History and Culture

Rum from Saint-Pierre before 1902

DISTILLERIES AND RUM PRODUCTION IN SAINT-PIERRE UNTIL 1902 For the Pierrotins of the time, knowing which distilleries are active and where they are located is obvious. However, a century later, giving an exact number of distilleries to Saint-Pierre, in and out of the city, proved to be very difficult, to locate them on a map is even more difficult. There is indeed a table published by the Moniteur de la Martinique for September 9, 1898. However, this document from the Tax Department, which draws up a report of the distillers working in the colony on September 1, 1898 proves to be imprecise and incomplete. On the one hand, the owners of sugar factories are not counted there. For example, we know that Guérin et Cie, owners of the Rivière-Blanche plant in Saint-Pierre, have a central plant (which produces sugar) and a distillery, an establishment which produces rum, on the same site.

However, they are not on the said list. In addition, this report indicates the names and surnames of the distillers, the situation and the category of distilleries (agricultural or industrial). Now, if there is no doubt as to the commune where the production unit is established, the dwelling “, that is to say, the address, the exact place where the distillery is located. is not always clearly indicated. For example, Mr. Foucaud Ferdinand owns an industrial distillery “in town”. If we refer to the other distilleries, located “in town”, such as those of Knight & fils elder, Lasserre or Dupouy and Cie, well known, we can suppose that this distillery was in the district of the Mooring. We could not locate the distillery Clanis Gaston at the military bridge, or even some industrial distilleries in the area such as Chatenay Aristide Saint-Val Coipel. By crossing several sources, we see that the same distillery can be called by its name or by that of its owner (and this owner can change), or that of the district, or of the place where it is located. All these inaccuracies allow us only to have an overview of the major rum production areas in Saint-Pierre. Inside the town of Saint-Pierre, two areas specialize in the rum industry, near the seaside, and include the majority of industrial distilleries: the Galère and the Mooring.


The Fort district, the oldest in the city of Saint-Pierre, is a very popular residential area. Paradoxically, it is also the largest industrial center in the city by the number of (industrial) distilleries that are installed there: eleven distilleries in total are listed there. They are all located below, on the coastal fringe which extends from the Place du Fort towards the Rivière des Pères at a place called La Galère, with the exception of Clanis Gaston who would be on the banks of the Roxelane River. At the end of the XIX th century, Dumoret in his book “In the land of sugar” gives us a description: “After the market, we follow the Galley, the aptly named, long, oh how long and its sunny, dusty path, which in a few years will be more pleasant when the trees that the administration has planted there will have grown and will give a bit of shade. It is bordered on one side by the strike, on the other by the rhummeries, then the slaughterhouse, then more rhummeries until the end of this interminable street, beyond, it is the Pères river, which separates Saint-Pierre from the Coré Fund. It is on the edge of this river where there is almost never water, or so little than nothing. “


In 1902, to open a distillery, it was not enough to have more or less capital and land to build it. The best location requires proximity to a large water supply, rail or sea transport for the supply of raw materials and the transportation of rum. The installation and opening of a distillery, as well as the circulation and sale of rum are very much regulated by legislation, namely: the organic ordinance of February 9, 1827, modified by that of August 22, 1833. the decrees of August 2, 1870, February 10 and August 27, 1886 concerning dangerous, unhealthy and inconvenient establishments.

It is the governor of Martinique who, after an investigation of commodo and inconvenience (in order to establish the advantages and disadvantages of this industry), issues a decree authorizing the installation of a distillery. This decree is published in the Official Journal (JOM) and the Official Bulletin of the colony (BOM). The owner must also, before starting work, comply with the prescriptions of articles 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the decree of March 17, 1885 concerning the rights on spirits.


In the XVII th century, the manufacture of tafia is for the sugar refinery a production which makes it possible to use the molasses resulting from the manufacture of sugar. As of the end of the XVIII th century, the demand taking importance, certain dwellings begin to produce agricultural rum reserved for the local consumption. In the 19th century, when, in its last quarter, fifteen industrial rum factories set up in the city of Saint-Pierre, the local production of molasses was no longer enough to supply them. Saint-Pierre must therefore import molasses, first from Guadeloupe, then from the British West Indies (Trinidad, Barbados, Dominica) and from Demerara (British Guiana).

To supply molasses to the flourishing industrial rum industry in Saint-Pierre, an important coasting trade is carried out by schooners and “big wood”. These same boats are used to transport to Saint-Pierre the production of rum from distilleries on the North Atlantic coast and the Caribbean coast, making Place Bertin, the largest open-air warehouse of rum conditioned in oak barrels. The harbor and Place Bertin offer the spectacle of a swarm of activities around the loading of the barrels of molasses and rum, which was carried out by the arms of men. They highlighted two corporations well described by the writers: that of the dockers loading the gabares and that of the gabariers commuting between the coast and the ships anchored offshore. The latter leave, once filled, for major metropolitan ports such as Bordeaux, alone receiving half of the rum production.

Upon arrival in France, the bottled Saint-Pierre rum, decorated with a label, is then marketed by major trading houses.

