Friday July 31, 1970 was a day of mourning for Britain’s sailors. Ceremonies featuring solemn memorials, drums and pipers, black armbands and flag-drapped coffins took place on every ship in the service. The mood was certainly sober… and in more ways than one. Forever known on Her Majesty’s ships as Black Friday, it was the date that marked the end of the official navy rum ration. And with it went more than 300 years of navy tradition.
In the age of Lord Nelson, the ships of the Royal Navy were powered by the wind… but the sailors ran on rum.
Twice daily, the entire crew of British warships would muster on deck to collect their prized rum ration. Typically, a full half pint was doled out to every tar on board – a portion of that amount at mid-day, the balance at sunset. But on special occasions or after a victory, captains might reward crews with a double ration of rum — a full pint of the stuff. It was a process known as ‘splicing the mainbrace’.
In many navies of the 18th and 19th centuries including the British, prodigious consumption of alcohol was a way of life. England’s sailors had been enjoying a daily tot of spirits as far back as the reign of Henry VIII. But keeping crews well-lubricated wasn’t just a way to maintain morale on long and often tedious sea voyages. It was considered a matter of health. That’s because Water tended to go bad quickly in wooden casks, whereas any drink with alcohol would last longer.
Originally, the drink of choice aboard navy vessels was beer or ale and sometimes wine. All that changed when England captured Jamaica in 1655. Rich in sugar plantations, the conquerors of the island suddenly found themselves awash in a much sought-after spoil of war – rum. Soon this more potent beverage was flowing freely on His Majesty’s vessels.
Beer (and to a lesser extent wine) still remained a staple on board the wooden warships. In fact, a typical sailor might consume up to eight pints of suds a day. But because of its lower alcohol content, beer wouldn’t keep much longer than water, particularly when travelling through warmer climates. Rum on the other hand had distinct advantages over beer: with such a high content of alcohol, it wouldn’t spoil in wooden casks. And because it was so potent, much less needed to be brought aboard to keep the crew in good spirits.
But just how important was alcohol on the ships of the Royal Navy? In the 18th and early 19th century, a vessel’s time at sea often depended upon its supply of spirits — when the rum barrels ran dry the captain knew it was time to head into port.
While for more than 75 years, pure rum was rationed out each day to the crew, after 1740 the admiralty ordered the drink to be watered down – two portions of water for every one of rum. The mixture became known as grog.
Even with the diluted spirit, sailors in the age of Nelson typically spent a great deal of time drunk. In fact, some have estimated that on any given night, up to a third of the crew of a warship were three sheets to the wind. And while intoxication wasn’t a crime in the Royal Navy, being under the influence while on duty was punishable by a flogging right up until the late 19th Century.
Although further scaled back to a quarter pint per day in the 1850s, the daily rum ration continued through both world wars and beyond. However, with the increasing sophistication of military technology in the post war period, commanders recognized the danger of intoxicated crewmen – anti-ship missiles and booze don’t mix. So in 1970s, the admiralty abolished the rum ration once and for all. The move, which was marked with somber pageantry throughout the navy, was widely unpopular with crews. “It was badly received. There was a lot of muttering below the decks,” one old salt told the BBC.
The British weren’t the last to abandon the rum ration. The Royal New Zealand Navy issued grog to its sailors for another 20 years after Black Friday.
Yet the tradition hasn’t dried up completely — both the Brits and the Kiwis as well as the Royal Canadian Navy will still “splice the mainbrace”, that is issue a celebratory rum ration, on special occasions. These might include a royal wedding, a victory or major milestone. Currently, only the monarch or a member of the royal family can call for a rum ration. One was permitted in the British navy after the victory in the Falklands Islands, another after the birth of Prince William. More recently, during the 100th anniversary of the Canadian navy in 2010, the Queen signalled a rum ration.
Still thirsty for more? Here are some more rum-filled facts about booze in the Royal Navy.
- In the 18th Century, navy officials would test barrels of rum to see if crooked suppliers had diluted the contents with water. They would prove this by soaking a small portion of gunpowder in a sample of the rum. Powder soaked in rum that was 57 percent alcohol would ignite when lit. If the powder wouldn’t light, the rum was deemed “underproof”. To this day, any rum that is 57 per cent alcohol is considered 100 proof. The “proof” formula is simple: each percentage point of alcohol content equals 1.75 proof.
- America ended its navy rum ration in 1862, however some skippers revived the tradition on occasion. The captain of the USS Barb reportedly issued his crew shots of whisky following the sinking of five Japanese vessels in World War Two.
- Following the death of Lord Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, the admiral’s remains were stored in a large cask of spirits for the voyage home. According to legend, his loyal crewmembers drilled into the barrel and supposedly drank it dry, either out of extreme thirst or reverence for their fallen leader. The rum ration was thereby nicknamed “Nelson’s Blood”. It also gave rise to the rum ration slang expression “tapping the admiral”.
Oh, we almost forgot: Cheers!
(Originally publishing on MilitaryHistoryNow.com — June 14, 2012)