In the time of sailing ships, strong liquor was a very limited part of the crew’s catering provisions.Most of their reserves consisted of fresh water. Spirits, in various forms, were, however, included for medicinal reasons and handed out in small daily rations– albeit under strict control. The most important of these were aquavit and rum.
As the Latinterm“aqua vitae” – water of life–suggests, people then fervently believed that the aquavit, with the addition of healing herbs, also had medicinal properties. Ship’s officers regularly gave their crew little nips of the good, pure aquavit, distilled from grain, to strengthen and warm them in cold, damp weather. They were warned against giving aquavit, however,when the stomach was upset,or when a person was out of balance emotionally.
Aquavit dates back to the Middle Ages, but the first records of it being given out on-board French, Dutch and Danish ships are from the 1600s. In the morning, at noon and in the evening the sailors would each receive snaps of 7½ centilitres; three or four tablespoons. The cabin boy received a half ration.
Every now and again strong criticism was voiced against the rationing of aquavit. On ships owned by the Grønlandskompagniet (’Greenland company’)rations were stopped entirely in the 1780s. It was subsequently believed that fatalities on board appeared to increase sharply over a very short period.
Royal Navy Rum
In actual fact, rum, which was produced from sugarcane juice, was to become a fantastically popular drink on-board. In the wreck of the Swedish flagship “Vasa”, which sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage, navy rum was found in tin bottles in the hold with an alcohol content of 33 percent. It had a powerful, heavy and pleasant aroma,according to those fortunate enough to get the chance to taste it 350 years later. It was presumably restricted solely tocabin use, which is to say that it wasnot dispensed on deck, which was customary on, for example,the Danish West Indian voyages.
The crew were often given rum on West Indian voyages. This applied both to the Danish merchant ships as well as the English naval warships. In 1688, the English Admiralty gave orders that, on West Indian voyages, they should tentatively try having a¾ pint Jamaica rum plus muscovado sugar daily instead of a½ pint of aquavit. The rum ration was later reduced to a pint (1 pint = 0.57 1).
Danish quality rum from the Danish West Indies
On Danish merchant ships the daily ration ofone-sixteenthof a pot of rum stopped in the 1860’s and was replaced by cash. When the skipper believed it necessary, he did, however, have the opportunity to give his crew a glass of rum for fortitude. This could be under rough weather, strenuous work, or exhausting climatic conditions, as is noted in the Danish“rules for catering to the crew”from 1892.
The Danish fleet were fortunate enough that the Danish scientist and pharmacist Albert Heinrich (A.H.) Riise had, in 1838, been given chemist’s privileges and monopoly status to manufacture spirits and medicine in the Danish West Indies. Through countless experiments with plants and herbs which A.H. Riise collected from around the Danish West Indian islands,some of the finest rum, beer and bitters were produced. When the Danish fleet docked at the capital, Charlotte Amalie received plentiful supplies of A.H. Riise’s fine “Royal Navy Rum”. This included the frigate, as it set sail on its final voyage to Charlotte Amalie and the Danish West Indies in 1886.
Extra rum rations were often given after a tough stint, which is to say strenuous labor on the rigging or on deck, in the hold, hauling up anchor, pumping, or for bravery in battle (on naval ships). Other circumstances that could release the much sought-after additional ration of rum included working in stormy weather, being woken while off duty and working in extreme cold or heat. Extra rum was used as a kind of reward for special effort, but could also be given in connection with the skipper’s birthday–or when the ship’s pig was slaughtered.
Navy seamen often received a drink of rum before a battle with the enemy.This was apparently especially widespread on Dutch ships, hence the expression“Dutch courage”for drinking oneself up to a fight.
The rations were handed out on the ships by the captain himself; the first mate or the boatswain would come out onto the stern with a bottle of rum and a glass. The crew would huddle around and take it in turns to take a swig from the same glass.
The captain often drank with individual crewmen. The sailors greatly appreciated these small encouragements, which helped them to forget the hard work on-board. The captain was a role model for the crew and it waspsychologically very important that it was him who bestowed the rum on the crew.
During particularly hard work–such as hauling anchor, for example–the skipper might get the crew to shout “hurrah for a rum”, after which they worked with renewed vigour.