The city of Saint-Pierre has become the world capital of rum: thanks to its own production, but also to the intense commercial activity of its port of embarkation where transit and redistributed most of the molasses and rums intended for export . Thus, in the minds of people from outside and in particular of the metropolis, the rum, stamped by the customs of the city, comes from Saint-Pierre, even if it is produced in another commune of Martinique. In addition, this rum is renowned for quality and the world reputation of the city rum is not usurped. All local rums benefit and therefore play on this image. Another factor contributes to identifying Martinique rum in Saint-Pierre: at the time, with a few exceptions, rum is packaged in Martinique in barrels and wooden barrels, more convenient to transport and cheaper than bottles. Bottling was then done in France, like labeling, under the control of importers and traders in spirits. Bottles and labels were not made in Martinique. And, most trademark and label filings were made in Bordeaux or at the registry of the civil court of Saint-Pierre.

The best means used to transport rum to the mainland is for more than a century, the oak barrel. Often coming from Hamlen in the USA, the casks are assembled in each distillery by the cooper who holds an important place in the hierarchy of small trades. The barrel is then filled with rum and weighed before being transported by cart or embarked on schooners or canoes, bound for Place Bertin in Saint-Pierre. Each barrel to be identified, a stencil specific to each distillery or house is used to do this, which, heated with a hot iron, leaves a mark in black ink on both sides of the barrel. This same logotype deposited at the national institute of industrial researches, will be used, in particular at the end of the XIXth century, in color, or in the form of labels on the cases and bottles of rum. For a long time it was the only image of rum on the quays of major ports. This brand, of variable size often includes the word rum or rhummerie, on a regular basis, the name of the city of Saint-Pierre, sometimes followed by Martinique. In a circle or triangle (mason symbol used by traders belonging to one of the Pierrotine lodges), it bears in the middle the initials used to identify the producer, decorated with heads of black men or women, rays of the sun , stars, crosses or horseshoes. We find, for example, R.M for the mooring rhummeries. Symbol of power and influence, officially published in the “industrial and commercial property bulletin”, they were used until the end of the 1940s by distilleries, which notified them on bills of lading and on certain invoices.

After bottling the rum, the trader must label his bottles. On this last operation, so modest, it appears, depends the success of the rum. True promotion tool, we see developing around the rum label, a whole art reproduced in series, facilitated by the use of lithography. From 1850, catalogs of printers offered models from which traders could draw inspiration: Haberer, Douain, Plouviez, Jouneau, Wetteewald, left their mark on this art which had almost a century and a half of letters from nobility in the middle of alcohol. It is not uncommon to find the same label with different rum appellations, or the same character or landscape available in several versions. Tropicalized landscape, exotic plants, vigorous black men, ecclesiastics, corsairs, pirates, mermaids, … and especially images of West Indian women, mixed race, smiling and a bit naughty are affixed on the bottles to seduce the consumer, incite him to dream , and force him to buy. The landscape of Saint-Pierre is used by many illustrators, the same landscape can also be declined in several versions. Three strong elements of the landscape are included on the labels The volcano dominating the city The city that stretches at its feet Its harbor full of sailboats and merchant ships

If most of these illustrators have never come to Martinique, they have nonetheless made Saint-Pierre one of their favorite theme, marked by its dynamic commercial and rum activity, and later by the scale of the catastrophe.

From 1850, due to illnesses affecting vineyards and reducing wine production, traders in major French ports, large importers of tropical products, decided to offer rum as a substitute alcohol. They import in mass and become manufacturers. To attract the consumer, they try to raise or marry the flavors, using more or less “limiting” processes to accommodate them. Old amber rum, reminiscent of grape alcohol aged in barrels, having the most rib, is the most sold. To do this, we add to white rum to “calm”, crumbs of toast, prunes, grapes, tea, wood shavings, caramel; even fresh meat to give it softness and sweetness. This deception in coupages was practiced for many years before a law was imposed. To name the rum, the traders not having, as for the wine, neither soil or castle of reference, two names will then be essential on the market: – Jamaica which offered, from the beginning of the 19th century, a famous rum. – Martinique, exporter of more than half of the rum in France.

For more than a century: these islands are mentioned at one level or another on the bottles. The town of Saint-Pierre, with which the merchants have commercial or family ties, the largest exporting port in the Lesser Antilles, will become the benchmark town for label designations. In the archives of the National Institute of Industrial Property (I N.P I), where in 1859 a certain Bouchaudy deposited the first brand of rum from Jamaica, many bear the name of Saint-Pierre. The eruption of Mount Pelée, a catastrophe that has a global impact, will also be a boon for label printers in search of inspiration, and eager to get their rum through, as the only survivor of the martyred city. They are inspired by the numerous postcards published or photos of the newspapers. The volcano in all its forms is then used: on fire, with lava flows, extinct overhanging a deserted harbor, or adorned with its needle. Fire from the volcano and “fire from the rum”: the combination of the two could only be more attractive for the metropolitan consumer, eager for warmth in winter.

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