“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Drink and the devil had done for the rest. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.”
It is definitely ballads like these featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Treasure Island” starring Long John Silver and Jim Hawking, that gave rum its reputation as a buccaneers’ treat. However, beverage supply was also of relevance on board other ships, all the more since water could easily turn brackish and, hence, become a health hazard.
We know from the log book of the “Mayflower”, the vessel that transported the first British emigrants to North America, that Plymouth Rock was only selected as a port of call because beer was about to run out. Especially in the Caribbean during colonial times rum increasingly replaced beer on the ships of both commercial and navy fleets.
A special importance, however, was attached to rum in the British Navy – at least until that unfortunate day of 31 July 1970. On that very day the last ration of rum was issued. On the navy vessels sailors were wearing black armbands and in many places the goblets and barrels were thrown overboard after the last sip. Even funeral ceremonies where the barrels were formally “put to rest” are remembered.
The crew on board HMS Fife rose to particular fame. The destroyer lied at anchor in Pearl Harbour on Hawaii. This meant that the crew was very close to the International Date Line and the ration of rum distributed on the deck of this ship was the very last one ever. Gun salutes and the sad melodies of a bagpiper concluded the ceremony.
In the British homeland, in Portsmouth to be precise, a special stamp reading “Last Issue of Rum to the Royal Navy 31 July 1970” commemorated the “Black Tot Day”, the day of the last tot. Tot was the official name for that daily rum ration that was officially issued as an on-board ration in 1731 for the first time.
Originally the daily ration amounted to roughly a quarter of a litre of rum. The sometimes undesired consequences of this alcohol consumption – not every move was accurate – did not go unnoticed by the officers. And this is why Vice Admiral Edward Vernon is credited with having prescribed a mixture with water in the 1740s. The Admiral enjoyed highest esteem with his sailors and was nicknamed “Old Grog” by them. This term goes back to the coat he used to wear on deck, which was made of a heavy woven fabric called “grogram”. His mixture of one part of rum with four parts of water asserted itself as the recipe on navy vessels.
The size of the rum ration continued to shrink over the years. As soon as the call “Up spirits!” announced the issue of rum around lunchtime the amount of tot, scooped with a calibrated ladle, in the end “only” equalled the eighth of an Imperial Pint. This corresponds to approximately 71 ml of rum. The volume amounted to precisely 95.5 % proof corresponding to about 54.4 % vol. alcohol. Those foregoing the ration received three pence per day, a deal rarely entered into.
For the Canadian Navy Black Tot Day came on 31 March 1972 and New Zealand sailors were even allowed to drink until 28 February 1990. Today, some rum brands still remind us of this navy tradition and the strong recipe. This is why the labels of Pusser’s Navy Rum or Lamb’s Rum grace the flag of the British Navy and some rum specialties bear the term “Black Tot” in their name.
Every year rum clubs and cocktail bars take 31 July as an occasion to commemorate this rum tradition and serve up a magnificent tot of this cane sugar distillate.
The matching soundtrack was also suggested at the beginning of the article: Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!