Charleston has had a love affair with rum since the 17th century, albeit a torrid romance appropriated on the backs of slave labor. The drink was crafted from distilled byproducts of sugarcane manufacturing and quenched the thirst of generations of upper class Charles Towne citizens—the city would play a huge role in rum becoming the most important drink in North American courtesy of the Barbados-Charles Towne trade. Last night Middleton Place Plantation recalled this history with a Rum Stroll featuring St. Nicholas Abbey rum, one of Barbados' oldest continually operating sugar plantations dating back 350 years.
Warren Cobb, director of marketing and public relations for the Middleton Place Foundation, provided the following insight into St. Nicholas' ties to Charleston...
Sometime around 1659 to 1660, Benjamin Berringer (who likely immigrated to Barbados from Buckinghamshire, England in 1634) entered into a business deal with John Yeamans, a Barbados planter who had emigrated from Bristol, England around 1650. The two men soon became at odds, and legend has it Yeamans, who was carrying on a romantic affair with Berringer’s wife, arranged for Berringer to be poisoned. In the aftermath of Berringer’s death, Yeamans married Berringer’s widow, Margaret, and gained control of what was then called Berringer Plantation. Working with the Lords Proprietors (eight English noblemen who struck a deal with King Charles II to colonize Carolina), Yeamans came to Charles Town around 1670, along with Margaret and some of their children, to help develop the colony. By 1672, Yeamans was appointed Governor of Charles Town and given a land grant of around 48,000 acres in what is now Hanahan, S.C. (Yeamans’s plantation centered on today’s Yeamans Hall Country Club). Within two years, Yeamans fell out of favor with the Lords Proprietors, and more importantly, the colonists of Charles Town, who accused Yeamans of putting export profits above the well-being of the populace. He and Margaret returned to Barbados in April 1674, and Yeamans died there in August. Berringer Plantation would eventually be passed down through several generations, and was re-named Nicholas Plantation. Ownership of the Nicholas sugar plantation was bought and sold several times until purchased by the Cave Family in 1833, where it remained until 2006. It is believed the Cave Family combined the phrases “Nicholas Plantation,” “St. Peters Parish,” and “Bath Abbey” into St. Nicholas Abbey. Today, the plantation house at St. Nicholas is one of only three 17th century Jacobean-style houses remaining in British North America. St. Nicholas Abbey is open to the public year-round and is a model of historic preservation and interpretation.
According to Middleton vice-president of museums Tracey Todd, "Rum was the backbone of liquid consumption in Charleston in the 18th century. Only poor whites and slaves drank straight water. Even children drank a little rum in their water."
Now, while there were a few children present for the Stroll last night, their folks directed them away from the spirit samples and over to the cookie table. I, on the other hand, headed directly to the Planters' Punch. Gazing across the butterfly lakes, sipping the golden demon water (ahem, this was no Captain Morgan) I couldn't help but think of the long succession of Middleton family members—Henry who built the house; Arthur, signer of the Declaration of Independence; Williams, signer of South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession—all enjoying their family's corporate headquarters with a rum drink in hand. It didn't hurt that the image was made all the more realistic thanks to my friends Ron (Middleton's blacksmith) and Anne (Middleton Place historical interpreter) Videau nearby dressed in historically accurate Colonial garb. Incidentally my husband, a former Middleton Place employee, told me that many years ago the butterfly ponds were drained for repair and at the bottom was discovered all manner of 18th-century flotsom—rum and Champagne bottles included. Makes one suspect the Middletons knew how to throw a party.
Guests of the Stroll wandered the gardens through a light mist of rain, enjoying the temporarily cool evening. And from the vantage point overlooking the former rice fields, it was easy to see how one could become mesmerized by the luxury of plantation living, what with the enourmous amount of wealth before you. Of course, that wealth was purchased at a price, a human one. And while sipping rum is a classically Charleston diversion, best we not get lost in some romantic nostalgia of the drink, lest we forget the Barbados-Charles Towne trade and those who toiled in the sugarcane fields to provide our forefathers, those thirsty Colonialists, with each sweet sip.
Middleton hopes to offer another Rum Stroll later this year; visit middletonplace.org to find out more.