“It hath been a constant observation, that in long cruizes or distant voyages, the scurvy is never seen whilst the small-beer holds out, at a full allowance; but that when it is all expended, that ailment soon appears.”
“It were therefore to be wished, that this most wholesome beverage could be renewed at sea; but our ships afford not sufficient convenience.”
“The Russians however make a shift to prepare on board, as well as at land, a liquor of a middle quality between wort and small-beer, in the following manner.”
“They take ground-malt and rye-meal in a certain proportion, which they knead into small loaves, and bake in the oven. These they occasionally infuse in a proper quantity of warm water …”
“… which begins so soon to ferment, that in the space of twenty-four hours their brewage is completed, in the production of a small, brisk, and acidulous liquor, they call quas, palatable to themselves, and not disagreeable to the taste of strangers.” (Captain Cook)
Beer had been the staple beverage of the Royal Navy until the 17th Century, used as a self-preserving replacement for water, which became undrinkable when kept in casks for long periods. (Colls; BBC)
Beer and ale were preferred for drinking since all kept better than fresh water, which spoiled and turned slimy in its storage casks. (Rupp; National Geographic)
But as the horizons of the British Empire expanded, the sheer bulk of beer – the ration for which was a gallon (eight pints or 4.5 liters) per day per seaman – and its liability to go sour in warmer climates, made it impractical to take on long voyages.
Wine and spirits started to take its place and when in 1655, with the capture of Jamaica from Spain, the navy was introduced to rum. (Colls; BBC)
From that point onwards, the regular supply of high-quality rum from that island as well as from other English-ruled Caribbean territories meant that the shamefully unpatriotic habit of handing out French brandy to English sailors could be dropped.
The official adoption of rum by the Royal Navy in 1731 was thus the logical choice: it gave a helping hand to the colonial lobby in the Caribbean and it also fired a pleasing broadside at the old Gallic enemy.
At first the daily standard issue was half a pint of overproof (ie very strong) spirits. Needless to say, this was quite a potent dose, especially when consumed swiftly and on an empty stomach. (Ferguson)
A big reason that the Royal Navy encouraged the rum ration was related to scurvy – an ailment that was common to sailors, who didn’t get much fresh produce that contained Vitamin C.
Don’t get confused, though: Rum doesn’t naturally contain Vitamin C in any meaningful quantity. However, it goes well with lime juice, which ships carried and gave out to sailors daily.
In 1740, concerned by the drunkenness of sailors who received half a pint of rum per day, Admiral Sir Edward Vernon declared that the rum should be mixed with water, writes Harry Sword for Vice. To that mix was added the daily dose of lime and some sugar – although the connection between citrus and scurvy wasn’t formalized for more than 50 years.
Being a sailor was tedious – when it wasn’t terrifying … “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned,” British humorist Samuel Johnson wrote in the latter half of the 1700s.
Like many funny people, Johnson had a talent for overstatement, but it was true that sailing was hard work. At sea for up to months at a time, doing backbreaking work in a highly disciplined environment where punishments like flogging could be meted out, sailing was no day at the beach.
“There was no system of imprisonment, or financial penalty,” writes Andrew Lambert for BBC, “although the rum ration could be stopped.” At the same time, Britain spent much of the 1700s and 1800s at war, where chance of injury and death was relatively high.
The demands of such a life helped to make the rum ration “a vital part of the fabric of the Royal Navy–rationed, used as a currency, and a veritable way of life,” Sword writes. (Eschner; Smithsonian)
Sailors would check their rum had not been watered down by pouring it onto gunpowder and setting light to it, from where the term “proof” originates. By volume, 57.15% alcohol has been calculated as the minimum required for it to pass the test.
For hundreds of years, Royal Navy seamen queued up in galleys from the poles to the tropics to receive their regulation lunchtime tot of rum (then name for the navy alcohol ration).
But the tradition was ended. On July 31, 1970, known in the navy as Black Tot Day, the sun passed over the yardarm for the final time and free rum was retired from navy life.
Black arm-bands were worn as the Queen was toasted. Tots were buried at sea and in one navy training camp, sailors paraded a black coffin flanked by drummers and a piper. (Colls; BBC)