Its 40 years ago today that the Royal Navy ended the tradition of serving sailors a daily Rum ration. The age-old practice was a firm part of Naval heritage and tradition, and its abolition was viewed with dismay by many sailors. Yet it was argued at the time that serving sailors with free alcohol on a daily basis had no place in a modern, computerised and missile based navy.
The tradition of giving spirits to sailors originated in the 18th Century. Originally neat rum was served, until Admiral Vernon ordered that the strong spirit be cut with water to make it slightly weaker – hence the term ‘Grog’, from Vernon’s Grogram boat cloak. British Army soldiers were also served alcohol – Gin or Rum – at around the same time.
Various reasons have been advanced for the Rum ration. It helped keep sailors anaesthetised, against both the hard life at sea, and also the stresses of battle. Alcohol Spirits were also much easier to store, as water would putrify in the hold of a ship, whereas the alcohol in rum would preserve it. Originally beer was used, but as the size of the British Empire expanded, and ships spent longer and longer at sea, the sheer volume of Beer caused problems, and so spirits were used instead. Rum – brewed from molasses – came to the Navy’s attention during Seventeenth Century Wars in the Carribean.
There are also many cases of Rum being used in a medicinal way – survivors of sinkings were given rum or brandy after being fished out of icey waters, for example. In other cases, I have read of men who had swallowed oily water being given spirits to make them vomit. Rum was the only anaesthetic given to sailors before having limbs amputated. Soldiers and Sailors were even given rum before and after a flogging.
Yet we also need to remember, that the Rum ration was born – and existed – in a time when people drank far more than we do nowadays, despite what is said about binge drinking in the media. Looking back, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that people could handle their drink much better in years gone by, and that perhaps modern lager and alcopops are more to blame than alcohol in general.
There was also a strong social aspect to the Rum ration. The practise of every crew member over 20 stopping work once a day to drink together was no doubt good for espirit-du-corps. Terms such as ‘splice the mainbrace’ became a part of naval folklore. After Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, his body was preserved in a cask of various alcoholic spirits, leading to the term ‘Nelsons blood’. The rum ration and its elaborate ceremony must have been greeted with amazement by foreign visitors to Royal Navy ships, particularly those from ‘dry’ navies.
The legacy of the Rum ration lives on, however. A read of David Yates’ Bomb Alley onboard HMS Antrim leaves the reader in no doubt that a culture of drinking existed in the Royal Navy well beyond 1970. And not always when the sailors were off-duty, either. I guess its not surprising that groups of young men pitched in together will enjoy a drink or ten, and in many ways it cannot be bad for teambuilding.