When Jamaican mother Vie moved to the UK in the 1960s, she developed a talent for baking. Using a Jamaican recipe, she made the most flavoursome and fruitful rum cakes you could find. Fed over a series of months, with a white Jamaican overproof rum, they were a labour of love which, after she sadly passed away in 2018, her daughter Elaine continues today, launching Vie’s Jamaican Rum Cakes. Winner of the British Business Bank Start-Up of the Year 2020/21, her cake company is not just a successful start-up. It stands to continue the legacy both of Vie and her ancestors before her, educating the humble snacker on the history of the rum trade.
So where does the International Slavery Museum (ISM) come in? Back in May 2020 we released the article Sweet or Slavery? written by the museum’s Curator of Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Emily Smith. It looked at the rise in home baking during lockdown and the link between sugar, cocoa and coffee and modern slavery forced labour practices. It was on reading this article that Elaine discovered the museum. Now, having visited a number of times, she shares her thoughts on ISM, and asks the critical question, “Where is the Rum?”
What are your memories of your mother’s rum cakes?
There was always a huge tub of dried fruit soaking in all different types of alcohol at home so that whenever my mum felt like baking a cake (which was pretty often!) they were there, ready to be blended in, by hand, with the other ingredients in her recipe. My job consisted of licking cake mix off the wooden spoons! Needless to say, wonderful smells of cakes baking often filled our house. I don’t think my mum even knew how amazing her cakes tasted as she didn’t eat them! I’m not sure if that was because she was teetotal or for another reason but I don’t have any memories of her eating the cakes she made.
What was your response to ISM when you visited?
My reaction to the exhibition caught me by surprise as I wasn’t expecting to experience such an intensity of emotions: I remember having tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat and just being speechless after being exposed (again) to how the enslaved Africans who were sent to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations were treated. It took quite a while for my emotions to subside after that.
The middle section of ISM, The Enslavement and the Middle Passage gallery, left me feeling even heavier than previous exhibitions on slavery I’d visited. The gallery looks at how enslaved Africans were taken to work on plantations in the Americas. I also think my emotions were heightened due to the scale of the museum, I was exposed to more information in different forms and spent more time there.
However, as I walked around, it became apparent to me that there was practically no mention of rum. The sugar plantations were very present and other commodities that originate from slavery such as tobacco and indigo were mentioned. But not rum. I remembered there was no mention of rum in the “Sweet or Slavery?” article either. These observations left me feeling quite perplexed, wanting to understand why this was and eager to see if it was possible for the ISM to bring some rum into the mix.
The last section of the ISM was more uplifting as it focused on the positive legacy that came out of the slavery era, so this gave me a bit of a boost. However, once again, I couldn’t see any mention of how the existing sugar plantations had evolved and how they were contributing to today’s society.
By the way, I think it’s brilliant that entry to the ISM is free as it makes this important organisation inclusive and accessible to all.
Can you provide a short outline on how the slave trade is connected to Rum? What would you most like people to know?
During the time of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (between 1500 and 1800), the British and other Europeans took millions of Africans by force and shipped them off to the Caribbean, in horrendous conditions. Millions of these enslaved Africans died in what is known as the ‘Middle Passage’. The ones who survived ended up working the plantations, again in horrendous conditions, whilst the slave owners grew rich from trade that depended on this system. Rum formed part of the ‘Triangular Trade’ together with slaves and sugar. I would like people to simply become more aware of the historical links between slavery and rum out of respect for the memory of the slaves who built the rum industry.
How did you learn about the history of the rum trade?
The information I’ve gleaned has come from a few sources. This includes The Rum Story, a visitor attraction and museum in Whitehaven, Cumbria. Located in an original 1785 trading shop and warehouses, it presents the story of the rum trade and the creation of rum.
I’ve followed Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners a BBC 2 programme by the British historian David Olusoga.
I also learnt about the shared heritage which indelibly links Jamaica and Cumbria in place names. Names such as Westmoreland, Kendal, Carlisle Bay and Cumberland in Cumbria are mirrored in Jamaica indicating the travel between areas.
What is your aim with Vie’s Jamaican Rum Cakes with regards to the slave trade and how do you achieve this?
I see Vie’s Jamaican Rum Cakes as a means to turn loss into legacy. I hope that people will realise that the cakes are not just special because of my personal history (linked to my mum who was a descendent of slaves and whose ancestors worked the island’s sugar cane fields) but also because of our common British history (linked to slavery): both bitter-sweet tales…
This is the reason why I have started to explore collaborative opportunities with rum experts, who know so much more than me about the links between rum and slavery, and organisations like The Rum Story and ISM. It's also why I’ve chosen to focus the values of Vie’s Jamaican Rum Cakes on the three elements Remember, Honour and Celebrate. Let us never forget the enslaved Africans who paved the way for us to enjoy rum in so many different ways today, powering the plantations and ultimately paying the price for future generation to live in freedom.
How does it make you feel to produce these cakes whilst sharing this message?
It makes me feel like I’m on a bit of a mission, not as a forceful activist but as a simple educator and the first person I’m educating is myself. I feel honoured to be contributing to something that has meaning, purpose and relevance.
What would you say to someone who maybe doesn’t think a food product and such a heavy topic can go together?
This is another dimension of traceability in food which encourages us to think about the origins of what we consume every day, where our food comes from and how it’s affecting society today. But it also shares a positive message that with time, it is possible for something bitter to be transformed into something sweet.
You can find out more about ISM here.
You can follow Vie's Jamaican Rum Cakes here.
Photo credit: Victoria Sedgwick