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Q&A with Frederick Smith: Caribbean rum

Frederick Smith, assistant professor of anthropology at the College, recently published Carribean Rum: A Social and Economic History, a book about the political and economic impact of rum in the region. Recently he answered the following questions, posed by Kathleen Bragdon, professor of anthropology, for the W&M News. —Ed.

Q: What is Caribbean Rum about?

Smith: My new book, Caribbean Rum, is a political-economic study of Caribbean rum that draws on archaeological, documentary, ethnographic, linguistic and physical anthropological evidence. It seeks to understand the reasons why rum making emerged where and when it did, as well as understand the reasons why people in the region drank (or chose not to drink).

Q: Why does the topic of rum and rum production interest an archaeologist?

During my many years of archaeological research in the Caribbean and North America, I was surprised to find that archaeological evidence of alcohol production, distribution and consumption was widespread on archaeological sites, and yet few historical archaeologists had looked at alcohol’s impact on society and its potential for shedding new light on the forces shaping the development of the modern world. Cultural anthropologists, on the other hand, were quick to discern the scholarly potential of alcohol studies and explore the complexities of drinking. They examined alcohol’s role in anxiety, identity, sociability, respectability, power relations, deviancy, trade, religion and a number of other cultural processes. The historical archaeological and historical anthropological study of rum in the Caribbean provides new evidence that will expand our understanding of the role of alcohol in society. I hope to use my research on rum to expand the field of historical archaeology and contribute new insights that will inform the work other alcohol studies researchers in the social sciences, humanities, and health fields.
Caribbean Rum book cover
Q: Why did people drink?

Smith: I’ve taken the idea of anxieties in the Caribbean, including loneliness and boredom, and I’ve looked at different social classes, such as white planter groups, poor whites and African slaves and native Americans. I basically argue that different groups drank for different reasons, but all those reasons boil down to anxieties that they experienced. For instance, planters drank primarily because 90 percent of the population would have been happy to have them gone. I looked at the reasons slaves drank; their anxieties related to the challenges of slavery and difficulty of life on the plantations. I talk about how slaves who were born in the area didn’t drink as much as planters and other groups because they had less self-destructive ways of coping. Part of that has to do with family structures. African slaves, on the other hand, had a reputation for heavy drinking. They had no family structures. Poor whites were the heaviest drinkers because they were in a subliminal position within society with no prospects for upward mobility.

Planters tended to drink expensive, imported wines; slaves and poor whites tended to drink rum, which was cheap and readily available. The Carib indians incorporated rum into traditional ceremonies. Even in the Caribbean today, wealthy whites in Barbados tend to drink gin, because they see themselves as British, whereas middle class people in Barbados tend to drink local beer. Poor people tend to drink cheap varieties of rum.

Drinking always is two sides of the same coin. On the one hand alcohol has a secular context: people drink and get drunk and act poorly. On the other hand, alcohol also is a vehicle to spiritual connection. In the same way that rum was touted as an elixir of life; it also was tainted with lead, so it led to illness. There are all these binary oppositions that I seek to explore.

Q. You work collaboratively with a number of scholars from other disciplines. How has that helped your research?
Smith: I have worked closely with Caribbean historians because I believe that one must have an in-depth understanding the historiography of a region in order to know the questions to ask of the archaeological record. My understanding of the history of Barbados, and its prominent place in the British colonial world, has strengthened my research and provided the context for my work on rum.

Q: You work with local archaeologists and students in the Caribbean. Why is this important?

Smith: Many North American historical archaeologists have used the Caribbean to fulfill their personal academic and professional interests without ever giving back to the communities in which they work. I believe that my primary responsibility is to the people of Barbados who have given me the opportunity to do my research in their country. Working with Barbadian students, and publishing my research in the Journal of the Barbados Museum is one of the ways I give back to the community that has given me so much support. Moreover, by training Barbadian students to do historical archaeology, Barbadians can direct the focus of archaeological research in their country and explore issues of primary interest to them.

Q: What are your research interests, and how do they fit with the department’s program?

Smith: My research interests are in the historical archaeology of the Caribbean. I see historical archaeology as part of the department’s broader emphasis on historical anthropology, a theoretically-informed field of study that uses multiple lines of inquiry to understand the historical processes that have shaped the direction of the modern world. In particular, I am interested in elucidating the social, political, and economic role of alcohol in the Caribbean.

A department is only as strong as the sum of its faculty, and I plan to use my research program to enhance the department’s reputation in historical archaeology and historical anthropology. Since 1995, I have conducted historical archaeological investigations in Barbados and developed a distinctive approach that explores the history and culture of Barbados and its role in shaping the broader Atlantic world. As a historical archaeologist, I will carry on the department’s long tradition of training undergraduate and graduate students in the historical archaeology of the Caribbean that was started by my predecessor, Dr. Norman Barka, three decades ago. My research program embraces a comparative colonial perspective that seeks to understand the daily lives and material conditions of disenfranchised social groups in the 17th-century Barbados. This comparative colonial approach in historical archaeology complements the work of my former mentor, and now colleague, Dr. Marley Brown, whose reputation for archaeological research in the British colonial Chesapeake is unrivaled.

My research seeks to break down sub-disciplinary boundaries in anthropology and forge links with colleagues in cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and linguistics. My research involves a critical reading of documentary materials, which has been greatly influenced by the training I received from Dr. Kathleen Bragdon. My research expands the department’s strengths in African diaspora studies. For example, my recent study of two Afro-Barbadian slave cemeteries sheds new light on the lives of enslaved peoples in the urban context of Bridgetown and, thus, complements the research of Dr. Michael Blakey. My focus on commodity-based studies and my emphasis on political economy also complement the work of a number of colleagues in cultural anthropology.

Q: What is up next in your research program?

Smith: I am currently working on a second book called Escaping the British Atlantic World: The Historical Archaeology of Alcohol and Drinking in Barbados and the Chesapeake. The book expands on my recently released book Caribbean Rum by showing more specifically how archaeology contributes to our understanding of alcohol-based sociability. Along with my colleagues at the University of the West Indies and the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, I plan to expand my work on urban life in colonial Bridgetown. I am also investigating a rural plantation site in the southeastern part of Barbados for its insights into slave resistance and marronage in early 17th-century Barbados.

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