Columbus Sailed Drunk, Inadvertently Brought Us Rum

Whatever your feelings on Columbus Day — beyond the profound sense of joy if you do indeed get the day off — it’s hard not to be impressed by those sea voyages of yore. You know, the whole challenging-an-angry-sea thing with no certain sense of success, let alone safety; also the whole thing about who was wearing whose eyepatch and didn’t return it, etc. But when we do harken back to those brave, adventurous days, we wonder how sailors could steel themselves for that voyage into uncertain waters. Our assumption (not wrong) is alcohol.

The typical provisions for any sea voyage from Spain would include wine plus something called sea biscuits, which we can only assume tasted like an ancient stale McMuffin, salted beef, and olive oil. (It’s Spain.) And even though he’d been rejected by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella twice before, Columbus actually had a list of special provisions: “good (not stale) sea biscuit, salted flour (for making bread aboard ship), wheat flour, wine, salt meat,” and then some olive oil, dried chickpeas, vinegar, and cheese. Chuck a few raisins and almonds in there, and Columbus and his men would be just fine.

As for libations, Columbus requested the typical wayfarer’s beverage: wine, often fortified to last the long journey, and water. Funny thing, the water was more of a last resort. Seriously, apparently “the water quickly went stagnate, so wine with alcohol” — a.k.a. fortified wine — “kept better for longer. So the crews drank the wine first.”

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Maybe that explains why Columbus didn’t end up discovering America but actually hit the Bahamas, which he claimed for Spain (of course), and later Cuba, which he definitely thought was China. (He also later thought Hispaniola was Japan; but then again, this was five centuries before Google Maps.)

But lot more interesting than the fact that Columbus and Co. got mildly buzzed as they sailed the open ocean is that they were basically responsible for rum production in the Caribbean. According to LiveScience, “sugar cane — native to Southeast Asia — first made its way to the New World with Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage to the Dominican Republic, where it grew well in the tropical environment.” Cane wasn’t indigenous to South or Central America or the Caribbean, but Columbus and his European backers realized how well it grew and promptly incorporated cane and eventually rum production into the triangle trade.

“Christopher Columbus was the first to bring sugar cane to the West Indies on behalf of Spain,” according to the Mariner’s Museum. “Spanish sugar mills shortly sprang up in Cuba, Hispaniola, and Mexico,” and, eventually, “the Spanish [sic] turned to black Africans as their primary labor force.” Unpaid labor force, that is. Slaves. Human casualties of the triangle trade and helpless sufferers of the harrowing Middle Passage. All because sugar cane grew well in warm places.

Something to remember on Columbus Day, though something that’s never really mentioned. We all know he sailed the ocean blue, but the fact that he brought sugar cane, violently altering the agricultural and social reality of an entire region, well, that’s a surprise. Certainly something they’d prefer not to teach, and not just because the whole “1492” rhyme is a lot easier to memorize. If you drink something on Columbus Day, maybe make it rum. And don’t forget its history.