History of Rum drinking in the Royal Navy

There’s hardly a self- respecting sailor in the Caribbean who would deny himself a tot of rum
Rum drinking in the Royal Navy Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre
Rum drinking in the Royal Navy Graphics by Anouk Sylvestre

There’s hardly a self- respecting sailor in the Caribbean who would deny himself a tot of rum: it’s been a maritime tradition for centuries. Most people know that rum is a bi-product of sugar and for centuries sugar was the economic dynamo of the Caribbean. With the right climate and free slave labor, sugar production flourished and in time rum replaced wine and brandy on HM ships.

Rum drinking in the Royal Navy didn’t start because of a generous Admiralty.

It began because water and beer went sour on long voyages and needed to be replaced: solution rum; cheap and readily available in the colonies of the West Indies. Being a strong liquor, it was something for sailors to look forward to, what with the rigors of sailing square-rigged ships in high latitudes (or any latitudes – it changed attitudes – thanks Jimmy).

Sailors, being a sly lot, they sometimes saved up their daily tot of the really strong rum ration of half a pint of 58% ABV, (today’s liquor is normally 40%) and then drank it all down on a specific day thus forgetting all their worries for a few hours – until the DTs hit them with even more worries – especially if their watch was called to reef the main top in a blow. 

Britain’s most famous naval hero, Admiral Nelson, was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

His tactical skill, respect for the ordinary seamen, along with his heroism and many important naval victories made him much beloved by Britain’s population. After his death on the deck of his flagship, HMS Victory, he was pickled in a cask of brandy for a ceremonial burial and service at St Paul’s cathedral. Some proclaim it was in fact, rum and a popular drink today is Nelson’s Blood, whose main ingredients are rum and cranberry juice. The legend goes that thirsty sailors tapped into the cask and drank of the pickling juices during the long voyage back to England in the crippled Victory. 

Rum, of the above-mentioned strength, was soon recognized as being too strong and it was Admiral Vernon in 1740 who decreed that the libation should be watered down to make it ‘safer.’ 

Instead of being shot on sight he survived; amazing really – I mean have you ever tried taking a bone away from a hungry dog! His watered-down concoction was named grog, after a grogram coat he was fond of wearing. If you drink too much rum, in the morning you’ll be groggy. Fame can simply be a name game.

In 1970 the rum ration in the navy was stopped altogether – it was decided that high tech weapons and inebriated sailors were not a good match.

The day of the rum execution, 31st July, was called Black Tot Day. Sailors accepted their fate; many wore black armbands to mark the death of a century’s old tradition.

Navy rum still exists today thanks to Charles Tobias of Pusser’s fame. Pusser’s is derived from purser, the officer responsible for provisioning the ship and Tobias bought the rights to continue bottling the rum.  

Today tourism is a big part of Caribbean economies and rum plays a large part.

The Painkiller is a favorite rum concoction as is the Daiquiri and Pina Colada. Rum with Coke is a good marriage and a squeeze of lime turns it into a Cuba Libre.   

So here’s a toast to rum! Bottom’s Up! 

Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.