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The daily tot of rum was far more than just a drink at the end of the day for sailors grinding their lives away at sea.

For more than 200 years, every British sailor afloat and ashore drew his daily ration of rum—his “tot.” Over those two centuries rum solved a lot of problems for the Admiralty, but by the time it was abolished in 1970, it had long outlived its usefulness.

The British navy tasted its first dram in May 1655, when a British naval squadron under the command of Admiral William Penn invaded and secured the Spanish-held island of Jamaica. In a month the island was securely in British hands. The ratings of Penn’s fleet lying at anchor off the coast of their new island possession were given (or smuggled aboard) native sugar-cane rum. The Spanish, who were cultivating sugar cane in the Caribbean and on Jamaica, had an abundance of wet cane pulp after crushing the cane in the sugar-making process. This was collected and distilled into rum, which takes its name from saccarum, the Latin word for sugar. (“Rumbullion,” meaning “great tumult or uproar,” is another possible source for the word.) The English sailors probably picked up the word rum from their Spanish predecessors.

Before the Age of Exploration, sailing ships were relatively modest affairs with small crews. The European voyages to the Americas, Africa and Asia changed all that. Ships and crews became larger, and weeks might pass without sighting a friendly shore where they could take on water and provisions. Warships became much larger and more complicated, requiring many more men to operate them and man the guns, and the growing number of men aboard a man-of-war severely taxed the available room needed to store their provisions. Chief among the necessities was potable water, which did not keep well in the containers of the period. In the wooden casks of the day algae soon formed on the insides of the barrels and a thin scum at the surface. Within a few weeks, stored in humid holds, it became undrinkable.

An early attempt to make the water last longer was to stock a supply of beer that the sailors drank with it. This helped to temper the water and make it palatable. But unrefrigerated beer soon soured; often the beer went bad before the water. Attempts were made to provision warships with other spirits to make the water supplies last longer. Brandy was a favorite, but during the century of intermittent warfare with France, it could be hard to obtain. In Asia British naval squadrons and the merchant marine of the East India Company favored a drink of distilled rice called arrack. But it was rum that won the hearts and minds of the British seamen.

Rum in its pure form took up less room in a ship’s limited hold than beer. It stayed “sweeter” longer, an advantage on long voyages. Best of all, as far as the landsmen who ran the navy’s budget were concerned, rum was cheap.

The navy did not come to its rum ration overnight. It took decades to catch on uniformly throughout the fleet. There was a lot of experimentation, adjusting the formula and cutting the rum with water. In some ships, five parts water diluted one part rum. In others rum was consumed “neat,” that is undiluted.

Overindulgence, especially among impressed, or forcibly recruited, sailors became common. Some men worked hard to steal, cajole or beg extra rations. They were known as “rum rats.” Because of that, rum was kept securely under guard while aboard— not easy in the cramped quarters of a ship.

Standardized distribution began in 1740. The previous year Admiral Edward Vernon had led a British squadron to the Caribbean to wrest the town of Porto Bello from the Spanish. He earned the love of his crews by sharing all the prize money with them instead of with the Admiralty and the Crown. After the battle for Porto Bello, Vernon’s ships lay in port longer than was healthy. Rum was smuggled aboard, and many cases of drunkenness and dereliction of duty were reported to the admiral.

Vernon responded by issuing an order to his captains that rum be served to the crews in a watered-down state—a quart of water mixed with half a pint of rum. He made drinking legal and controlled its issue. Water was first removed from the storage casks and aired out in “scuttlebutts,” open buckets or tubs that allowed the water to breathe and lose the slimy flavor of the cask. Sugar and lime juice were finally added to the water. The staggering amount of half a pint of rum a day per man was to be issued in two servings—one in late morning and the second in early evening.

The rum was mixed with the doctored water by the ship’s purser in an open scuttlebutt in full view of the crew. The English often pronounce purser as “pusser,” and this gave rise to the term “pusser’s rum.” The Admiralty would not appreciate for another 50 years the importance of vitamin C in fighting the debilitating disease of scurvy, but by serving out the rum ration with its lime additive, Vernon effectively eliminated the disease among the sailors of his fleet.

Drinking lime juice in their tot of rum gave rise to a name for the British sailor—“Limey,” which has often been applied to the English as a people as well. Sailors are always quick to apply nicknames to just about everything, and their own term for the new concoction that Admiral Vernon had ordered up was “grog.” The term stemmed from the type of coat Vernon favored, called a “grogram,” and he was known affectionately as “Old Grogram.” While his sobriquet slipped into British history, his name became part of American lore. In the campaign against Cartagena in 1741, Vernon’s fleet carried some 3,000 American Colonial volunteers, one of them Lawrence Washington, older brother of George. When Washington returned to Virginia, he renamed his plantation after his beloved admiral— Mount Vernon.

By the time of the Napoleonic wars, grog had become a standard issue aboard British ships the world over, especially those plying the waters around the nation’s traditional enemy— France. The rum ration became (in the minds of the Admiralty) a toast to the British sovereign, and the men doffed their hats when they received their ration. Brass labels would later be affixed to all grog tubs, inscribed “The King, God Bless Him.”

Complaints came from senior officers about the unruliness of men who were continually drunk, and they urged the reduction of the daily rum allotment. Half a pint of rum a day kept some sailors on a more or less permanent high, they pointed out. But the war with Napoleon was a near thing, and the Admiralty was not willing to do anything that would add to the discontent and near mutinous state of affairs aboard many British ships.

