Sat | Sep 19, 2020

Cheers to the 'spirits'

Published:Friday | July 27, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Bottles (from left) Pimento dram, old rum, old white rum, Jamaica brandy and Anisou.

Recently, there has been a string of videos circulating on social media featuring inebriated persons expressing their love for rum in song. The lyrics of these songs vary, and some of them are remixes of hymns or popular songs, but the message remains the same that rum, more specifically, Wray and Nephew over proof rum, is a 'friend to the end'.

The number and popularity of these videos makes one wonder about rum, its beginnings, and how it became a drinker's best friend.

For many Caribbean people, especially Jamaicans, a bottle of rum is a household staple, even if none of the persons who live in the household are drinkers.

This is because rum plays a vital role in the lives of persons as it is used to celebrate happy occasions and as a shoulder to lean on in times of grief. White rum is a very important ingredient in homeopathic remedies, and it also finds a space in the spiritual realm in religions such as Kumina and Revival. Today we will explore Jamaica's most famous export outside of reggae music: Wray and Nephew Rum.

According to Barty-King and Massel (1983), the Spanish and the Portuguese first brought the sugar cane plant to the Caribbean in the 15th century as part of a new range of crops that were introduced to the region at the time. Evidence suggests that the early settlers in the Caribbean cultivated the sugar cane plant not for its sugar, but for this spirit beverage. Settlers appeared to be so determined to do this that laws were passed in the Leeward Islands between 1644 and 1673 that imposed fines on all who distilled the cane juice rather than making sugar from it.

Sources indicate that rum has been called by many names throughout the Caribbean. For example, in Barbados, it was called 'Barbados water', and in the French Caribbean, it was called 'tafia' and 'guildive', the latter meaning 'kill devil', (Tony Talburt, 2010). The term 'kill devil' became an enduring term by which rum was referred to in numerous locations.

Eventually, the name 'kill devil' was usurped by the word 'rum', Deer (1949) suggests that the word rum was adopted from the names of the three main varieties or species of sugar cane that were introduced into the Caribbean region, namely saccharium spontaneum, robustum and officinarum. Other scholars such as Vandyke Prince (1979) claimed that the word 'rum' first appeared in the English language in 1654 and may have been taken from the word 'rumbustion' which probably signified a loud noise or even a strong liquor.

In Jamaica, the development of a rum industry can be traced back to one of Jamaica's oldest and most successful business houses. In 1825, Charles Wray opened the Shakespeare Tavern which F.C. Casserly (1958) describes as appropriately named because it was located next to one of "the most fashionable theatres in the New world, the Theatre Royal" (which today is the Ward Theatre).

Casserly explains that the tavern was very successful because the theatre, which had stood at its current location since 1775, was the place where English touring companies would make their first call before going north to America. Thirty-five years later in 1860 Wray took his 22- year-old nephew, Charles James Ward, into business and in 1862, made him his partner. The business was known from then on as J. Wray & Nephew.

After Wray's death in 1870, his nephew Charles James Ward, took over the company as the sole proprietor and was responsible for cementing the company in its place as one of the most popular and respected rum-producing companies out of the Caribbean. According to Wray and Nephew Ltd, "Charles James Ward was a dynamic and gifted entrepreneur. Under his leadership, J. Wray & Nephew began a period of great growth and prosperity. He soon moved to larger premises on Port Royal Street, conveniently near the wharves, where the barrels of rum transported by sea on small wind- driven crafts called 'droghers' were unloaded."

The Port Royal Street location had other advantages for the rapidly growing business. It was in the very heart of commercial Kingston, near the country's major bank, and across the street from the general post office.

The original Port Royal Street headquarters of J. Wray & Nephew was razed by the great earthquake and fire of 1907, which devastated much of Kingston. It was a terrible time. Records, documents and medals won by the company were lost, two employees were killed. Nevertheless, like a phoenix out of the ashes, Ward was able to set up numerous temporary shops in and around Kingston until they were able properly rebuild.


Premium from the start


As mentioned before, early in its inception, J. Wray & Nephew established itself as a premium rum-producing company. The proof of this lies in the fact the early in its life the company won numerous award for its "good, soft and fragrant" rums. Wray and Nephew won awards at almost every World's Fair in the 1800s. The medals that were won in London in 1862, Jamaica in 1891, and Paris 1878 can still be seen today on the labels of the Wray & Nephew white overproof rum.

According to numerous sources, not only was Ward an excellent entrepreneur, he was a great philanthropist who was very civic-minded, a trait for which he received many awards during his lifetime.

Ward came by the title of Colonel because in 1885, the then governor of Jamaica, Sir Henry Norman, invited him to accept the position of colonel and help set up a voluntary militia.

Ward donated a large sum of money to the government for the staging of the 1891 Jamaica World's Fair. He also provided a hotel for country people to stay in when they visited the Exhibition in Kingston. Ward was also a member of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, Legislative council, Custos of Kingston and a Privy Councillor.

He also held many other titles most of which had to pay cheque attached to them.

Out of all of his contributions, Ward is most famously known for his contribution to the rebuilding of the Theatre Royal (which is now known as the Ward theatre), after the original building was destroyed by the 1907 earthquake. Colonel Ward's speech at its dedication on December 16, 1912, was the last he gave in public before he died exactly one year later.

According to Wray and Nephew Ltd, after Ward's death, the company was run by a board of trustees who eventually sold the entire estate to the Lindo Brothers, whose principal CEO was Cecil Lindo, on March 23 1917.

By this time Cecil Lindo had already purchased the Appleton Estate in 1916 and was responsible for the continued expansion, modernisation, and innovation of the company. The company continued to change hands and was eventually acquired by the Gruppo Compari in 2013.

Colonel Charles James Ward established a tradition of public service and philanthropy, which the company has proudly maintained as an integral part of its corporate philosophy. This is seen in the many community, educational and sporting events that are sponsored by the company.

The bottles pictured, though not produced today, are evidence of piece of Jamaica's material history that has existed and lived on for almost 200 years.

These bottles represent traits such as hard work, ingenuity, and resilience, much like Jamaica and its people. These bottles have borne witness to the long and successful reign of not only a product that has stood the test of time, but a company whose products have helped to cement Jamaica's place on the world map as a premium rum producer.


Did you know?


The term 'Kill Devil had two meanings. The first was that the drink (rum) caused men to forget their sorrow and despair as it killed the 'blue devils' of despondency that attacked the earlier settles of the West Indies because of the horrible conditions that they had to endure.

The second meaning comes from the fact that rum also killed men who were "mostly devils in human form, capable of many excesses, indulging in piracy, slave-owning, gluttony and other forms of debauchery, and when they drank too much they died" because the rum of those times was not distilled and contained many impurities and a large number of very harmful bacteria. (A Rumbustious Story: Telling all about Rum from its Etymological History to its Potency both in Stomachs and in Business)


Barty-King, H & Massel, A. (1983). Rum: Yesterday and Today. Heinemann Publishing: London

Cassrly, F.C. (1958). The Story of John Wray & Nephew & Charles James Ward.

Deer, Noel. (1949). The History of Sugar. Vol (1). Chapman and Hall publishing: London.

Planters' Punch. (1937-1938). A rumbustious story: telling all about rum, from its etymological history to its potency both in stomachs and in business. Vol. 3, No. (6).

Talburt, T. (2010). Rum, Rivalry and resistance fighting for the Caribbean Spirit. Hansib Publishing: Caribbean.

Wray & Nephew Ltd. (c. 1990s) Wray & Nephew.

Vandyke Prince, P. (1979). The Penguin Book of spirits and liquors. Penguin Books.

Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica.