Monday, February 5, 2018

More Than Rum

Detail from The Scourge of India Captains Taking His Usual Regale,
W. Wells, 1781, Wellcome Library.
Continuing my occasional theme of 'rum, sodomy, and the lash,' today I'm taking a quick look at rum. It's an easy assumption to make: sailors loved their rum. They did, but they loved a lot more than rum, and rum was not the sole staple of the sailors' diet of alcoholic beverages.

Sailors could lay in their own stores of alcohol. John Fray, a sailor on the Maryland merchantman Rumney & Long in 1747/8 bought twelve gallons of wine, two gallons of brandy, fifteen gallons of cider, and twelve and a half gallons of rum. All told, alcohol cost him four pounds and seventeen shillings, nearly a quarter of all his expenses for the voyage.
Maryland State Archives, SC 1065, Rumney & Long ledger book, f.14
Vessels carried their own stores of alcoholic beverages as well. In the return from the 60 gun Centurion in early 1755, about the time that she sailed in convoy to North America with the 50 gun Norwich, we see how many tons of beer and water each vessel carried for the voyage across the Atlantic.
The National Archives (UK), ADM 4/180, f.499
In these two examples alone we see wine, brandy, cider, and beer, as well as rum. Beer was the primary alcoholic ration of the Royal Navy, but given regional availability, it was often substituted. N.A.M. Rodger, in The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, transcribed a table of equivalences for substituting rations. A gallon of beer could be substituted by a pint of wine, or a half pint arrack, rum, or brandy.
On long passages and on foreign stations men drank watered wine (in the proportion of 8 to 1) or watered spirits (in the proportion of 16 to 1), but in home water they drank beer alone, and the length of time a ship could stay at sea was effectively measured by how long her beer would last.[1]
Beer was so important, the the ability to brew it made sailors valuable. The cooper John Nicol spent much of his time at sea as a brewer of spruce beer. At least once he was recruited into a profitable voyage for that very skill:
At once I made myself clean and waited upon Captain Portlock. He was happy to see me, as I was an excellent brewer of spruce-beer, and the very man he wished, but knew not where to have sent for me. I was at once engaged on the most liberal terms as cooper, and went away rejoicing in my good fortune.[2]
Samuel Kelly related the drinks of choice for the upper and lower decks of an American vessel:
The American officers appeared sober men, as they generally drank water mixed with the bottled porter, though some of the crew had broached a pipe of Madeira wine in the between decks, and cut up the cheese which they fried in the pan to eat.[3]
Mixing drinks, as we have seen, was common. Generally this was watering down, which includes the famous sailors' rum drink grog. Grog was a very simple drink, as Francis Grose defines it in the 1785 edition of his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:
Grog was certainly present on eighteenth century vessels. William Spavens, Jacob Nagle, and Samuel Kelly all write of receiving an allowance of grog.[5] Notably, many sailors don't mention grog at all.

Eighteenth century sailors were figuratively awash in liquor. Alcohol formed an important part of maritime culture. That drinking culture was host to a diverse range of drinks, and not defined solely by rum.

[1] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 90-92
[2] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 77.
[3] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, page 49.
[4] Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London: S. Hooper, 1785, via Google Books, accessed January 26, 2018 <>.
[5] Spavens, William, Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens, edited by N.A.M. Rodger, County Somerset: The Bath Press, 2000, page 35; Nagle, Jacob, The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, edited by John C. Dann, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988, pages 20 and 66; Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, pages 101-102.

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