“The only way to drink a tot [navy rum] is to swallow it whole, grimace, and sit down to appreciate the glow which spreads from the stomach and engenders that wonderful feeling of peace and bohomie”
– Nelson’s Blood by James Pack.
Where would rum be if not for sailors? Moreover, where would sailors be if not for rum? A seaman’s love of a spirituous tot is well documented a full century before rum even became a common name. Today we still use the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’ to describe any alcohol fueled confidence boost. A phrase derived during the English navy’s support of the Dutch battle for independence circa 1570. Back then however it was genever (early gin) and not rum which charged the hearts of fighting men. But while an old Dutch saying stated that “a sailors best working compass was a glass completely full of genever”, for the English navy man it was all about rum.
Global seafaring tradition has been heavily influenced by the practices established by the British Navy but few can compete with the relationship betwixt a sailor and his grog. Prior to Columbus discovering the West Indies in 1492, sailors all over the world were commonly offered a daily ration of alcohol – beer, brandy, genever, arrack or wine – for services to their country or captain. For the young English navy, there was little need of fortified spirits aboard their ships until Columbus opened the way to the Age of Discovery. Prior to 1492, European vessels journeyed little further than the Mediterranean Sea or North Africa. Over the next hundred years, Europeans had rounded the Cape to Good Hope into the trade rich waters of the Indian Ocean, discovered the Pacific and completed their first circumnavigation of the world. A world which was getting very small and very competitive. By the beginning of the 1600’s Spain had a firm hold on the West Indies, establishing a profitable colony largely due to cane plantations on the islands of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and Dominican Republic), Cuba and Jamaica. For their staunchly protestant rival England, who was,already heavily invested in competing with Dutch for control of the East Indies, they equally couldn’t allow to leave control of the West Indies uncontested. So they did what the English did best and started a war.
To throw the first punch, King Charles II of England appointed one of the most influential commanders in British naval history. General at Sea Robert Blake, remembered as the ‘Father of the Royal Navy’, had developed a weak national fleet of 10 unequipped warships into an armada of more than 100; and re-establishing England’s naval supremacy in Europe. Blake was a legend, but more so for us readers, because in 1650 he was the first to officially issue a fortified spirit to Royal Navy sailors replacing their daily gallon ration of beer with that of French brandy. Beer – more accurately ale – had been provided to English navy sailors since the 15th century, but like all ale it was prone to spoil during long periods at sea. It was known however that an ale with a higher level of alcohol and increased hop content took longer to spoil [the reason IPA was first created] but even so, time was not on their side. With engagements outside of Europe requiring increasing periods of time at sea, the men were becoming disgruntled. In 1588, The Lord High Admiral Charles Howard noted “nothing doth displease the seaman so as to sour beer”. Blake knew this too and by temporarily instigating a ration of brandy to his fleet, was able to save precious space aboard ship and ensure the men’s ration never spoiled – in fact it generally got better.
But it was the foolish actions of one of Blake’s protégées five years later which resulted in a navy tradition that would last for 300 years. The man’s name was Admiral William Penn and the place was Jamaica.
In a bold quest to establish a foothold in the West Indies and usurp Spanish influence further in the region, the Admiralty sent Admiral William Penn and a fleet of 38 Man-of-War battleships holding 300 soldiers on a quest to claim the Spanish held island of Hispaniola for England. After a series of poor decisions and even poorer leadership, Penn ceased his siege of Hispaniola and instead captured the easier prize of Santiago to the south which became renamed Jamaica after the local name word Xaymaca meaning ‘rich in springs’. Penn’s move in Jamaica – however insubordinate – came with sugar plantations aplenty and a locally distilled drink known as aguardente de cana – ‘sugar cane spirit’. With his beer rations already well spent and no doubt taking a lesson from Blake, Penn chose to utilise the plentiful local cane spirit to replenish his sailors spent rations. A simple choice but one which would eventually see rum established as a key part of a British sailors daily rations. Penn meanwhile returned to England only to be chucked in the Tower of London for disobeying orders. It was short lived and once released he was soon promoted, knighted and memorialised by his son who established the colony and modern American state of Pennsylvania in his name. Accolades worthy of the man who had given us both Jamaica and rum. But there would be one final impact from Penn’s invasion of Jamaica which still shapes our romantic impression of rum today – pirates.
