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A Slave to the Drink... (no kidding)

Tom Standage's book, "A History of the World in Six Glasses" is simply magnificent... and it has led me to throw a great little curve-ball into my upcoming history, food, and drink tour of France in May. Buckle up, for this section is a doozy...

To recap, concerning the evolution of drink in the Western world, beer was the catalyst for people becoming civilized and living in one area that they could farm together. That alone could arguably be the most important change of course in human civilization.

Wine was next to enter the stage, becoming the new favorite. It's complexity and variety became a mark of distinction and distinguished people from one another. We still do it today - or go to a great restaurant and ask for a glass of white zinfandel and watch your waiter's face! This highly sought after liquid was responsible for Greece's rise to power and influence over the Western world.

Spirits then emerged, as Arabic technology and influences led to further distillation of wine - creating a much stronger substance and one that wouldn't spoil with such a high alcohol content. This aqua vitae (water of life) took on many names: "alcohol" - which came from the Arabic word for distillation (originally "alcohol of wine"), "whisky" - from the Gaelic word for the Latin, aqua vitae, and "brandy" - taken from the German word for burnt (distilled) wine, Branntwein.

But here's where it gets really ugly and fascinating... These distilled drinks took hold in the Western world, just as European explorers were opening up the world's sea routes. The Portugese led this charge, exploring the west coast of Africa and the Atlantic islands. These islands, including one named Madeira (surely you've had this after a fine-dining meal), were ideal for producing sugar - which was another Arab introduction.

Sugarcane, however, required enormous amounts of water and manpower. The Arabs used several water conservation techniques, but they also used African slaves. Europeans captured many of these Arab sugar plantations during the Crusades, and went from kidnapping slaves from their West African trading posts to buying them, in return for goods, from African slave traders ("slavers").

Europe hadn't seen slavery since Roman times, in part for religious reasons. A Christian couldn't enslave another Christian. With slaves, two sneaky arguments for slavery emerged: taking an African into slavery could "rescue" them from Islam and expose them to Christianity. The other argument was that blacks weren't to be considered fully human, and thus incapable of becoming Christian, and therefore could be enslaved as property.

The use of slaves in the Atlantic islands kept slavery out of view from mainland Europe. This quickly gave the islands incredible influence and furthered the push for discovery of more. As Standage states, "By 1500 the introduction of slaves had turned Madeira into the largest exporter of sugar in the world, with several mills and two thousand slaves."

Columbus discovered the islands of the Caribbean (named the "West Indies" as they were initially seeking a westerly passage to the East Indies) in 1492. Despite the lack of gold, spices, and silk they were seeking (blocked and controlled by Arabs, who sat astride these valuable trade routes from India), Columbus realized that these islands were ideal for sugar production.

Initially, these European entrepreneurs tried to enslave the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and the South American mainland. These native American peoples couldn't resist the Old-World diseases however, and thus the great stain of slavery grew like wildfire as healthy, disease-resistant African labor was needed.

Over the course of the next four hundred years, around eleven million slaves were transported to the New World from Africa... And before further finger pointing be made at Whitey, get this:

"As many as half the slaves captured in the African interior died on the way to the coast..." (pp. 104)

African slavers loved the business... accepting a wide range of products in exchange for their harvests of humans. Textiles, metal bowls, and sheets of copper were big items, but the biggest of them all was the one thing fueling the trade the most: strong alcoholic drink. African alcoholic drinks like palm wine, mead, and beer simply didn't have the punch of the strong stuff. And the Africans craved it...

"In 1510 the Portugese traveler Valentim Fernandes wrote that the Wolofs, a people from the Senegal region, 'are drunkards who derive great pleasure from our wine.'"

While wine was popular enough, brandy was king. It was stronger, didn't take up as much space in a ship, and didn't spoil with its high alcohol content. It became the most prestigious drink among slavers, and the historical documents are full of admonishments and provisions to slake the African slave traders thirst with ample brandy before negotiating for the sale of those poor souls of their own race. Skin color meant nothing, such was the appetite for the stuff...

Next to emerge on the scene, which I'll write about later? A new drink, made from the waste products of the sugar production process itself... Any guesses?

What spirit is synonymous with the Caribbean?


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