A Brief History of Drunken British Sailors

Until July 31, 1970, bracingly strong overproof rum was a vital part of the fabric of the British Navy—rationed, used as a currency, and a veritable way of life.

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Aug 18 2016, 6:00pm

Foto von Wikimedia Commons via Flickr

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.

Imagine downing half a pint of overproof rum and then going back to work. Now, let's imagine work happened to be on the decks of a vast 18th-century Royal Navy ship. We're talking old-school sea stuff here: complex knots, gunpowder kegs, canon balls, climbing up rigging, etc.

Feel a little woozy, eh? All thumbs, perhaps?

Well, folks, this is no fantasy. Until July 31, 1970, bracingly strong overproof rum was a vital part of the fabric of the British Navy—rationed, used as a currency, and a veritable way of life.

"The daily tot"—or rum ration—was an eagerly anticipated daily ritual for generations of sailors, serving both to boost morale and provide a stern alcoholic kick to the chops, a comfort to sailors used to dodging cannonballs, grapeshot, and the lash.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

But why rum? While the cliche of the drunken sailor—staggering on the docks after a night of hell-raising in some seamy fleshpot—is deeply ingrained in the national subconscious, it bears mentioning that rum was not always the Naval drink of choice. Until the Napoleonic Wars, sailors were given a staggering gallon of beer per day, per man, instead of water. Soaring temperatures below deck—in the stinking bowels of the hold—saw that water, encased as it was in rotting oak barrels, would quickly become covered in a thick layer of green mould. This led to stronger brews being developed that could withhold the rigours of longer journeys; but they too were prone to rot, and so a stronger solution was sought.

In the 17th century, the men were given French brandy; later, sailors from the East India Company adopted a fearsome Indian spirit called arak. However, this came to be mistrusted by sailors, due to its unpredictable—and often violently sickening—effects. Gareth Oliver describes the devastating effect in his Oxford Companion to Beer:

"Madeira, Beer and Wine were imported from England by the Captains of the ships—the East India Men—but were originally available in small quantities at steep prices. Instead, many favoured the local alternative. Arak was, by any standards, a hardcore liquor. The local version was made by fermenting raw palm juice in the hot sun …that was it. Several of the first Englishmen to try it died after a 12-hour session and it went onto claim countless lives."

Rum, meanwhile, had the advantage of being both easily available from the Caribbean colonies and a more stable drink. By 1731, it was the drink of choice for the Navy and was issued twice daily to the men—neat overproof rum—in half pints. Indeed the very term "overproof"has its origins in this period; sailors would test the purity of rum by dousing gunpowder in the spirit and setting it on fire, thus "proving"that the drink was of sufficient strength (i.e., 57 percent alcohol by volume).

You gotta be sure it's pure, right?

The rum ration itself came with its own ritual attached. Issued between 11 AM and noon, sailors would shout, "Stand fast for the Holy Ghost." Each battalion would have an assigned "rum bosun" (or boatswain) whose job it would be to spoon out the rum. The glasses themselves were never washed, as it was believed that the accumulative effect of the residue would provide a progressively stronger tot.

But although rum was massively popular among the sailors, there were attendant problems—namely, drunkenness and ill discipline. After all, we're talking vast quantities of strong spirits consumed twice daily, often in full glare of the baking sun.

How to combat this? How to pacify men who were, by now, all but genetically programmed to quaff huge drafts of spirits, twice daily, on the clock?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A chap called Admiral Vernon—commander in chief of the West Indies Station—thought he had the answer: Water it down a bit! As you might imagine, this was not the most popular of policies among the swarthy seadogs, but it was one he felt to be absolutely necessary. On August 21, 1740, he issued his infamous Order No. 349 to captains, stating:

"[The rum should] be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to a half pint of rum, to be mixed in a scuttled butt 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 ... and let those that are good husband men receive extra lime juice and sugar that it be made more palatable to them."

Vernon was alarmed by what he saw as wanton drunkenness on board, and his decree was specifically designed to stop what he described as"the pernicious custom of the seaman drinking their allowance of rum in drams, and often at once, attended with many fatal effects to their morals as well as their health ... besides the ill consequences of stupefying their rational qualities."

Whether this was effective in combating drunkenness is debatable. After all, the men would still be getting the full half pint of rum, just with a little water added. Crafty sailors could still simply save up their rations and down them in one go, in an almighty binge.

The thwacking great dose of booze was still relatively pure, bar the sugar and lime juice. The latter, incidentally, was not just for show—it was used to ward off scurvy. (It's also the origin of the term "limey" to describe an Englishman.) Popular or not, the resulting mixture—overproof rum, water, sugar and lime juice—was nicknamed "grog" by sailors (reportedly the result of Admiral Vernon's wearing of a grogram cloak). The gloriously named "scuttled butt" listed in Vernon's decree was soon issued to all Naval ships, rechristened the "grog tub," while "splice the mainbrace" was (and remains) the order a captain can give to issue all hands a drink.

Rum was more than mere drink on board, however. It was also used as informal currency. The system was worked out according to how much of another sailors tot you took: a "wet" was the equivalent of covering your lips with rum, but not actually swallowing any of the liquid; a "sipper"was a small sip; a "gulper" was one large swallow. The most prized of all was the dubiously named "sandy bottoms,"or drinking the entirety of another man's tot—a rare privilege used to settle debts.

And so, until 1971, rum remained part of the very fabric of sailing life, though not in such foolhardy quantities. The tot itself was reduced twice from its original mighty half pint. In 1823, it was cut to a quarter pint; it was cut once more to an eighth of a pint in 1850, where it remained until 1970. Known as "Black Tot Day," July 31, 1970 was the last day that the Royal Navy were rationed a tot of rum. It was a day of serious mourning.

On December 17, 1969 The Admirality Board wrote to the House of Commons, stating, "The Admiralty Board concludes that the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual's tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people's lives may depend."

Thus the ration was consigned to history. Sailors wore black armbands for the poor lost spirit; some held a funeral for their tots, pouring them into the sea in ceremonial burial. A vital part of British boozing history was consigned to the briny deep forever.

Splice the mainbrace!