With the unforeseen island of Jamaica now in their holding, England had no initial plans for the colonial development seeing it as little more than a disease infested rock. To deter any potential threat of Spanish reprisal they encouraged English pirates – aka Privateers – to settle in the island capital of Port Royal (prior to the earthquake of 1692, Port Royal was an island) where they were paid a large percentage for any Spanish ships they raided in the area. Infamous figures such as the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan were essential to this plan. Morgan was arguably the most successful pirate to have ever lived. With the help of a base at Port Royal, generous commissions to freely raid enemy shipping and almost unlimited stocks of cane spirit, Morgan and his raiding fleets managed to singlehandedly keep the Spanish from monopolising the Caribbean during the 1600’s. Morgan’s exploits also laid the foundation for the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730) and modern-day antiheroes such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Anne Bonny, Black Bart and many more. The Caribbean of the 16th and 17th centuries was a true Wild West frontier where life was cheap and each day was a battle to survive. In such an environment the fine line between pirate and navy sailor could be simply defined by who you shared your tot with.
By the start of the 18th century rum was well established in the life of every Caribbean sailor, and with it an almost endemic alcoholic lifestyle. An English Captain visiting at the time stated;
“I really do not think it an exaggeration to say that one-third of every ship’s company were more or less intoxicated, or at least muddled and half stupefied, every morning”.
Despite such widespread debauchery, regulating the rationing of fortified spirits aboard Royal Navy ships would not be brought in until almost 8 decades after Penn took Jamaica. In 1731, the Admiralty issued Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea; the first official document to attempt to control spirits, and their effects, aboard vessels of the Royal Navy. In it was the first definition of the correct volume of a sailors daily alcoholic ration, stating “It is observed that a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack, hold provision to a gallon of beer”. Prior to this document it was the choice of the vessels captain to select the drink and quantity to distribute to his men. For anyone operating in or near the West Indies that meant rum, as it was easily the cheapest spirit available – something equally reflected in its taste.
Outside of the Caribbean, geography dictated the sailors’ tot. Near the British Isles it largely remained ale. For most Mediterranean ports it was wine and brandy, while trips to the far-flung Indian Ocean offered little except arrack. Of wines, sailors had access to a wide variety of sweetened and fortified Madeira, Rosolio or Mistela (aka ‘Miss Taylor’). By the mid to late 18th century, wine and beer increasingly became mere substitutes for the growing popularity of rum. And with a booming Triangle Trade between the Caribbean, American Colonies and Slave markets of Africa, plantations were thriving. Thanks to rum being made predominantly from a bi-product of sugar production – molasses – the spirit could be found in almost any port that traded in sugar. However, the Royal Navy were never without their connections to French wine merchants and a personal supply of Brandy for the officers.
During the 18th century the English Navy were the largest in the world and as such constantly competed to remain so. Most prized of all was their firm foothold in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India, a perilous return journey of as much as three years running a gauntlet of storms, tropical disease, scurvy and competing nations. When so far from home a ship and its captain had to rely heavily on trade and cunning to ensure that their crew never went dry. As Captain William Bligh of the Bounty found out in 1789, a dry crew was an unhappy crew. During Captain James Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific in 1772, he had his crew make a form of spruce beer from ingredients collected at the Cape of Good Hope. The beer itself could be mixed with a sailor’s rum tot to create a popular Newfoundland drink called Calibogus. When in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Cook – like so many before him – relied on the ample supply of arrack from Asia to sustain his crew’s ration until much later when rum distilleries were eventually established in Bengal and Australia.
Despite harsh retribution meted out aboard ship for acts of insubordination or dereliction of duty, Royal Navy sailors were still well known for their drunken, disorderly behaviour. And who could blame them? In a world fraught with danger, disease, harsh punishment and even harsher working conditions, rum was often the only reprieve. As described by famous 18th century writer Samuel Johnson;
“Being in a ship is being in jail with a chance of being drowned. A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company”.
A final act to forever cement the role of rum in the Royal Navy, came about in 1740 by way of a gum-stiffened coat. Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon was – among other things – well known for his silk, wool and mohair gum-stiffened grogram coat to which his men affectionately referred to him as ‘Old Grog’. In an effort to maintain control amid a commonly intoxicated Royal Navy, Vernon issued Order No. 394. Addressed to all Royal Navy Captains the order stated that a sailors rum allowance “…be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water [around 1.13 litres] to a half pint of rum, to be mixed in a scuttled butt [dispensing barrel] kept for that purpose, and to be done upon the deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum.” It continued to state that, “Good husband men [gentry] may from the saving of their salt provisions and bread, purchase sugar and limes to make it more palatable”. Today we call this a ‘Daiquiri’, more than 60 years before we would even know the word cocktail.
