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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada


Extracts of Matters of Historical Interest from "The Huissier, News For and About the Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff" By The Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff


(June 15, 2005)

Rum: a Nice Light Drink

By Anne Marie Lane-Jonah

Rum was the most popular drink in 18th century Louisbourg. Roughly 60% of alcohol imported was rum, followed by wine at 37% and brandy making up a distant third at 3%. The inventory of the innkeeper Pierre Lorant, of l’Hotel de la Marine, reflects these proportions. In February of 1758 he had a barrel and twenty additional pots of rum, but only five pots of brandy and half a barrel of red wine. Beer only made up a fraction of a percent of imports, and spruce beer cannot be included in this measure as it was produced locally. Rum consumption was based on class, the upper classes preferring wine and brandy and the lower class only being able to afford rum.

Rum was popular because it was cheap and readily available in the colonies. Rum and molasses, both by-products of sugar production, were traded with the West Indies for low-grade fish, destined for consumption by the slaves working the sugar plantations. Rum was not to be imported by either England or France; this would be contrary to the mercantile policies of these countries, so it was destined for the navies and the colonies. The French navy did not have a rum ration as the British did from the mid-17th century. However, French soldiers at Louisbourg received a molasses ration, which they used in the preparation of spruce beer.

Rum came in a variety of grades and qualities. Rum for export from the West Indies was often distilled multiple times into “high wine.” This had a higher alcoholic content but kept the flavour of rum; it was supposed to be diluted before being consumed. Jamaican rum, which was double distilled, had the best reputation for quality, followed by the rums of Grenada and Antigua. Nevis and Barbados produced lower quality rums, superior only to those produced in New England. Even the most potent rums were light in colour and had the consistency of water. Sugar or molasses might be added as well as water before consumption to make them more palatable. Rum importers usually prepared the diluted rum, which would have about 50%alcohol content before they sold it to innkeepers and other vendors. This preparation had the same consistency as modern dark rums (it was not thick).

The authorities at Louisbourg struggled to control alcohol consumption as it reduced the productivity of the small available work force. Most restrictions on drinking were aimed at workers: alcohol was not to be sold to soldiers on workable days, nor to fishermen or sailors, fishermen could only buy alcohol from their employer, and all businesses selling alcohol were to close at the beating of the retreat in the evening. Further, no one could drink during holy service on feast days. The fact that some regulations contradicted others, and that many were repeated year after year tells us that these ordinances were regularly ignored. In a town with many unmarried and transient men working at unpleasant jobs many officials commented that they, the workers, needed drink as motivation or diversion.

Selling alcohol was a common occupation in Louisbourg; in any year there were between twenty and thirty licensed sellers of alcohol. Even though according to the regulations it was necessary to have a license to sell alcohol, in 1734 seven more people listed their occupations as cabaretiers or aubergistes than were licensed. The regulations stated that only people who had no other way to earn a living could sell alcohol, however, Captains of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine were allowed to run cantines, selling alcohol to their soldiers, and many habitant pecheurs also ran cabarets. The most popular drink in all of these establishments was certainly rum.

The name rum comes from the West Country English term, rumbullion, referring to the disturbances that often resulted from its consumption. One French term for rum, guildive, comes from the expression “kill devil,” also alluding to rum’s effects. The complaints about rum in Louisbourg continued during the period of the British occupation. Charles Knowles, Governor in 1746, complained that all ranks of the New England troops were occupied in the trade of rum and that its consumption had been the cause of many soldiers’ deaths the previous winter. He, like the French, brought in regulations to control its distribution; they were probably equally ineffective. Rum had been popular with the Acadians as well. In 1755,when the British troops destroyed Tatamagouche, an important trade link with Louisbourg, they first helped themselves to as much rum from the storehouses as they could carry. Throughout the 18th century rum was a popular refreshment, a needed diversion, a form of pay, a social problem, and the spoils of war.


James H. Morrison and James Moreira, eds. Tempered by Rum: Rum in the History of the Maritime Provinces, Pottersfield Press, Nova Scotia, 1988.

Gilles Proulx, "Aubergistes et Cabaretiers de Louisbourg, 1713-1758", Travail Inédit Numéro 136, Direction des Parcs et des Lieux Historiques Nationaux du Canada, 1971.

J.S.McLennan, Louisbourg, from Its Foundation to Its Fall, 1713-1758,McMillan 1918, Fortress Press, Sydney, Nova Scotia, 1969. p.175.

AFO, Colonies E, 290, Pierre Lorant, fév., 1758.

Phil Dunning, Parks Canada Material History Specialist, conversation June 9, 2005.