Newswise — She may prefer coffee when chatting about her doctoral thesis, but Emily Burton's research interests concern a much stiffer drink: rum.

"The study of alcohol is like a window," explains the Dalhousie Universitry history student. "It's a lens through which you can gain a greater understanding of how a society operates. I want to give rum an identity in our history."

Her thesis will explore the rise of rum in the region from the early 18th century through to around 1830. By all accounts, rum dominated the alcohol economy in Atlantic Canada, arriving through port cities and flowing freely in tippling houses, grog shops, coffee houses and pubs. Ms. Burton is interested in exploring why the sugarcane-based beverage played such a major role in the region and how it affected cultural and social practices.

"Rum is a contradictory commodity," she explains. "It was part of a system of coercion in which masters controlled servants in the fishery, but it also represented an escape for servants from the harshness of their everyday lives. In addition, the trade in rum was part of an Atlantic world in which it was thought that commerce had a 'civilizing' influence and yet rum, as a by-product of sugar, was also implicated in slavery. Exploring the contradictions presented by rum allows for the exploration of the contradictions in eighteenth-century society."

Ms. Burton, who was born in Peru and who taught Spanish at Dalhousie in the late 1990s, recently received a research fellowship from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to travel to New York later this year. There, she will explore the personal archives of Joshua Mauger, a merchant who came to Nova Scotia in the late 1740s who supplied rum to the Royal Navy. "He was invested in land, timber and many other ventures," says Ms. Burton. "But it was importing rum that was among his most significant ventures, and he actually opened a distillery in Halifax, which was rare for the northeastern British America at the time."

She also received a J.R. Smallwood Foundation Research Award, which she's used to carry out research in Newfoundland. She was recently there looking at newspaper advertisements for rum and other alcohol in the early 19th century. Along with newspapers and personal archives, her sources for her thesis will include government proclamations, court records and travel literature. She expects to conclude her research and commence writing by next May.

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