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The Rum-Soaked History of Pirates & Sailors

The good guys and the bad guys both drank the liquor with abandon on the high seas.

On July 31, 1970—47 years ago come Monday—Britain’s Royal Navy issued its last daily rum ration. It’s not easy to say precisely when the practice started: traditionally, British sailors were entitled to five quarts of beer a day each (yes, that is correct and yes, a sailor’s life for me!), but by the middle of the 1600s that was proving unworkable, what with the effects of the tropical climates the Navy was now venturing into on the unpasteurized, unrefrigerated beer. Individual captains took to issuing wine or brandy as a substitute. In 1655, off the coast of Jamaica, a new drink was tested out in that role: rum.

Sailors took to the stuff pretty quick. If you were in the Navy, that meant you got a quarter-pint a day, twice a day, every day, and double that in combat or when they wanted you to work harder. That was pretty good. But the Navy being the Navy, they made damned sure you had to jump through a lot of hoops to get it, the worst of them being the order in 1740 that stipulated that all rum would be watered down before issue, to the tune of a quart of weak to every half-pint of strong.

Small wonder many sailors took their skills elsewhere. If you liked living on salt provisions, taking incredible risks with your life on a regular basis and firing cannons at things, there was plenty of employment available in the private sector. Privateers were ships working on a government contract, the Blackwater of their day. Point them at the enemy’s ships, make ‘em promise not to attack friendlies, and hope for the best. If you served on one of them, you might drown or die of scurvy or dysentery or whatever, but at least you wouldn’t end up on the gallows.

That fate was reserved for pirates, who were like privateers but without the license—or the inclination to refrain from attacking friendlies. Pirates didn’t like anybody and nobody liked them. That led to a certain attitude.

For example. In 1733, Captain William Snelgrave’s ship was taken by pirates off the coast of Guinea, in West Africa, and he was made their prisoner. Conditions were loose—he had the run of the ship, and was often “invited” to eat and drink with Davis, the captain, and his mates (large glasses of rum punch were their preferred beverage, tossed off in toasts); saying no was not an option. One night, as he was at dinner with his sharkish hosts, a cry rose up from the main deck below: the ship was on fire, with flames licking out of the hatchway that led to the hold. There was a lot of shouting, but the crew was drunk and unable to organize for action. Fortunately, Snelgrave was not, and neither were the other prisoners aboard ship.

Upon rushing below decks to investigate, Snelgrave found that one of the pirates had been sent down to fetch more rum from the large barrels in the hold. It being dark, he had a candle with him, which he negligently brought too close to the open bung of the cask, thus igniting the strong rum within. The flames set fire to the next barrel, which had been left open. Behind a wooden bulkhead from the burning rum hold was another hold, which held 30,000 pounds of gunpowder.

While Snelgrave, a couple of the prisoners and the ship’s (sober) gunner’s mate dashed around organizing buckets of water and blankets to throw on the fire, some of the drunken pirates had edged out on the bowsprit in the hope that they wouldn’t be blown up. The bulk of them, however, gathered on the main deck and started raising a cheer:

“Huzza! For a brave blast to go to hell with!”

Pirates.

But here’s the thing. A sailor’s life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was unimaginably rough and likely to be very short, but for many people so was life on land: if you were poor, often all you had to look forward to was overwork, semi-starvation and disease. So why not just grab a share of the good things in life? Why not go out in a blaze of boozy, fuck ‘em all glory?

One of my favorite speeches in English, right up there with the St. Crispin’s Day “we few, we happy few” speech from Shakespeare’s 1599 Henry V, was published ten years after that by one Andrew Barker, an English sailor. It consists of the words, as they were relayed to him later, with which John Ward, captain of the Lion’s Whelp (one of the King’s smaller, least important ships) tried to convince some of his crew, ex-privateers all, to turn pirate. (There are a couple of words here that need explanation: “bissell” and “bumber” appear in no dictionary, but are explained by the context, more or less; “cargo” is a well-laden ship ripe for the taking; a “Portuguese” is a cruzado, a gold coin from that country; to “list” is to want and to “drab” is to consort with prostitutes.)

 “My mates, what’s to be done? Here’s a scurvy world, and as scurvily we live in it. We feed here upon the water on the King’s salt beef without ere a penny to buy us bissell when we come a shore. Here’s brine meat good for ravening stomachs, but where’s your brim cup and your full carouse that can make a merry heart? Where are the days that we cried ‘cargo’ in?

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Where are the times that we sailors esteemed chickens cheaper then your bumber Hollander doth cheese? Where are the Portugal voyages that put Portuguese into our pockets?

’Sblood, what would you have me say?

“Where are the days that have been, and the seasons that we have seen, when we might sing, swear, drink, drab, and kill men as freely as your cake-makers do flies? When we might do what we list, and the law would bear us out in it; nay, when we might lawfully do that [which] we shall be hanged for [if] we do now; when the whole sea was our empire, where we robbed at will, and the world but our garden, where we walked for sport?”

Now, Ward’s speech came well before there was a rum ration. Indeed, one can look at the rum ration as a twice-a-day way of reminding sailors that they were sailors, and not farmworkers or street-sweepers; that if they couldn’t kill men like flies, at least there was a little walking for sport in their lives.

Ward’s speech worked, of course. Jack Ward went on to be one of the most dreaded pirates afloat, even converting to Islam and sailing out of Tunis so he could pursue his calling to maximum effect. He retired rich. Oh, and Captain Snelgrave, with the burning ship and the drunken pirates? He and his improvised damage control squad eventually put out the fire. Reading his account, though, you kind of want to see the brave blast.

HMS Victory Punch

Eventually, the Royal Navy wised up to the causes of the scurvy that had killed so many thousands of sailors over the years and started issuing citrus juice to its crews. The easiest way to do that was to mix it in with the grog, adding a little sugar to balance it out. Then as now, spirits plus water plus citrus juice plus sugar equals punch. Here’s a 1797 recipe from the journal of the Purser of the HMS Victory, the ship that eight years later would be Lord Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar. Of course, the Purser used 24 gallons of brandy (they were in the Mediterranean, where that was easier to get than rum). Here, I’ve cut it back to a quart and proportioned everything else accordingly.

Ingredients:

1 quart strong Brandy or rum*

3 quarts Water

.5 cup Lemon juice

1.25 cup Sugar

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a punch bowl and stir to combine. Add a block of ice and serve.

*The Royal Navy bought its spirits at the equivalent of 109-proof, or 54.5 percent abv. The closest thing I know is Louis Royer’s Force 53 Cognac, which is just a little underproof. Or you can substitute rum: a pint each of Appleton V/X rum and Plantation OFTD over-proof rum will yield a quart of rum at precisely 54.5 percent. The punch will taste better if you increase the lemon juice to 1.25 cups and replace one of the quarts of water with ice.