Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

Last days of the drunken sailor

James Ferguson drown his sorrows over the end of a time-honoured tradition, the Royal Navy’s rum ration

On July 31, 1970, 40 years ago, there occurred one of the darkest events in the history of the British Royal Navy. It was not a naval defeat, nor a shipwreck nor even a mutiny. Possibly worse than any of these, the date marks the official abolition of the rum ration.

Rum and sailors are intimately linked in the popular imagination. Just look at the labels of popular rum brands or consider the etymology of such mysterious phrases as “splice the mainbrace” or “down the hatch”. From Captain Morgan to Captain Haddock, old tars have always enjoyed a drop of the hard stuff, and rum was usually the drink of choice.

The rum ration can be traced back to 1655, when the English seized the Spanish Caribbean colony of Jamaica. 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.

Before brandy, convention had dictated that sailors receive their refreshment in the form of beer, each individual being entitled to a gallon a day. Not only was it physically challenging to down eight pints, but the beer quickly soured onboard and the men reportedly had to hold their noses while pouring it down their throats. Rum, of course, could not go bad and indeed was rather useful for preserving things. (Nelson’s body, according to legend, was pickled in a barrel of rum after his death at Trafalgar, but even then someone was desperate enough to dip into the barrel and consume the admiral’s improvised embalming fluid.)

Life on board naval vessels of the 17th and 18th century cannot, on the whole, have been comfortable or enjoyable. Of the famous threesome of rum, sodomy and the lash, perhaps only the first was universally appreciated. Alcohol offered an anaesthetic, a source of solace among the tribulations of naval existence, and a means of keeping a potentially mutinous group of men docile. It was also used as an incentive and a form of Dutch courage – double rations were handed out before battle and in the event of victory.

The rum was sourced from various Caribbean producers, mostly in Jamaica, Trinidad and the British Virgin Islands, and much of it was brought back to Britain to be blended according to a particular five-rum formula exclusive to the Navy. One individual who was involved in the lucrative contract to supply the Royal Navy was the East London-born barrel-maker James Man, whose 18th-century rum-importing business eventually grew into the FTSE 100-listed Man Group of today.

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. Worse still, less seasoned boozers would sell their ration to the real aficionados, leaving the latter rather the worse for wear. Drunkenness became an increasing problem, leading to many reported cases of indiscipline.

In 1740 Admiral Edward Vernon, a naval stalwart and scourge of the Spanish, came up with what he saw as a solution to the rum problem. He ordered that the spirit served to crews in the Caribbean should be diluted with the same amount of water and then made more palatable (because the water was usually disgusting) by adding sugar and lime juice – the last of which had the added benefit of fighting off the vitamin C-deficiency-related illness of scurvy.

The resulting brew might have been healthier but it met with widespread disapproval. The hardened rum-drinkers contemptuously dismissed it as “grog”, a name allegedly referring to Admiral Vernon’s trademark grogram cloak, a waterproof garment made of silk, mohair and wool. But “Old Grog’s” reform stuck and was soon applied to the whole of the Royal Navy, including, much later, submarines.

From that moment on, depending on your point of view, the rum ration was on a downward path. In 1850 the daily dose was reduced to a quarter pint, mixed with three parts of water. At the same time, teetotallers were compensated with the monthly sum of one shilling and seven pence, presumably to stop them claiming and selling on their ration. Predictably, in an institution based on rank and hierarchy, petty officers and those above them were allowed to receive their rum neat, while the lower orders were entitled only to watered-down grog. In later years the ration was issued in the early evening rather than at the original regulation hour of 11.30 am. Those under 20 were excluded.

Considerable ritual significance was attached to the daily rum serving. The sailors would queue to receive their ration or “tot”, pre-mixed with water, from the “grog tub”, presided over by the ship’s purser and his assistants, who ladled the allotted amount into a small bowl. The purser was responsible for the orderly distribution of rum and the associated bookkeeping. A popular corruption of his title into the word “pusser” gives us the name of the trademark blend, still available from Pusser’s West Indies Ltd of Tortola, British Virgin Islands (www.pussers.com). Rum remained a currency among sailors, and a whole lexicon of terms – wets, sippers, gulps – covered varying amounts of the coveted liquid.

Finally, however, the Admiralty Board sobered up enough to admit that times had changed, and that “in a highly sophisticated navy no risk for margin or error which might be attributable to rum could be allowed”. (Which, when one thinks about Polaris missiles and the like on nuclear submarines, is a sensible consideration.) After a sometimes heated debate in the House of Commons, the abolition legislation was passed, and the rum ration was no more.

According to David Axford’s informative website (http://freespace.virgin.net/david.axford/index.htm), ships and establishments marked July 31, 1970 in their own way: “Some buried the tot along with a headstone, as in the Middle East. Many threw the last tot over the side of their ships. HMS Dolphin was one of the establishments that had a gun carriage bearing a coffin that was flanked by two drummers and led by a piper playing a lament.”A tot may still be occasionally authorised by the Queen on very special occasions – a royal wedding, for instance – but otherwise her Majesty’s ships are mostly dry, a state of affairs that would not have suited Lord Nelson, alive or dead.

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