Newport Rum, Slavery and The Burden of History

I was really enjoying the rum tasting at Coastal Extreme, a brewery in Newport, Rhode Island, which recently started small-batch distilling a rum they call Thomas Tew.

First, the story I was hearing was perfectly in tune with current culinary sensibilities. In today’s foodie-centric universe, we especially cherish local food, food with a history in the place that we’re visiting, and even better, a recovered tradition that the cruel winds of time have buried. And here I was, at this young company, run by young, good looking people, reviving a handcrafted beverage, and an industry dormant in Newport since 1872.

Second, the rum itself was really, really good: dark, smooth, full-bodied, a rum you wouldn’t want to bury in a frozen daiquiri glass. In fact, I went straight from the distilling company to a local liquor store to buy a bottle to bring home.

But something in the description of the rum had caught my attention, hand has worried me ever since: during the tasting, the lovely young woman informed us, among other things, that Thomas Tew rum was bringing back something of Rhode Island’s former economic greatness, wealth which had come from the Triangle Trade.

Thomas Tew Rum

I took a sip of the rum and nodded, but a dim memory from history class was activated. Wasn’t the middle leg of the Triangle Trade the notorious Middle Passage, the part where abducted Africans lied shackled together in unspeakable conditions, en route to slavery in the Caribbean? Why yes, it was – sugar cane came from the Caribbean to Newport, where it was distilled into rum, the rum was then loaded onto the ships, bound for West Africa, where the barrels were traded for more slaves, over and over and over again.

It’s one of the ugliest parts of US history, especially as the epicenter was theoretically enlightened Rhode Island, which was the second state to abolish slavery, banning the import of slaves in 1652. Yet, a century later, during colonial times, Newport had 22 distilleries turning out rum at top speed, writes Clifford Lindsey Alderman, in his book Rum, Slaves and Molasses. Although New Englanders certainly enjoyed the beverage, which they called Kill Devil or O-Be-Joyful, the quantities produced by the distillers far exceeded local demand.

Most of Newport’s rum was distilled for export, to be used in trade for slaves. “Distilleries were a tell-tale sign of slaving, even after it was abolished,” wrote Alderman. Although slaving was illegal, the law was ill-enforced, as many people were growing rich on what was the big business of its day. When anchored at Long Wharf in Newport, captains would order their decks swabbed with vinegar to disguise the smell of human sweat, blood and excrement – a disguise attempt that was not very successful — and would pass inspection by the authorities by carrying extra planks when they pulled to sea to construct the mid-deck where captured Africans would be warehoused.

Only two things brought the end of the end of this nasty business: the Civil War, which squelched demand for slaves, and the trial and hanging of a Maine sea captain for flouting anti-slaving laws, in 1860.

Now, I can understand why a craft distiller such as Coastal Extreme would not want to associate itself with a genocide – bad business, not something you’d really want to think about when sipping a Dark n’ Stormy. But in the light of such a history, doesn’t it seems a little cringe-worthy to say, without qualification, that rum “would be a really cool thing to bring back to Rhode Island,” as Brent Ryan, the head distiller does in a video on the company’s website?

And while I don’t think a brewery has the same obligations to the truth as a museum, or a historian,  it does seem to me that a company that ties itself to history as explicitly as this one does seems to leave itself at the least vulnerable to criticism by entirely leaving out the more troubling parts of the story. For instance, in describing the end of the rum business in the state here, there’s no mention that it was the collapse of the slaving industry, more so than changes in tax law or an increasing taste for whiskey, that caused Rhode Island’s rum companies to go bankrupt during the mid and late 1800s.

On the other hand, it’s not like Coastal Extreme is the only player in Newport to promote the more pleasant parts of history while glossing over the ugly. The Newport Historical Society, and the city itself on its website,  prefer to emphasize Newport’s tradition of religious tolerance and its centuries of life that “bustled with diversity”. At the historical society’s Brick Market museum,  there is only a very small panel that explains – but hardly emphasizes — the pivotal role that Rhode Island’s rum played in the slave trade. Even The Providence Journal, which ran a terrific series on Rhode Island’s role as a chief slaving state in 2006, seemed to forget the past and good taste when it ran this headline in a 2009 story: “Thomas Tew Rum Revives a Corner of R.I.’s Triangle Trade”.

For more wrestling with the obligations to the whole truth of history, see Sheila’s Uncomfortable Encounter with the Civil War.


  1. Terry July 16, 2016
  2. Barry November 21, 2016
  3. Jose Roberto Garcia May 5, 2018

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