Rum Powered Sailors

When you mention Rum, the chances of someone conjuring up an image of drunken sailors or rowdy pirates is quite high. The connection between Rum and the ocean is undeniable. One of the biggest reasons for this is because Rum was a very important part of sailors’ everyday lives, and in some cases, their good health.

A Sailor’s Day

Life for seventeenth and eighteenth century sailors was, by and large, a very short and violent affair. Depending on the route taken, voyages could take months and by comparison shore leave was scant. During these months at sea, the sailors would have to work the ship no matter the conditions, be it under the beating sun in a tropical climate or in a storm that could sweep you off the deck.

Throw in the odd bloody sea battle and you begin to wonder why anyone would want to work on a ship. The problem was that life on land for the poor was even worse, overwork, semi-starvation and disease were just some of the delights of life for a landlubber at the time. At least on a ship you were fed, paid relatively well and to top it off, you got a daily alcohol ration!

Definitely Not Craft

Pre-1650’s the daily alcohol ration for most sailors was in the region of 5 quarts of beer. Apart from being a form of bribery to get sailors to work hard, beer also had another important advantage, it helped keep you hydrated. The problem with keeping water in barrels for long haul voyages was that it would go off after a while, beer tended to have a much longer “shelf life” when compared to water.

However, beer also had a few problems of its own. It took up just as much space as a barrel of water and in tropical climates the unpasteurized, unrefrigerated beer would also go off. Many captains took to issuing wine or French brandy instead. Then in 1655 the British Royal Navy captured the island of Jamaica - from that year on, the ration was changed to Rum!

Why Is The Rum Gone?

In 1740 an order from the Navy stipulated that all Rum was to be watered down before issue, this watered down variant became known as grog. Interestingly, it is believed that the word proof was first used around this time to describe alcohol strength. Sailors took to mixing some of their ration with gunpowder, they would then attempt to light this. If the mixture went up in flames, then it was proof that the rum was over 57% ABV (alcohol by volume). As one can imagine, the sailors were not happy about this watering down of their Rum and many left to work in the private sector.

Privateers were privately owned ships that were licensed by a particular government to attack the ships of their enemies. However, many of these privateers realized that they could make much more money by just attacking every ship that they set eyes on, thus becoming pirates. The final Rum ration issued by the British Royal Navy was on the 31st of July 1970!

Rum and Punch

One of the biggest causes of death at sea was scurvy, eventually the Royal Navy caught on and started stocking citrus fruits on their ships. This drastically improved the health of the sailors. However, the most common fruits used were limes and lemons, which are not exactly pleasant when eaten by themselves. So the easiest way to get the crew to take their vitamin C was to mix it in with the grog and add a little sugar to balance it out.

Below, I have provided a recipe for the Rum punch used on the HMS Victory taken from the journal of the ship's purser.


1 quart strong Brandy or Rum*

3 quarts Water

.5 cups Lemon juice

1.25 cups Sugar


Add all the ingredients to a punch bowl and stir to combine.

*The Royal Navy bought its spirits at the equivalent of 109-proof, or 54.5 percent ABV.

If you would like to make the punch, I would suggest adding a full cup of Lemon juice instead of .5 cups and replace one cup of water with a cup of ice.

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