The Rum-Soaked History of Pirates and Sailors

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.