The Tradition of Rum and the Sea

You just can't beat sharing a rum drink with friends on a boat at the end of another perfect day in the tropics. Add the excitement and anticipation of the elusive green flash when the sun dips below the western horizon and you'll experience one of the great pleasures of life on the water. This scene doesn't end, however, when our brightest star is gone from sight. It continues to be played out westward around the globe as sailors salute the setting sun, rum glass in hand. For centuries, the close of day has been reverently acknowledged by sailors, but how rum came to be part of the choreography of this event is more than a coincidence.

It's not surprising that the tradition of rum and the sea began in the Caribbean. After all, this is where rum came of age and took its place in history. Even before ships began sailing out of sight of land, a sailor's life was full of hardships. When kings and queens began to maintain fighting ships at sea, living conditions for the men who sailed them worsened. Food was notoriously bad and inadequate for the underpaid crews, and circumstances continued to decline as ships voyaged farther from home to extend the influence of the powerful monarchs. To compensate the sailors and help take their mind off their wretched existence, crews were given a daily allowance of beer or wine. In the 16th century, ships began making regular voyages to the Caribbean where the crew's wine turned to vinegar even faster than it did in more moderate latitudes, and beer often spoiled before the ship even reached her destination. However, in stark contrast to sailors of the deck, ship's officers sailed with their own stores of luxuries, including spirits; the well-being of the common sailor was of little concern to those who occupied the aft decks.

The Eastern Caribbean islands were colonized for agricultural interests in the 17th century. At that time, it was necessary for armed naval vessels to sail with the planters to defend them from pirates and the navies of their European enemies. The crews generally felt little more than contempt and resentment toward the planters whom they were sent to protect. From the sailors' point of view, shepherding planters and their merchant ships limited their chances of actually capturing a pirate or enemy prize and sharing in the profits. Deadly tropical diseases were rampant in the Caribbean, and without the hope of getting rich if they survived, sailors had little to look forward to beyond their daily allowance of drink.

Not until sugar-sweetened delights made their debut in France did the situation improve in the fo'c'sle. As demand for sugar exploded, sugar-cane plantations spread across the Caribbean islands like wildfire. In a spin-off from the sugar-refining process, skimmings and molasses were distilled to make a raw white spirit called kill devil. England forbade her colonies to export cane spirits, and planters found themselves with more alcohol than they could sell in the local market. Too many rum barrels stored around a plantation were an open invitation for trouble from pirates and other scoundrels, so plantation managers were eager to sell their rum to Royal Navy pursers, a marriage made in heaven. The availability of Caribbean spirits meant that the sailor's lot in life was enhanced, and on the other side of the aisle, the increased presence of armed ships was a deterrent to pirates. A mutually beneficial dependence evolved between the two unlikely partners.

By 1650, a pint of rum had been unofficially adopted as part of the sailor's daily ration. Competition for rum sales and for the security that armed ships brought with them was fierce among the planters. Even the island governors supported selling rum to the navy, a move they hoped would help keep the pirates at bay. Then in 1687, to appease the governors and guarantee the supply of spirits for their sailors, the Royal Navy officially adopted a mixture of rum from the English Caribbean islands as part of the crew's daily allotment. Ships were dispatched to collect and distribute this special blend that would be carried on all Royal Navy ships around the world. Thus began a statutory naval tradition that would last almost three hundred years: rum and the sea.

The Caribbean spirit came out of the still at 140 proof and was a lot stronger than the beer and wine it replaced. Drinking a pint of West Indian rum every day caused such disorder among the sailors that Admiral Edward Vernon ordered that the ration be diluted with two parts water prior to issue. He also decreed that sugar and lime juice be made available as a reward for good behavior. Sailors endorsed the Admiral's order and christened the new ration grog, in honor of their hero who led them to battle wearing his finest grogam coat.

Although the rum ration was diluted in an attempt to maintain sobriety on board, extra tots were commonly dispensed as rewards for exemplary service or acts of heroism. Before going into battle, captains sometimes ordered a tot for the crews to make them more "brave and willing." And the capture of an enemy prize was always celebrated with yet more drink for the crew. Rum was a respected part of protocol on navy ships of nearly every nation, but in time the sailor's allotment was gradually reduced. In the case of the Royal Navy, the original ration of a pint of rum per day dwindled to only half a gill, about two ounces. But in spite of the shriveling measure of their daily tot, each new generation of sailors enthusiastically maintained the tradition.

In the 20th century, it was finally conceded that rum was not conducive to the mental concentration needed to wage modern warfare. The cerebral demands of flying supersonic aircraft or operating sophisticated electronic equipment are much different from those needed to load or fire a cannon from the deck of a ship. In the Royal Navy, the sailors' tot became another casualty of changing times on July 31, 1970, when the last rum ration was served on board HMS Endymion, marking the end of an era in naval history. The tradition of rum and the sea lives on, however, on private vessels at anchor around the world. Cheers to another day in paradise!