The Royal Navy has long been associated with the consumption of rum, the drink produced from sugarcane in the islands of the Caribbean. Indeed as late as 1970 rum was still being issued at noon each day to the crews of Royal Navy warships. It was only political pressure from above, combined with an increasing need for sobriety in the operation of modern equipment that finally killed it off. Yet why would a Navy based in the chill waters of northern Europe adopt a beverage from so far afield? Were there local spirits available? One can well understand that French brandy might have been problematic, but why not issue Scottish whisky, or Plymouth gin, distilled on the very doorstep of one of the Royal Navy’s principle bases?
In the 17th and 18th century beer was the chief drink of most people in Britain, both afloat and on land. The water supply was often a problem in many urban areas, where it was suspected of spreading disease. On the other hand the process of brewing had long been known to render the dirtiest of water safe to drink, as well as giving it a nutritional value. All towns and many villages had their own brew houses, and “small beer” was consumed by women and children too. The naval beer ration was eight pints per man per day, and in home waters beer remained the staple drink on board ship.
But this was a time of imperial expansion, especially across the Atlantic in North America and the Caribbean, which gave the navy a problem. Beer in cask does not travel particularly well, and this is doubly so in the heat of the tropics. The solution to this problem was provided by replacing beer with a larger water ration and a separate allocation of half a pint of spirits. Unlike beer, strong alcohol is inert, and only deteriorates slowly. The spirit chosen was sourced locally. In the East Indies it was fiery arrack and in the Caribbean it was rum. Rum was becoming freely available at this time. It was distilled as a by product of the booming sugar industry, and so was both inexpensive and available in significant quantities. The navy in the West Indies was quick to adopt it.
Vice Admiral Edward Vernon was an irascible man, known for his intemperate speech and his bitter criticism of politicians. His nickname in the service was Old Grog, on account of the boat cloak of grogram (a coarsely-woven fabric) he always wore when onboard ship. After years of urging the government to send an expedition to the West Indies to combat the country’s Spanish enemies, he was chosen to lead such an attack himself in 1739. He was despatched to the Caribbean with a tiny force of only six ships. This was intended to be a trap for the irritating Admiral. The hope of the government was that he would be soundly defeated, and that would be the end of Old Grog’s career.
Unfortunately for his political masters, they had underestimated Vernon. In spite of his uncultured image, he was a commander of considerable talent. He was one of the first admirals to make his captains practise likely naval manoeuvres in advance of action. He also insisted that the crews of all his ships should be thoroughly drilled in how to handle their cannon. He issued one of the first set of fighting instructions to his tiny fleet, a practice that was to become the norm for all subsequent commanders. As a result it was a very well prepared little force that arrived in the West Indies. Vernon won a considerable victory over the Spanish, including the capture of the town of Porto Bellow. In the wave of public enthusiasm that greeted news of his victory, the government was forced to send him considerable reinforcements, and promote him to commander-in-chief in the West Indies.
It was the following year that Admiral Vernon made his most notable contribution to the life of the Royal Navy. The rum issue was a firmly established practice amongst Royal Navy ships based in the West Indies, when he took up his expanded new command. The new fleet commander was horrified with what he witnessed. Even in a hard-drinking age, the result of issuing a half pint of neat spirits at noon, the equivalent of eight double whiskies, caused problems. The hands would drink the rum immediately, followed shortly after by the inevitable drunken disorder, fighting and numerous unpleasant accidents about ship during the next few hours. Vernon was determined to act, and issued two instructions. The first was that the rum ration should be split in two, half issued at noon and the rest at sunset. The second innovation was that the rum should be mixed with water in the proportion of three parts water to one part rum. The new drink was inevitably named after its instigator by the seaman, and grog went on to become the staple drink of the Royal Navy.