A regular feature for the sailors of the Royal British Navy was the Rum given to them every single day, right up until 1970. A tradition that has been the longest running in military history was unquestioningly accepted and carried out from 1655 until August 1st, 1970 – a day referred to as ‘Black Tot Day’.
The rum ration, or tot, was the everyday dose of rum given to sailors on Royal Navy ships. A custom that was followed for over 300 years, it was believed to boost the morale of the sailors whose workplace was the decks of an 18th century ship.
Nothing comfortable or easy about cannonballs, gunpowder and the rough seas!
Now, imagine the days before complex ship machinery and refrigeration came into being. Food on the voyages was often rotten and would develop algae in the extreme weather conditions. Life at sea wasn’t easy; it was tireless working for months with great risk of injury involved. The daily rum was what came to the rescue for the homesick and seasick sailors, the best the sailors could get.
The rum ration had its own ritual attached. Now the “daily tot” or rum ration wasn’t just a formality, it was a much awaited everyday ritual for generations of sailors. The ritual was simple; every single day around noon, the Boatswain’s would signal “Up Spirits” suggesting that it was time to “keep the spirits up”.
Given out between 11am and noon, sailors would bellow, “Stand fast for the Holy Ghost.” The Boatswain of every battalion would be in charge of taking out the rum and giving it to his team.
A double dose after every victory was a great incentive for sailors.
To clean or not to clean
An odd practice of the rum ritual was the glasses were never washed from the inside; they were washed only from the outside. The popular belief being the residue of past tots sticking on the inside makes the tot even stronger. Subsequently, they were always kept separate from the other glasses, in anticipation of a growing effect of the residue making for a stronger tot. The stronger the better!
Let’s look deeper
Did you know rum wasn’t really the first choice of the Navy? In the earlier days, sailors were given beer instead of water. Later, they were given brandy, and even a dreadful spirit known as arak. However, with many deaths on the ship after consuming arak, they decided to do away with this spirit.
Rum, on the other hand was easily sourced from the Caribbean colonies. A stable and safe drink, rum was issued twice to the sailors. Over the years, neat rum was slowly replaced with watering it down with lime juice and sugar making it more palatable to them.
Another reason why the Royal Navy cheered the rum ration was related to scurvy – a disease linked to deficiency of Vitamin C. Rum mixed with lime juice was an excellent source of Vitamin C that worked well for the sailors.
All good things come to an end
The rum ration died a slow death, first as rations were being cut and finally after many discussions, the Navy decided to abolish this much loved tradition in the year 1970.
A Great Rum Debate in the House of Commons sadly put an end to this historic tradition.
Given the technological progress and complex machinery being handled in the ship, it was concluded that regular intake of rum could lead to instability while handling the complex technology. Today, the Royal Navy is more tech savvy and this calls for people that need to be sober.
“Men need to have a steady hand and sharp eye to keep everyone safe.”
The last of rum ration was allotted on 31 July 1970 and was indeed a sad day for many. It is known as the Black Tot Day and thus, rum ration remains relegated to history. Sailors wore black armbands symbolic of lost spirit; dramatically, some held a funeral for their tots.
However, this old and much loved custom will be forever in our hearts and Rum in our glasses! Let’s raise a toast to all the sailors of the past and present. Oh, yes please!
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