As many who study the history of distilled spirits know, certain navies used to dispense a “rum ration”. It is one of the more curious corners of the mass of absorbing social and cultural detail offered by such history. (Well, here, it was the subjects of the history who did the absorbing!).
The Royal Navy ceased the practice in 1970. The Canadian navy, in 1972. New Zealand’s went all the way to 1990. The U.S. stopped it during the Civil War. Australia, it seems, never had a similar practice.
The practice derived from the time workmen were allowed drink for their work, it was assumed necessary both for strength and morale, probably optimistically in terms of the former. Yet, treated responsibly it probably did more good than harm.
This practice was of a piece with farm workers expecting alcohol in early New England or Upper Canada which simply followed a practice imported from Britain. The idea of brewery or distillery workers being permitted a drink was similar, although more understandable in their case.
There is a surprising amount of information available on how the rum ration was stored, dispensed, consumed. I’ll use just a couple of references here to illustrate. The website of the New Zealand naval museum gives good detail, except that the statement the rum was 98% alcohol when undiluted can’t be right.
The Imperial proof figure given,148, translates to 84.4% abv, in effect overproof rum.
As this was cut 50-50 with water, a 42.2% dram amounted essentially to 43%, a standard retail strength for spirits in British commerce or circles connected to it. The N.Z. museum account offers good detail as well on who was served the dram. Officers did not receive it, they had access to their own bar.
Ratings did, junior ones had to consume on the spot, senior ratings including petty officers could take the dram (undiluted) to drink in their quarters.
The minimum age was 20. Sailors had the option to receive a cash payment instead of the tuck.
Interested readers can peruse this link from the Torpedo Bay Museum in New Zealand for the full history. The lore about Admiral “Grog” is repeated and it’s always enjoyable to revisit this history. The rum ration actually started with beer, always the first drink in Albion’s affections.
Fleet assignments on the Eastern Station and other hot climates caused a switching to rum as it kept much better.
Canada’s navy followed a practice similar to the Royal Navy’s and New Zealand’s. It began in 1910 with the establishment of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, and ended in 1972.
This link, from U.K. Parliamentary deliberations in the 1930s, will interest those curious about the composition of the ration. A blend of Empire rums was generally used including some Jamaican:
Navy rum as issued to the Fleet is a blend of rums bought on the London market, all Empire products, including Jamaica when price permits. The blend is in such proportions as long experience has shown to produce the flavour preferred by the men. The blending process is carried out at the Deptford Victualling Yard, where the rum is stored in vats before issue to ships. This procedure is the most economical and the most practical.
In Canada, Seagram, then in Waterloo, ON, supplied rum to our navy, but whether this was imported or domestic I can’t say. It was likely a blend of both, as much bottled rum sold in Canada still is.
This 1972 CBC clip shows in fine colour the last service of rum in our navy. The officer conducting the ceremony, Commander Jim Creech, drank rum with the men, on the mess from what I can tell.
Consumption by officers with the men was not traditional but the event was ceremonial, as shown by the consigning of the last dram to the sea. The Commander spoke well and the clip in general is affecting, it speaks to a different time, one we can learn from in more ways than one.
For more information on Canada’s history with the rum ration, I refer to this excellent article of some years ago in The Minute Book, a blog dealing with Canadian military history.
See also this informative piece by Captain Norman Jolin, RCN (Ret’d.) on the website of the CFB Esquimault Museum in Victoria, B.C.
Part II to this series follows.