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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Rum

Do pirates sing about it? Is a mutual love of piña coladas and getting caught in the rain really the key to romance? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Rum! Why did sailors have such a hard-on for it, and what’s with the occasional H? Let’s pop open some rum facts and myths.

Lie #1: Pirates Used to Roll About Singing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum!”

Some sailors may have sung it at some point, but not before the publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in 1883. The book, set in the mid-1700s, features pirates singing it on several occasions, and as with anything that becomes a phenomenon, it bled into real life a bit. It became part of the cultural image of what a sailor (or pirate) was, kind of like in Jarhead when they all sing along to the music from Apocalypse Now, or like when people wear the logo of reckless criminal The Punisher when committing crimes

The full words aren’t given by Stevenson, although lots of later writers expanded on the parts he did offer up, producing their own interpretations. “Yo ho ho,” which doesn’t mean anything, became part of pirate lore, and the actor Robert Newton’s performance in the 1950 adaptation of the book solidified the public idea of the “pirate voice.” 

As for the dead man’s chest, Stevenson lifted the name from another book, Charles Kingsley’s 1871 At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies, which mentioned an island by that name in the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. The island, now known as Dead Chest Island, is tiny and uninhabited, visited for snorkeling by people staying on the fancy resort on Peter Island. There are stories, probably apocryphal, of Blackbeard killing a bunch of his men there, just being a bastard for being-a-bastard’s sake. Oddly there is another Dead Man’s Chest 100 or so miles away, Isla Caja De Muertos, off the Puerto Rican coast near Ponce. 

The sea, eh? Full of death! Death death death death death! Yo ho ho!

Lie #2: You’ve Spelled It Wrong, You Drunken Idiot

You sometimes see drinks labeled as rhum, a mysterious H popping up from seemingly nowhere. It’s one of those things where all rhums are rums, but only some rums are rhums. While most rums are made from fermented molasses, they don’t have to be, and those produced from fresh pressed sugar cane juice get the extra letter (it’s short for the French term rhum agricole). Then there’s ron, a Spanish word for a molasses-based variation that tends to be lighter than other ones. Oh, and cachaça, made from sugar cane in Brazil, but it’s an ongoing source of debate as to whether it’s a subcategory of rum or just its own thing. It’s confusing

Rhums mostly come out of Martinique, Haiti and Guadeloupe; rons from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama; rums from Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago; and cachaça from Brazil. They’re all sugar-based, come in both light and dark varieties and are usually aged in oak barrels. They also make you real good at dancing for a while and then going to sleep somewhere you shouldn’t.

Lie #3: “Sippin’ on Coke and Rum / I’m Like, So What, I’m Drunk / It’s the Freakin’ Weekend, Baby, I’m About to Have Me Some Fun”

Whatever day it is, R. Kelly is probably not actually about to have very much fun, as he is currently incarcerated at Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago, awaiting trial on 18 federal counts including child pornography, kidnapping and forced labor. He’s a real piece of shit, and deserves an entirely crap weekend. A more accurate lyric would be, “Sippin’ on prison-issue water / I’m like, so what, I don’t feel very good about myself but frankly don’t deserve to / I expect either my trial in New York in April or my trial in New York in September will result in a pretty lengthy prison sentence, I’m in loads of trouble, what a turd I am.” 

Bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce.

Lie #4: Sailors Just Couldn’t Get Enough Friggin’ Rum!

Sailors and rum are completely entwined, partly for fairly bleak reasons — the whole fun “get in that crow’s nest, ye scurvy cur” kind of thing unfortunately coincides with an era of inhuman cruelty. The sailor-rum connection came out of the Caribbean sugar trade, which went hand-in-hand with the slave trade

And while sailors undoubtedly enjoyed their rum, it was part of the job. Sailors drinking rum was like office workers having a lunch break — an enjoyable part of the day, sure, but just something you got on with, not something that would make anyone burst into cheery song.

From 1655, sailors in Britain’s Royal Navy were given a daily “tot” of rum — first half a pint, then eventually one-eighth of an imperial pint of 95.5 proof (54.6 percent ABV) stuff, at noon. Originally it was to drink when the beer they normally drank instead of water (because the water they had was so shitty) ran out, but sometimes sailors would get, y’know, all drunk on it. In 1740, Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon came up with a mixture of one part rum to four parts water, flavored with lemon juice and brown sugar, intended to stave off scurvy without getting everyone completely shitfaced. However, enterprising sailors came up with the idea of saving their allocation up for a week or so and fully fuckin’ shit up

Unbelievably, the daily rum tot continued until 1970. By that point, very few people eligible for it actually drank it — they had computers to invent and nuclear missiles to threaten people with, and a tot, even a smaller one, put a person over the drunk-driving limit and seemed like maybe it wasn’t a great idea at noon. It was tradition and no more by this point, but taking it away still upset people. On July 31, 1970, which became known as Black Tot Day, sailors wore black armbands and staged mock funerals, throwing rum barrels into the sea, condemned by the modern world to either do their jobs while not drunk or do their jobs drunk having paid for the booze themselves. Either way, dreadful.

Lie #5: The Piña Colada Song Has a Happy Ending

“Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes is a yacht-rock classic. It’s a song that aims musically for “pleasant enough” and lands bang on target. There is no recognized musical genre called affablecore, but if there were, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” would be mentioned several times when defining it. Also, despite sounding like the guy singing it would be wearing no socks with a white suit jacket, sleeves rolled up, worn over a hot pink T-shirt, in that kind of, “Yeah I own a saxophone” look certain types of white people couldn’t get enough of in the 1970s and 1980s, Rupert Holmes had more of a sleazy normcore thing going on, a sort of office-manager-with-an-uncontrollable-boner vibe

The story is told from the perspective of a man bored of his relationship who finds himself looking at the small ads in a newspaper — the proto-Craigslist “connections wanted” kind of listings — and likes the sound of one. He responds with his own ad arranging to meet up, and when he walks in — what do you know? — it’s his girlfriend. What a happy twist ending! The pair of them laugh it off, having discovered new things about each other, and a jolly time is had.

Except it wouldn’t be a jolly time, would it? Your relationship is so fucked you both want to cheat on each other — not in a hip, modern, “Let’s open this up but respect each other’s boundaries” kind of way, but an old-fashioned, “I’m going to lie to you then go to a bar where there’s a stranger who I’m fairly certain I can bang” way. Would you laugh that off? If you both betray each other’s trust, do the two betrayals cancel each other out? Or does it just make it abundantly clear that the relationship you’re in is a sham, a sad charade, something you both remain in out of mutual cowardice and sloth? 

Those people shouldn’t be together, and given their cheerfulness about lying to those close to them (and given the lack of mention of taking any precautions on their planned stranger hookup, potentially endangering them), maybe neither of them should be with anyone. Dreadful, cowardly liars who deserve to be alone.

P.S.: A piña colada generally has rum in it, that’s why this is here, thanks.