Rum was a much sought-after drinkon the many Danish ships that sailed in the West Indies.As a rule, it was mixed with a little water – similar to grog– as the young rum in particular was very strong. This was performed by each of the sailors going up to the purser, where they were given their glass and then crossed off on his blackboard, so nobody could cheat their way into receivingtwo portions. Spirits often became so animated after the hand-out that the crew sang, danced on the gun deck and generally became fairly rowdy.
The almost ritualistic rationing of the rum led to sufficient levels of drunkenness and incidents that Admiral Edward Vernon, chief of the English squadron in the West Indies, ordered in 1740 that, from now on, rum should be diluted with three times the amount of water, and that the water should be warm. Plus a little brown sugar.
Admiral Vernon had, when faced with a crisis of a lack of rum,noted that the taste of rum was still present even when it was diluted with hot water. As the Admiral’s nickname among his subordinates was “Old Grog” –he went around in both summer and winter and in all kinds of weather in a waterproof, grey cape of grogram, a material made from silk and angora wool – the name of this hot drink also became grog.
In the beginning, the diluted rum was not popular among the sailors, but they eventually got used to it. After the ship’s doctors began recommending the drink, it was gradually introduced to the entire English fleet.A.H. Riise’s work is in keeping with this tradition: he succeeded in combining rum and bitter to produce a medicinal tonic that was intended to cure stomach upsets and a number of other associated problems.
Grog became another name for a rum toddy, and it was soon drunk on all the seven seas.The allocation of grog was highly ceremonial, if not an overt show: at 12 noon on the dot(8 glass) an orchestra or violin onboard the ship would play the melody “Nancy Dawson”, after which the sailors, on the command of “Grog-ho!”paraded past the serving and took their ration from a large vat filled with the rum blend, which stood on the tween deck. From the 1700s right up untilAugust 1, 1970 there were daily rations of rum on all the English naval ships.
What never changed throughout that time was that the rum must be drunk on the spot and must not be given to anyone else. The cabin boys did not receive rum, but were given cash instead. The higher the rank you were onboard, the less your rum was diluted.
With time, the British admiralty came to recognize that ½ pint was simply too much rum. One suggestion from 1783 to replace the rum with wine was rejected, when it became known that imported wine from France would be more expensive than, for example, the rum you could obtain from the Danish colony on Sankt Thomas.It was not until 1824 that anyone dared reduce the ration toa ¼pint. As a replacementfor losing half their rations, the fleet were served tea.
Several versions of rum onboard
One variety of the grog was bumbo, which was very widespread on the English naval ships. Bumbo consisted of rum, water, sugar and grated nutmeg. Another rum-based drink, rob, consisted of rum, lime juice and sugar. From 1795, forced rations of lime juice were given daily to sailors onboard the English naval ships, a custom that was also observed on English merchant vessels from 1854.Not all the sailors were enthusiastic about the sour addition, despite the fact that they knew that the mixture, with its vitamin C content, helped prevent scurvy. The term “lime-juicer” for English ships was more mocking than favorable. Over time, other countries’ fleets also recognised the benefits of introducing lime juice. Flip was a mixture of rum and ship’s beer used on-board the English naval ships.
An assumption still prevails that sailors are especially prone to drink, which is presumably due to the fact that people on land most often see them at ports on shore leave, visiting the closest pub to compensate for the lack of permission to take spirits on-board during their long voyages.
In actual fact, the captain and the quartermaster far more than the crew. As mentioned, it was forbidden for sailors to bring spirits with them on most ships, and they could only obtain it by stealing or smuggling it on-board.
In reality, however, many sailors did not think much of spirits on board, and, as abstinence societies gained in numbers during the 1800’s, they included sailors among their members. There was a fine line between rum onboard a ship and drunkenness, as shown in the fact that A.P. Møller, founder of what would become the world’s largest container shipping company, demanded in his time that a vow of abstinence be made if one of his captains had problems with alcohol.
In honour of these historical times, when brave sailors brought civilization out to the seven seas while enjoying the earliest types of rum, the Royal Danish Navy series has been developed based on A.H. Riise’s original recipes.