I saw Negrita, for the first time, in 2018, on a shelf in Barcelona where I presumed, she had always been. Her name emblazoned on the bottle, “Negrita rhum” was not shy about the history fermenting inside of her. Inviting me in, the rum’s branding alone caught my eye before the full story made itself apparent. Slender and dark, her bottle was brown, blue, red, and yellow. Negrita, the rum’s namesake was indisputably black — her face, a familiar one. When I looked at her, then, I thought for a second that I recognized myself in her image. There I was, a black girl staring at a cooler and mistaking the darkness for my own reflection, mistaking myself for Negrita. But I am not Negrita. I cannot be. Negrita is not a girl so much as she is an amalgamation of colonial ingredients. She is a history of black girlhood distilled by time and brutality. And thus, the story of Negrita does not begin with a girl in an aisle. The story of Negrita starts with a man.
In 1857, a young Frenchman and liqueurs producer by the name of Paul Bardinet set out to break into the rum business in Limoges. At the time, the sugar industry had been lining European pockets and coating teeth since the early 17th century. Throwing his hat into the ring, Bardinet began exploring the science of rum-making. An inheritor of a family tradition that merged the economic and the alcoholic, Bardinet soon gravitated toward the wonders of taffia. Taffia, a crude rum made from the juice of sugar cane, is best known for being unaged and unmoored. An advent of colonial creativity, the drink was made possible by the West Indies and its enslaved people. Due to its youth and low cost, taffia, to this day, remains something of a commoner’s luxury. A sweetness accessible to any tongue. Taming its raw spirit using oak casks, Bardinet’s first attempts to create the rum were born to meticulous experimentation; liquor blended and reconstrued to create the perfect taste.
For the first few years, Bardinet’s rum took off in France and Spain as a nameless sensation. Its early advertisements featured images of a young Caribbean girl with madras ribbons in her hair and no name in her possession. Trademarked in 1886, she was officially named before her image was ever finalized. Naming his creation for another’s, Bardinet christened his sweet rum, “Negrita.” A Spanish diminutive for those who are both Black and female, “negrita” served to name a body by sex and color. It is a gesture of linguistic playfulness, granting femininity to its subject only to indicate them for further imposition. As the world knew well in 1886, Spain’s former colonies were filled with so-called “negritas,” formerly enslaved African women and their descendants. Yet, so too, could be said of the French Caribbean. Surely, Bardinet knew words in his mother tongue to describe his enslaved inspiration. Perhaps, he went to say “négresse,” tried to speak her into existence in his native language and choked. What sweet dissonance comes of a lodged throat, or of a French slave with a Spanish name.
In addition to nomenclature, Negrita was also given visual life by her creator. Her many marketed faces, all brown and always beautiful, earned her the continued attention of European consumers. To contend with the aesthetic tastes of such a consumer base, Negrita changed her face many times. In fact, it was not until the late 1880s that her likeness would be refined permanently. Reimagined by French illustrator Max Camis, this new Negrita was animated through the side profile of a young Black woman. Accessorized with a blue and white striped headscarf, gold hoop earrings, and a thick red necklace, she appears in this infamous design as a decorated beauty. A pretty spectacle for an audience with whom she cannot make eye contact. Throughout France, this version of Negrita, a face with no body, remains one of the oldest images in the country’s advertising history.
Descriptions of Negrita’s contents read like eerie poetry. “The rich full body of the West Indies unites with the fragrant aroma of the East to create a softer, smoother rum… the matchless Rhum Negrita,” an American ad reads. Dismembered for the purposes of portraiture, it is not without significance that Negrita is a caricature born to the “full body” of the Caribbean. Without arms or legs, her image still carries its legacy on her back. Said to be blended with the rums of Martinique and the Isle de la Réunion, Negrita is shaped by a history she was named to disavow. She is a specter of the French slave trade’s Atlantic and Pacific sins. She is a lesson in what it means to only exist from the neck up. As of today, Negrita is colloquially known as the “friendly” Caribbean rum. She is “distinctly aromatic” and unrepentantly sweet. She is to be “sprinkled on crêpes” for consumption. According to Marion Divaret, Negrita rum’s international brand manager, the French drink roughly 2.7 million liters of her each year. In 2013, the company broke its million-case barrier after a series of global successes selling rum across Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The last time I saw Negrita on a shelf, I stopped to take a picture to remember her by. At that moment, I could not bring myself to buy a bottle, even just to bring her home with me, even in the name of sisterhood. Still, at times, it feels as though she came home with me anyway, jumped into my hand, and popped her top, put herself to my lips, and forced entry, knocked out my front teeth on her way to my taste buds. In my dreams, she is bittersweet like memory. Her name, I now know, was both a reminder and a caution. Do not be fooled. The licorice colored rum that filled her bottle was my second clue. This was no tribute. Not all monuments are honors. Some artifacts are best kept chilled. History rots teeth too.