemingly amenable to the Admiralty’s purchase of Cuba’s rum, the Cuban government erected major hurdles. Two decrees were put in place by the Cuban government:
- An embargo. One stated reason for the embargo was enabling the Cuban government to control the rum trade and ensure purchases were made across multiples rum makers.
- A substantial export tax on rum purchases.
Muddying the waters and preventing the navy’s rum from being shipped, Cuba had elections upcoming. A new alcohol commissioner with oversight over the rum industry would soon be picked. Corruption and graft were common in such matters, and it was fully expected that the new commissioner would favor some rum makers over others.
The British believed the Cuban government were seeking bribes from various producers to put their chosen man in place. Until the government picked a commissioner, the Admiralty’s rum shipment was stalled.
The admiralty desperately wanted to just move forward with their agreed-upon contract with Lavin and avoid the steep export tax; they needed the rum yesterday. However, the Cuban government wasn’t playing ball.
In order to avoid paying the additional tax, the Cuban government said the Admiralty would need to distribute their rum purchase over several producers, ensuring each producer shared in the profits. This would entail another round of sample evaluations and renegotiation of contracts which would further delay the navy getting its rum.
At one point a scheme was hatched to avoid the export tax by having Cuban government buy the rum itself for resale to the admiralty.
The folios don’t reveal how exactly the impasse was broken, but several months later, on July 27th, 1944, Lavin’s rum was shipped, and the Admiralty managed to avoid paying the export tax.
Although navy rum enthusiasts have long believed that Caroni supplied Trinidadian rum to the British Royal Navy, a telegram within the folio provides clear proof that Caroni was selling rum to the navy. That said, it’s possible Caroni wasn’t the navy’s only Trinidadian rum supplier.
The documents excerpted above provide unprecedented glimpses into an unusual historical moment. However, they leave other questions unanswered. For instance, did the Admiralty later purchase additional rum from Cuba or Martinique during the war? And when did they stop buying Jamaican rum?
We many never have those answers. But for navy rum enthusiasts, knowing that Cuban and French rum once appeared in the Empire’s tots is a notable and surprising addition to what we know about British navy rum’s heritage.
[i] British National Archives ADM 1/15736, FO 371/38087