Black Tot Day

Black Tot Day

What is Black Tot Day?

For over 300 years, the British Royal Navy issued a ration of rum to sailors every day. This was referred to as “the daily tot”. It was usually rum from Trinidad, Guyana and other West Indian colonies that was stored and blended in England. On the 31st of July 1970, the daily tot was discontinued. This final ration has since been referred to as “the black tot” and the date is now known in rum circles as “black tot day”.

In recent years, black tot day has become a day of celebration in the North American and European rum enthusiast community. It’s seen as a day to honour the legacy of British rum blending, as well as a tribute to the long-standing naval tradition of drinking rum.

On the 31st of July 2020, on the fiftieth anniversary of Black Tot Day, a British rum brand called Black Tot Rum held a 24 hour virtual Rum Festival that culminated in an after-party at a bar in London. Involved in this event were several brand ambassadors, spirits educators and prominent mixologists; People who collectively define rum culture and attitudes in the rum industry, generally referred to as the “rum community”. At this event, just like at all rum festivals and events, the only representation from the Caribbean comes from rum brands.

The Rise of Rum

Last year, rum became a fifteen billion dollar industry and sales surpassed those of whisky in the UK. The world is witnessing the extreme growth of a commodity invented in the Caribbean, with a controversial legacy linked to the Caribbean, and with marketing across the globe that incorporates Caribbean culture.

Despite this, there is an absence of Caribbean opinions and knowledge across the growing community of global rum enthusiasts. The reason for this is, as previously mentioned, is because the only representation from the region comes from rum companies. The primary purpose of a rum company is profit. Caribbean culture exists solely to be used in their marketing, and there is a reluctance by brands to engage in any discussions that may offend customers in their most lucrative markets.This means that colonial nostalgia and cultural erasure is the norm across the industry, and what passes as activism typically consists of astroturfing and whitewashing on behalf of brands.

Concerns from the Caribbean are occasionally raised, however it is always from small groups with little reach beyond a single island, so they are unable to sustain any discussion on topics of concern. Black Tot Day offers an opportunity to reclaim the conversation around rum, and highlight how colonial nostalgia seems to be the norm in the industry.

This is an open letter that encourages rum enthusiasts to rethink three points about Black Tot Day from a different perspective could initiate some much needed change;

The Rum Bonds

A major element of Black Tot Day is celebrating the legacy of the British Rum Bonds, warehouses where rum from the various Caribbean colonies was shipped to and stored.

These Rum Bonds were established by slave traders using wealth generated by the forced labour of enslaved people. Their purpose was to allow these slave traders to control the supply of commodities created in the colonies so that they could continue to exert economic control over these colonies well into the future. They were part of a system that according to the CARICOM Reparations Commission, was designed to “extract maximum value from the region and to enable maximum wealth accumulation in Europe”, and they bear some responsibility for the region entering its “nation building phase as a technologically and scientifically ill-equipped- backward space within the postmodern world economy.”

Across the formerly and currently colonized world, discussion on issues like reparations, and the return of stolen wealth becomes more common. The rum bonds in Amsterdam and London that were built by slave traders are still considered to be among the most powerful institutions in the global rum and sugarcane industry. They are a symbol of wealth stolen from the Caribbean, and an example of how a European institution built on slavery still manages to have significant control over the sugarcane industry even today.

Is it not time for the rum world to examine these institutions with some honesty?

The Royal Navy

Another part of Black Tot Day is celebrating the traditions of the Royal Navy, typically by drinking rum, or making cocktails that honour their long association with rum. The history of the relationship between the Royal Navy and rum is not as romantic as the rum community makes it out to be. The Royal Navy aided the East India Company in destroying the local economies of China and India, leading to unprecedented poverty in those regions, and creating the conditions where Asians could be coerced into Indentured servitude. This indentureship system allowed the owners and financiers of the British Rum Bonds to continue building their wealth on free labour after the Emancipation of slavery.

During the struggle for worker’s rights during the 1930s, the British Navy was routinely deployed against sugarcane workers protesting for better working conditions. Historian Jerome Teelucksingh describes “the menacing presence of British Naval Squadrons” as the lynchpin of “state suppression of the working class” during these anti-colonial struggles. In different eras, and across the British Commonwealth, the Royal Navy has been a military group that was used to oppress workers in the sugarcane industry.

Whitewashing and Dark Money

The years leading up to 2020 saw increased discussion on issues like reparatory justice from the governments of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, and a growing reluctance in the Caribbean to celebrate imperial institutions like the Royal Family. Even in the weeks before Black Tot Day in 2020, the statues of two slave traders associated with the British Rum Bonds were removed from where they stood at two British port cities both built on profits from Caribbean sugar and rum.

Despite these developments, the fiftieth anniversary of Black Tot Day went ahead with no mention of the context in which the institutions being celebrated are increasingly being perceived in the Caribbean. The event concluded with an official after-party at a highly acclaimed London bar, popular with the rum community. Nobody involved raised any concerns that an event celebrating two different elements of Imperialism concluded with a party held on the anniversary of the day that slaves became legally free in the British Caribbean.

While there has been a rise within the rum community of prominent bartenders and brand ambassadors talking about social justice issues, their focus remains on issues relevant to the American and British cocktail community, and not to the Caribbean. This is further compounded by their refusal to criticize brand owners that extend favours to them or fund their events. It is an open secret in the rum community that prominent bartenders, brand ambassadors and bloggers actively use their platforms to launder the reputation of controversial companies, and protect them from criticism.

At an event held in 2018 called The Rum Tasting of the Century, the owner of Black Tot Rum claimed that rum distilled in Barbados in 1753 was not made by enslaved people. The co-host of The Rum Tasting of the Century was the owner of an Italian rum company called Velier. The owner of Velier has similarly made controversial remarks about slavery, including a post where he implied that being asked to wear a mask was the equivalent of being forced into chattel slavery.

Many prominent figures in the rum community who speak about issues like cultural appropriation, colonialism, and community spirit enjoy close relationships with Black Tot Rum and Velier. Not only have they never criticized the owners for their nonchalant attitudes towards the legacy of slavery in the Caribbean, and colonial nostalgia; they have actively protected them from criticism in the past.

This is not a call to cancel Black Tot Day, and the issues of colonial nostalgia and whitewashing are not unique to a single day, but rather it seems to be entrenched in the culture of the global rum community. This is simply an attempt to put forward a Caribbean perspective on Black Tot Day and to encourage the rum community to think differently.