Puncheon Rum is the drink du jour among the Trinidadian “It” crowd but it wasn’t that long ago that this drink was the sole domain of wizened men in dimly-lit rum shops or parlour owners turned medicine men who didn’t hesitate to give you a nip to cure the common cold. Turns out, Puncheon has had many roles during its colourful history and Guzzle contributor and historian ANGELO BISSESSARSINGH knows all about it.
As all my friends know, whenever they fall sick I offer one infallible remedy: Puncheon rum mixed with lime and honey. I dunno if I’ll ever be able to market this potion like Buckley’s mix and earn a fortune but this I DO know – the brew cures whatever is ailing the consumer and in addition kills germs they did not even DREAM they had. Puncheon rum has been a cornerstone of culture in Trinidad and Tobago for a very long time. It is not exclusive to the rainbow nation since it may have originated in Martinique where it is called Tafia. The 19th century traveller, Lafcadio Hearn, noted its benefits as a stimulant for the brute labours of the working class and as a sterilising agent in an island where spring water was not always without contamination. Even the delicate girl-porters, Les Portueses, carrying immense loads on their heads for miles on mountain roads, never took a step without the magic medicine:
“Besides her load, she carries only a canvas purse tied to her girdle on the right side, and on the left a very small bottle of rum, or white tafia—usually the latter, because it is so cheap. . . . For she may not always find the Gouyave Water to drink,—the cold clear pure stream conveyed to the fountains of St. Pierre from the highest mountains by a beautiful and marvellous plan of hydraulic engineering : she will have to drink betimes the common spring-water of the bamboo -fountains on the remoter high-roads ; and this may cause dysentery if swallowed without a spoonful of spirits. Therefore she never travels without a little liquor.”
The white rum or firewater (it burns going all the way down) possibly came to Trinidad during the Cedula of Population in 1783 which permitted via the Spanish crown, hundreds of French Catholic planters and thousands of slaves (from Martinique in many instances) to settle here and open up the forested hinterlands to cultivation. Every sugar plantation had its own rum ‘still which produced gallons of heavy, mellow rum or the white lightning so loved as a pick-me-up and prophylactic against all afflictions. From malaria to tabanca, the white rum cured all. In Tobago, the tradition of a crop over festival continued long after the end of slavery in 1834 when the lands began to be worked by sharecroppers called metayers. At every crop over, it was the unspoken duty of the plantation owner to provide a young bull and a barrel or two of white lightning to the feast.
White puncheon rum was a favourite among the labouring classes in the 19th Century as now since it was cheap. During the sugar cane crop time, when the estates were in full swing, a gallon or two of the rum purloined every so often made the factory workers heroes among their peers. Some devised ingenious ways of carrying out the plunder, from hollowed-out walking sticks to smuggling the ‘contraband’ in their enamel food carriers. Even if one went the honest way and paid for a drink at the village shop, the pocket would not be hit too hard since a shot cost a few cents and one need not buy a bottle since a ‘nip’ and the even more diminutive ‘petit quart’ (pq in present slang) was available. With the coming of indentured labour from India in 1845, the new arrivals and their established Afro counterparts could agree on one thing, PUNCHEON RUM, as the terribly prudish schoolmaster, J.H Collens, recounted in 1887:
“The labourer, especially in the country districts, drinks rum to a frightful extent, with the result that, at holiday seasons, broken heads are knocking about as freely as if the scene were Donnybrook Fair or Limerick Races rather than Trinidad. Of course due allowance must be made for them. Remote from churches and, indeed, any profitable institutions, as hundreds of them are, and with limited amusements, the brute must of necessity be developed at the expense of the better nature.”
Perhaps the most prevalent use of puncheon rum was as an ‘eye opener’ as the first drink of the day is called. This could be imbibed at any time from rising at the crack of dawn to around mid-morning and as one old cane cutter once told me “dat is de pitchoil for de lamp wen yuh wukkin in de dark”
The history of puncheon rum is not all cheery. In the 1890s the dangerous precedent of rum for wages began. At Forres Park, the lifestyle of the labourer was typical, squalid barracks, zero sanitation, no school , scanty rations, and heavy tasks. One great evil which was introduced by managers in the 1890s was the offering of white rum, firewater, as a supplement to wages and even as wages themselves. This, of course, enslaved the labourers since they became rapidly dependent on the alcohol and thus were always in debt to the estate since the cost of rations was also deducted from the pittance they received for their task work. Almost until the demise of the sugar industry in 2007, employees of Caroni 1975 Ltd. could acquire rum on credit from the distillery and have the cost deducted from their wage packets.
Christmas is the time of puncheon as well. In the barrackyards of East Port of Spain, the third and fourth generation descendants of ex-slaves crowded into tiny rooms and eked a living from what little city life would allow them. For months in advance of Yuletide, a jar filled with puncheon rum (called cacapoule or “fowls__t”)would be the container in which dried fruits were soaked , imparting a unique flavour in the alcohol. On Christmas Day, with the ham boiling in a pitch oil tin outside and the fruitcake baked , well wishers and carolers or later on, paranderos, would call at the hospitable rooms. They would be served with the fruity liqueur from the jar.
Forres Park became synonymous with puncheon rum and was the brand of the most popular one of the kind to date. Indeed now, almost three decades after the closure of the Forres Park Estate and seven years after the end of all sugar production in Trinidad (Caroni 1975 Ltd ended its run in 2007) Forres Park Puncheon Rum is still a favourite. It is now produced by Angostura which acquired the bulk of the Caroni rum stock. Puncheon rum has lost NONE of its kick over the years.
Every morning on my commute to work I pass through one of the former sugar cane districts. The mist still hangs low over the straggly fields where once thousands of labourers rose before the sun to begin work. In front of the village rumshop (which still opens at 5 am as it did in the reign of King Sugar) is a rough weatherbeaten table and four steel chairs which are occupied religiously by four old men surrounding a full bottle of puncheon rum, four glasses and a bottle of water (an empty puncheon rum bottle filled with a less potent clear liquid mind you). Pass back that way in three hours when the rays of the morning sun have dispelled the dank fogs and the air is warmer, the table is deserted – only the empty puncheon rum bottle remaining as a memento of the four spectres of an age gone who have consumed its contents…and on that note, most old Trinis would attest to the preservative properties of puncheon rum as a necessary elixir if one wants to see 90.