The First Currency
In the early sailing days, ships crossing the Atlantic would carry barrels of beer alongside the provisions of water. Even the Mayflower carried beer on its maiden journey across the Atlantic, as did most British ships, both private and military. Beer would be used as a beverage, because it kept better than water and as for the water, that precious liquid was used for washing and cleaning.
British warships were careful, so as to have a supply of beer that would last for the entire voyage. To ensure that the grainy brew was evenly distributed, a rationing system was developed, whereabouts each sailor received a gallon of beer per day. (That's equivalent of eleven 12 ounce.bottles) Not surprisingly, many a naive lad enlisted in Her Majesty's Service, just to enjoy the daily ration.
Slaves and Rum
A Caribbean Invention
In the early 1600s, Caribbean sugar cane planters had a problem. What to do with all the black sludge that filled their waste buckets after sugar cane had been refined into sweet syrup.
By most accounts, the solution came from the slaves, who worked the island plantations. They discovered that if you fermented the sweet sludge and then distilled it, the result was a drinkable liquor, which became known as rum.
Beer To Rum
Beer was a good means of barter for British sailors, as long as one or more of the barrels did not go bad. Unfortunately, the shelf life of beer was limited, so in 1655, the Royal Navy began substituting rum for beer. This change in policy coincided with the British capture of Jamaica, which gave the Royal Navy access to the rich sugar plantations that covered this large Caribbean island.
At first, each sailor was allowed a half pint of rum that was ceremoniously distributed twice a day. Often, wine and lime juice were added to the rum, primarily for medicinal purposes. This mixture was commonly referred to as Tot O Rum. While the tasty liquor improved morale, the heavy use of this potent liquor, could also lead to increase in drunkenness aboard ship.
Nonetheless, in 1740, in an effort to reduce alcohol abuse, the British Navy began cutting the half pint of rum with a quart of water. Naturally, the new mixture quickly acquired a nickname, Grog. Overall, Grog appeared to have been quite popular, for its distribution and use continued well into the 20th century.
Triangular Trade Map
The Triangular Trade
As plantations grew in the New World, so did the slave trade from Africa. Some of the earliest places to develop a prospering plantation system were the West Indies, where Christopher Columbus introduced sugar cane to Hispanola early in the 1500s. The plant grew well in the subtropical islands and soon, slaves were being imported from West Africa to work the crop.
Eventually this lead to the famed "triangular trade", whereabouts molasses produced in the Caribbean was shipped to America. Here the dark, sweet liquid was distilled to rum and then sold abroad to Britain and Europe in exchange for manufactured goods.
Consumption In the Colonies
Before the Revolution, rum was consumed in great quantities among the original thirteen colonies. Today it is estimated that American colonists drank to a tune of 12,000,000 gallons a year. That's much less than the 30 million gallons of rum imbibed today, but keep in mind that back in those days, the U.S. population was only about 3 million.
Also be aware than liquors like whiskey, vodka and bourbon had not come into their own at that time, so rum was the primary drink of choice.
Old Rum Bottles
Over the years, rum became so popular around the New World that in actually became a widely-accepted means of exchange that was excepted in port, as well as onboard ship.
As the rich liquor became more and more popular, traders in the commodity had to be very careful that they were not sold watered-down versions. The best way to do this was to soak gunpowder with a rum sample, and then light the mixture with a match. If the rum burned, it was good. Buyers could even get an idea of the alcohol content by the way that the gunpowder-rum combination was consumed by fire.
A Bloody Legend?
In 1805, the British Navy won a decisive victory over French and Spanish forces at the Battle of Trafalgar. This momentous event took place near Cape Trafalgar on the southwest coast of Spain. Unfortunately, for the British, their naval leader, Vice Admiral Horatio Francis Nelson died during the battle.
To preserve the vice admiral for proper burial, his body was placed in a full barrel of rum for the trip back to England. And then, according to legend, some of the sailors on board decided to tap into the barrel, containing Lord Nelson's body. Even though the story cannot be undeniably confirmed, rum is still known in some circle's as Nelson's Blood.
P.S. One internet source, the Drinking Cup, has Admiral Nelson being pickled in a barrel of brandy instead of rum. If this version stands to be true, it only goes to show how variable history can be and how easily myths can evolve into the public discourse.
British Naval Rum Lives On
A Caribbean Art Form
During the 17th and 18th century, virtually every Caribbean island developed a rum industry of its own, which continues even to today. Currently, Puerto Rico is by far the largest producer, but most islands proudly distill their own brand.
Pusser's Rum, the official product of the British Navy, mixes as many as 21 different brands of island rums to create a unique blend. This rum mixture is sold for a year, when a new selection of island rum is created. By the way, the word, Pusser, is a corruption of the British nautical term, purser, who on a military ship served in a way very similar to a quartermaster.
Black Tot Day
On August 1, 1970, the British Navy discontinued its daily rum ration, thus making July 31, 1970, the last day that rum was distributed onboard a royal ship. Since that time, July 31st has been known as Black Tot Day. However, not all is lost, for once the daily ration had been discontinued, it was now possible for this highly-prized, British naval liquor to be sold to the general public under the package of Pusser's Rum. Besides that, profits from sale of Pusser's goes to benefit retired and disabled British naval veterans.
Rum Adventures Today
The Boat Drunks are a popular band in an obscure venue (Trop Rock). Nonetheless, they wrote and performed this nifty tune after spending a day or two, exploring some of the more colorful drinking establishments that can be found on the Coast of Jamaica with some of the band members of Little Feat. Keep in mind this excursion was done years ago, when Caribbean travel was cheaper and safer.
The Rhum Bar
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Harry Nielsen
Harry Nielsen (author) from Durango, Colorado on July 21, 2017:
Thanks. I just happened across the subject while researching other topics.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 21, 2017:
What an interesting history of rum. Never even thought to ask how, when or where it originated. Thanks for the facts on this very unique topic.