The call to ‘up spirits’ would take place twice a day between 10am-12pm and 4pm-6pm to avoid binge drinking. This practice became known as ‘drinking at the tub’ from the twice daily ritual for all seamen to draw their grog from the scuttled butt or ‘grog tub’. The term ‘groggy’ also enters into the English language soon afterwards to describe the effects this mixture had on those of weak disposition. Despite the extra effort and time needed to action the twice daily call to up spirits, reports of drunken behavior across Admiralty fleets were noticeably diminished.
Even before Order No. 394, Vernon was well regarded not just in the eyes of the Admiralty but also in the eyes of the men under his command. While a strict disciplinarian, Vice Admiral Vernon was renowned for caring more for his mens well-being than was common for senior officers at the time. Not unlike Admiral Penn, Vernon is also remembered in name by Mount Vernon which stands on George Washington’s family estate in Virginia, so named after his elder half-brother served under Vernon’s early command.
Vernon’s rum ritual necessitated new roles and responsibilities regarding the procurement and dispensing of the grog. Few of which were more important than that of the Purser (aka ‘Pusser’) who oversaw the purchase and dispensing of rum at the correct volume and alcoholic level. With all rum purchased at harbor arriving with overproof alcohol levels, the Pusser’s most difficult task was the correct dilution of each purchased cask for rationing. Because of this responsibility, the Pusser was a man on which all the crew depended. A man of either respect or abject disdain depending on his ability to keep the crew on the right side of sobriety to avoid reprimand from superiors, while equally allowing the crew to get as close to completely bladdered as possible to avoid a midnight visit of seaman’s justice. Until the Sykes Hydrometer was invented in 1818, the only tool a Pusser had to accurately determine a spirits alcohol-by-volume, was gunpowder and a light.
The term ‘proof’ is still used on many bottles of liquor sold in Canada and the United States today to define the level of alcohol inside. A term said to be credited to the English Royal Arsenal who devised a means of mixing rum with gunpowder to prove a spirit was alcoholic enough for purchase and correct taxation. As the Pusser, it was his task to dilute the tot to the correct levels for dispensing. If done just right, the powder would ignite and fizz out. Too little water and the Pusser could be blown to bits. Too much and the crew would revolt against the Pusser, beating him to a pulp for diluting their grog. A tough posting to say the least. With the introduction of the Hydrometer, the old fashioned technique of proving a spirit was no longer needed and the majority of the world began referring to any alcoholic liquid in ‘% ABV’ (percentage alcohol-by-volume). Canadian and United States law also requires that all spirit labels show the percentage of alcohol-by-volume but equally allow the use of a level of proof if wished. The reason many distillers elect to include the addition of proof is merely with regard to marketing. What was known for the first time with the invention of the Hydrometer was the average level of alcohol in standard navy rum, a level that the Admiralty set at no higher than 99.24 proof or 50.76% ABV. The reason today that % ABV is exactly half that of proof.
By the mid 18th century, both the English and American Naval Fleets were well and truly in bed with rum. And with half a pint of 51% ABV rum still being distributed a day to Navy recruits, who wouldn’t want to be sailor? But with two World Wars still to be fought and the Deptford Victualing yard yet to create the famous Admiralty Blend, rum was not yet finished with the navy man…
[Click to Read – Part 2: Dog’s, Tankies, Scuttlebutts and Fanny-Cups]
- Nelsons Blood: The Story of Naval Rum by Capt James Pack OBE RN – 1996
- Pusser’s Rum – Official Website
- Robert Blake Admiral and General at Sea: Based on family and state papers by William Hepworth Dixon, Barry Gough – 2000
- The Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler – 2009
Explorers by Desmond Wilcox – 1975 (Google Books)
- The Safeguard of the Sea: A naval history of Britain, Volume one by N. A. M. Rodger – 1997
- Hops and Glory: One man’s search for the beer that built the British Empire by Pete Brown, 2010
- The British Seaman 1200-1860: A Social Survey By Christopher Lloyd – 1970 (Google Books)
- Caroline’s Miscellany – Random Bits of History: Royal Victoria Victualling Yard – Blog