The Royal Navy was strained to the breaking point. Whole squadrons were obliged to spend month after tedious month on station outside French ports, awaiting the inevitable showdown with Napoleon’s navy. Grog advocates believed that rum was one of the few comforts the common sailor had, and they felt it could not be taken away without compensation of some kind such as increased pay. The navy could not afford it.

The Napoleonic wars also produced a bizarre chapter in the history of grog. When Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, his body was taken back to England for a hero’s burial. The famous corpse was stuffed into a cask of brandy to preserve it against decay on the trip. A legend arose that the body had actually been preserved in rum—and that sailors being sailors, Nelson’s battle-seasoned ratings had seen no reason to waste the rum that had preserved the admiral’s body. Grog now had a new nickname, “Nelson’s blood.”

With peace came a drastic reduction in the size of the Royal Navy. Men were discharged wholesale, and many ships sent to the wrecking yard. Finally in 1824 the Admiralty got around to reducing the daily ration of rum from half a pint to a quarter of a pint, a unit of measure also known as a gill. To compensate the men for their loss, extra meat was added to their rations. Ironically in that same year Great Britain adopted the imperial gallon as the new system of measurement, and the quarter pint of rum suddenly increased by one-fifth, to the delight of some grog-addicted sailors.

Even with the reduction in the daily allotment, one-fourth pint of rum was still a potent issue, given that it was what we would call overproof today, a walloping 190 proof. One expert equates the potency of one-fourth pint of 19th-century naval rum to four double whiskies today.

By 1830, rum had reached its zenith of popularity. It was not only standard issue in the Royal Navy but in the nascent navies of the Commonwealth and the fledgling U.S. Navy. Many thought that the rum ration was still too liberal. Nondrinkers often gave their rations to friends, and rum rats could easily skirt the one-gill-a-day allotment. Drunkenness and the discipline problems associated with it continued to be a common problem at sea and ashore.

In 1850 the rum ration was reduced again, this time to one-half gill or one-eighth pint per day. To make the reduction easier to swallow, the Admiralty at the same time raised the pay as well as the meat and sugar allowance for each man. Further, the new directive offered sailors a monetary compensation if they chose not to have their daily tot of rum. One wise reform changed the daily issue to suppertime only, which meant the men were not drinking alcohol on an empty stomach.

The Crimean War with Russia brought new challenges to the Royal Navy. There was no shipboard enemy for the navy to fight. There was only bombardment of shore installations. Instead of staying aboard their ships, brigades of sailors were trained as marines and sent to fight on land. Sharing the misery of a war with the army, the services found mutual solace in rum.

During the course of a bitterly cold winter on the Crimean Peninsula, the military issued a rum ration to its soldiers whenever it was available. It reportedly had a great effect on morale. Soldiers were also allowed the rum ration whenever they were aboard troop transport ships.

Still, this was the Victorian era, and while the period was one of reform that saw many improvements in the lives of sailors, the grog issue came under fire from the temperance troops. The view from the comfort of the home fires was that doing away with grog altogether would improve the conditions of the common sailor. The United States, more sensitive to pressure from religious reform advocates, ended the rum ration in the U.S. Navy in 1862.

The British temperance movement peaked at the beginning of the 20th century, but the Admiralty resisted its calls to do away with the rum ration. As the possibility of war with Germany was then looming, the Admiralty was not willing to make changes that could negatively affect the morale of the men who would have to do the fighting.

In the early 20th century, as records began to be kept with greater accuracy, it was determined that 88,000 sailors were eligible for the daily tot of grog. Of those, 77,000 took advantage of their allotment. Most naval activity in World War I took place in the North Sea, where grog was viewed as a support against the bitter damp and cold. Most changes to the rum ration occurred in times of peace. Between the first and second world wars, the Admiralty tested and approved a change from three parts water to one part rum to a 2-to-1 ratio. In the independent-minded submarine service, the mixture was commonly 1-to-1.

The most perilous moment for the daily tot came not from the temperance movement but from the mechanized destructive power of World War II. During a single night of the London Blitz, German bombs destroyed a quarter of a million gallons of blended rum. U-boats also sent countless gallons to the bottom.

In Hong Kong, as Japanese troops drew near, the Crown colony’s entire supply of rum was dumped into the sea to keep it out of enemy hands. The same steps were taken in Alexandria, Egypt, when German General Erwin Rommel threatened to overrun British defenses in the desert. To replace its dwindling stocks of aged and blended rum, the Admiralty began to purchase rum from other sources, such as Cuba and Natal in southern Africa. But men who were accustomed to the carefully blended pusser’s rum often rejected the odd-tasting substitutes.

Ultimately the modern age caught up with the ancient institution of the daily rum ration. At sea, long hours of heavy labor above and below decks gave way to the exacting operation and maintenance of ever more sophisticated and expensive gear. Jet planes, atomic power, missiles and electronic instruments required ever-increasing focus and attention. The prospect of one of the queen’s able seamen directing an ordnance-laden Westland Wyvern attack plane onto the deck of a carrier behind a “punch of Old Pusser” was too much even for the tradition-loving Admiralty. The rum tot had outlived its usefulness.

On July 31, 1970, wherever the Royal Navy was afloat or at anchor, bosons piped “Up Spirits” for the last time. As always before when the Admiralty had reduced the rum ration, an appropriate compensation for naval personnel was implemented. This time it was the creation, with suitable funding set aside for the purpose, of the Sailor’s Fund, a benevolent organization and pension fund.

A grand and woolly naval tradition, with all its rowdy joy and solace, had come to an end. The blood of Nelson was no more.


Glenn Barnett is a faculty member at Cerritos College in California. For further reading, he recommends Nelson’s Blood: The Story of Naval Rum, by Captain James Pack.

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.