National Rum Day

National Rum Day

15th August 2016

August 16th is #NationalRumDay in the United States. Ellie Jones has delved into the Library and Archive for rum-related inspiration and found:

Robert Dossie “An essay on spirituous liquors, with regard to their effects on health; in which the comparative wholesomeness of rum and brandy are particularly considered” (London, 1770). [Exeter Cathedral Library, Exeter Medical Library Tracts, EML/TRA/30]

In a 50 page essay, published in 1770, chemist and writer Robert Dossie presents his study on the relative benefits of the consumption of rum and brandy - always finding in favour of rum. He goes into some detail describing the effects of consumption of the liquors on the human body, referencing widely observable manifestations such as changes to the skin, appetite and nervous disorders affecting limb mobility, but also and the supposed effects on the humours, and medical observation from dissections, especially of the liver. His arguments covered three main areas:

“what the qualities are which do mischief to the human constitution…that these qualities subsist in a higher degree in some liquors than others…what those kinds are, and in what particulars their depravity lies.”

Dossie had had some training as an apothecary, but in common with many of his contemporaries, he wrote and published widely on diverse subjects including the sciences (especially chemistry), as well as agriculture and the arts. He was clearly very much concerned by the subject at hand, and put that training and learning into effect, warning us that:

“The custom of drinking Spirituous Liquors is now so prevalent, that the consideration of their effects on health, in order to a right choice and proper use of them, is become a matter of very great consequence. – The difficulty of the subject, as it requires a peculiar knowledge in chemistry, phisiology, and pathognomonic observation, has, nevertheless, discouraged attempts to give the public such a system of the principles and relative fats, as might communicate just and demonstrative notions of it. – From this want of sufficient lights for understanding the nature of Spirituous Liquors, and judging of the comparative goodness of the several kinds, many errors have taken rise with respect to them: some of which have, by design or accident, been so widely propagated, as to be detrimental to a great number of people, by leading them to prefer the less wholesome, or bad kinds of these liquors to the good.”

To his credit, he was an advocate for the wide dissemination of information for public benefit, and took pains to present his findings in plain language knowledge for he considered it:

“…conducive to the public good, that such an explanation and just view of the relative facts and principles should be given, as would elucidate the truth respecting the salubrious or pernicious qualities of Spirituous Liquors, or their several kinds; and prevent the future, as well as remove the present impositions, in a matter pregnant with so much harm both to particulars and the community. – I have thence, on the total neglect of such an attempt by others, been induced to take this task upon myself: and I hope to offer such valid reasons for what I advance, as may afford conviction to every candid reader, who will bestow a moderate attention on them.”

The study was confined to brandy and rum as ‘simple’ spirits, and specifically excluded the Geneva [from the Dutch genever, but better known to us as gin] “which is very much drunk among the lower people”, because of the variable nature of the various added herbal ingredients. As well as the concerns for people’s health in selecting their liquor, he also explains the possible consequences to the national purse in favouring the imported French brandies over home and colonially-produced rums:

“Among these errors, respecting the choice of Spirituous Liquors, there is one of very momentous consequence, which has gained much ground of late; and, if not checked, will, in all probability, become still more general. It is the believing BRANDY to be a more wholesome distilled spirit than RUM. This false notion has got possession of the minds of many people: though it is not a clear point, whether it owed its origin to a real mistake, or was artfully broached to promote the selfish and sinister views of some designing persons in trade. For it has, indeed, been asserted lately in the public papers, that the French, who are much interested in establishing a preference for Brandy to Rum with us, have engaged some practitioners in medicine to lend their venal aid, in giving credit to the unjust pretension of a reason for such preference…”.

So, while drinking in moderation is definitely to be recommended, and Exeter Cathedral Library cannot really vouch for the veracity of all the claims - and we haven’t yet checked the Library collections for any counter arguments from the pro-brandy faction - Dossie nonetheless was firm in his belief that:

“There is not the least foundation, nevertheless, for the belief, that Brandy is superior to Rum in any of their qualities which can affect health: on the contrary, it is evident, from the clearest proofs, which subjects of this nature can admit of, that the drinking Rum in moderation is more salutary, and in excess much less hurtful, than the drinking Brandy.”.


Ellie Jones, Cathedral Archivist
August 2016

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