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Rum, Advertising, and Representation

The Role of Rum in the Culture of Martinique

Sugar cane and rum are not only products which sustain the economy of Martinique – they are parts of our culture. Whether old or young, everyone is familiar with the famous distilleries of the island: JM, La Mauny, HSE, Saint James, and Trois-Rivières, whose rums are synonymous with our holidays and whose bottles decorate our homes all year long.

These bottles can be heavily decorated with pictures of Creole women wearing the traditional costume, or just feature the name of the distillery or plantation home with the date of its creation, such as the famous blue bottle reading “Trois-Rivières, since 1660.”

Highlighting the year of the distillery’s creation right under its name is proof of the owners’ pride in their product’s longevity. This also aims at impressing and attracting the potential buyer and consumer. 1660 is a display of confidence.

However, thinking fondly about such a remote date while savouring a “ti-punch” (a Caribbean cocktail made from rum, lime, and cane sugar) is ultimately both foolish and ignorant. But why?

The slave trade was institutionalized and perpetrated for four centuries, exclusively for capitalist-induced benefits. White capitalist slavers, whose descendants are now also known as “békés,” used to possess (and still possess) the land fit for agriculture and the means of production, while abusing the black women, men, and children who were producing cane, sugar, and rum. The pride held by all these rum houses is misplaced.

Maybe the producers take it lightly; “it’s just history,” “it’s just a marketing strategy.” But that marketing strategy is disrespectful towards our ancestors who were enslaved.

“Since 1660” stresses the long-lasting success that Trois-Rivières rum has granted capitalist exploiters, when that success is only due to the labour of enslaved peoples. I, therefore, accuse the Trois-Rivières rum of merit appropriation and embellishment of their success.
“1660” is a decoy. The brief label does not make clear what 1660 implies: natives being exterminated, devastating colonialism, and a slave trade which enabled the production of sugarcane while only benefitting the slavers.

Trois-Rivières rum also bears the specific attractiveness of the vast culture it is part of: exoticism. The latter is an issue in many regards. Of course, it deals with the imperialistic, demeaning, and paternalistic gaze the white man casts on the West Indies. This idea, coupled with the benefits of capitalism, shapes colonialism. The word “exotic” implies a different civilization – one that is foreign but also inferior. The colonizer’s culture is seen as dominant, with the colonizer refusing to view the “exotic” as equal. After observing the Arawaks and other native people from the Caribbean, the colonizers could well have used the word “exotic” to refer to them, right before eradicating them. This adjective has also been used to qualify black men and women from the Caribbean in order to sexualize them in an unhealthy and immoral way.

In other words, framing the Caribbean as “exotic” is a way to erase a dark history of slavery and colonization, and to distort its people; once more a means implemented by white men (from the Caribbean or abroad) to close their eyes in order to feel comfortable, thus ignoring a certain reality and exonerating themselves.

The above-mentioned thoughts open a debate on reparations which to this day has had no conclusion, but whose answer lies, in my opinion, on the more complex debate of a socialist revolution.

A limit must be imposed to my criticism: indeed, ever since the beginning of the 20th century, Trois-Rivières rum is no longer owned by the békés or by another Martinican owner, but belongs to European companies (the French Chevrillon and more recently the Italian Campari). Hence, with this change of ownership, we might no longer accuse them entirely of negligence. Maybe they do not have the cultural background to give the people the pride we deserve. But we can’t help but notice the depletion of our heritage and the loss of our identity and we can question the legitimacy of foreign companies to own our rum.