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The Vicious Triangle


Before the spate of English, French and Spanish wars that flashed regularly between the 1700s and the 1800s, the British Navy served a daily tot of French brandy to its crews. Once the wars started in earnest, however, brandy was forsaken for West Indian rum. The British West Indian islands produced both the raw material and the finished product and exported both to the American colonies to the north.

Sugarcane

As we all know, the British Acts of Trade that taxed the American colonies to protect homeland interests was one spark that ignited the American Revolution. And, in spite of our attempts to remake our founding fathers into puritanical saints, they weren’t. In the 1760s there were over 60 rum distilleries in Massachusetts alone that had to be fed molasses by the ton. One of the Acts of Trade was called the New Molasses Act of 1765. It imposed a punitive tax on any molasses imported from French, Danish or Dutch islands. This kept the British molasses prices artificially high, which made the colonial rum distillers unable to compete with the finished product coming up from the British islands.

Here’s where the plot thickens. The infamous Vicious Triangle was the shipping circuit between New England, the West African slave trading ports, the rum-soaked Caribbean and back up to New England. From New England, the ships carried rum and miscellaneous cargo to the slave traders in the west-central areas of West Africa. There, they loaded slaves and began the “middle passage” to the West Indies where those Africans that managed to live through the ordeal were traded for molasses and rum.

But the Danish government made it illegal for Virgin Islands cane producers to sell molasses or rum to any company other than the Danish West India Company. This kept the price of Virgin Islands products artificially low while the British were forbidding the colonies to buy from anyone but British interests, thus keeping rum and molasses prices artificially high in the colonies. This is the perfect scenario for a thriving smuggling industry. Because of this state of affairs, the tiny Dutch island of St. Eustatius (Statia) became, for a time, a major transshipping point in the Caribbean. Holland declared Statia a free port. Molasses and rum were bringing twice the price paid by the Danish West India Company, and when smuggled into the northern colonies, the cost was half of what the taxed British product commanded. Fort Fredrik in Fredriksted was built specifically to stop the leakage of Cruzan rum and molasses to Statia and the other free ports.

Boatloads of Virgin Island product were shipped illegally to Statia to get the better price. In 1779 alone, at the height of the American Revolution, 3,500 ships dropped the hook in Statia to unload slaves, barrel staves, hoops and salt fish. They loaded up with molasses to smuggle into New England where they loaded and cleared once again for West Africa. One of the most notorious smugglers and slave traders of the time was ship owner John Hancock whose flowery signature is a famous detail on the American Declaration of Independence.

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