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Reasons Why the Royal Navy Bribed Sailors With Booze

The rum ration existed until 1970

This diorama shows a sailor receiving his "daily tot." It was even mixed according to custom: on a "scuttled butt" with an officer overseeing the mixing. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Black Tot Day was the final day of a centuries-long tradition.

On July 31, 1970, British sailors lined up to receive their final rum ration. “Mock funerals were staged, “ writes Wayne Curtis for The Daily Beast. Sailors wore black armbands. On one ship, imbibers threw their empty glasses–and the barrel–into the harbor. 

For a very long time, the daily rum ration was an essential part of life in the Royal Navy. But by the time Black Tot Day came around, Curtis writes, there weren’t many in the Navy who still took advantage of the privilege they still technically had. The Navy was no longer a body of men whose rations regularly went rotten (or at least tasted bad). It was a professionalized body of people who had more to do with nuclear technology and electronics than they did with cannonballs and cutlasses–and really, really needed to be sober. 

The Admiralty Board, which oversees the Navy, wrote:

The rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual's tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people's lives may depend.

But the rum ration was such an important part of naval tradition that it prompted a lengthy debate in the House of Commons, writes Georgie Evans for The Telegraph. One Member of Parliament argued that "in fact the rum enabled the sailors 'to face the coming action with greater strength and determination,'" Evans writes. Detractors pointed out that the "daily tot" was enough rum to raise a sailor's blood alcohol levels above the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle. They eventually won out.

Here are some of the reasons the daily alcohol ration was so important for so long:

Most food didn’t stay good for very long

Although the sailors of the 1700s and 1800s Royal Navy ate better than many accounts would have you believe, the food that lasted before refrigeration was still at best bland and at worst sort of rotten. “Records show that 18th- and 19th- century British sailors enjoyed a high-calorie, protein-packed diet superior to those of most working-class landlubbers,” writes Jennie Cohen for History.com. 

For all that, writes Curtis, what they ate didn’t taste amazing. “Water in the casks would often develop algae and taste putrid and sour,” he writes. Beer, which the Navy served before switching to rum, didn’t last when it was hot and humid.

Spirits like rum or brandy (which the sailors were served for a time) retained their good taste and didn’t spoil, so they might be the only tasty thing sailors got in a day.

Scurvy

A big reason that the Royal Navy encouraged the rum ration was related to scurvy–an ailment that was common to sailors, who didn’t get much fresh produce that contained Vitamin C. Don’t get confused, though: Rum doesn’t naturally contain Vitamin C in any meaningful quantity. However, it goes well with lime juice, which ships carried and gave out to sailors daily.

In 1740, concerned by the drunkenness of sailors who received half a pint of rum per day, Admiral Sir Edward Vernon declared that the rum should be mixed with water, writes Harry Sword for Vice. To that mix was added the daily dose of lime and some sugar–although the connection between citrus and scurvy wasn’t formalized for more than 50 years.

Being a sailor was tedious–when it wasn’t terrifying

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned,” British humorist Samuel Johnson wrote in the latter half of the 1700s.

Like many funny people, Johnson had a talent for overstatement, but it was true that sailing was hard work. At sea for up to months at a time, doing backbreaking work in a highly disciplined environment where punishments like flogging could be meted out, sailing was no day at the beach. “There was no system of imprisonment, or financial penalty,” writes Andrew Lambert for BBC, “although the rum ration could be stopped.” At the same time, Britain spent much of the 1700s and 1800s at war, where chance of injury and death was relatively high.

The demands of such a life helped to make the rum ration “a vital part of the fabric of the Royal Navy–rationed, used as a currency, and a veritable way of life,” Sword writes.

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