by Piet Coetzer

Celebrating international Rum Day

When getting drunk was literally to your good health

Final on rum.jpg

If you are one of those people who believe that it was the colonists who settled at the most southern tip of Africa – and especially those un-godly French Huguenots who joined them – that were the first to use the 'dop system' of feeding workers liquor at the end of the working day, you are wrong. It all started with those Limeys of England’s Royal navy. 

Even before the 17th century, the Royal Navy issued a daily ration of liquor to its sailors. Originally each sailor was allotted a gallon of beer or wine per day. But storage of so much liquor on board became a problem. By the middle of the 17th century, which was more or less the time that Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Cape of Good Hope, the daily ration was changed to hard spirits.

At first mainly brandy was used, but after the British conquered Jamaica in 1687 enlisted men were allowed half a pint of neat rum twice daily. Even the boys on board got half rations.

At least some senior officers however, became worried about the damage so many drunken sailors could do to themselves and His Majesty’s property.

In August 1740, the then commander of the fleet‘s West Indies Squadron, admiral Edward Vernon, was so concerned over what he called “the swinish vice of drunkenness” on the ships under his command that he ordered the rum to be watered down.

To make the drink more palatable for the men he also ordered that some lime juice and sugar should be added to the water. His order, in part, also read “... let those that are good husbanders (meaning thrifty at the time) receive extra lime juice and sugar”.

He also did not want his men to be cheated by being short-dealt on the rum in the mix and ordered for it “... to be mixed in a scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon the deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch, who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum.”

What Vernon did not realise at the time, was that he was also doing his men a great favour in terms of their physical health.

Some years after he issued his 'rum order', naval officers noticed that the West Indies Squadron sailors were healthier than other sailors. It turned out that the lime juice added to their rum prevented scurvy.

The lime juice added to their rum however, also led to the nickname 'Limey' for British sailors. It is believed to have started off in the mid 19th century as 'lime-juicer' and only to later be shortened to just 'limey'.

Over time it lost its narrow naval connection and by 1880 was used in reference to British people in general who arrived by ship as immigrants to the colonies. It was widely used in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

For those who are not devoted drinkers, it might be news but especially in the English-speaking world a “National Rum Day” is celebrated every year – by some on the second Saturday in August and by others on October 21.

There are a number of legends about the origin of this special day for rum drinkers. I relate here one of the more interesting stories

            Rum Day is celebrated on October 21st. This day marks the death of

            Admiral Horatio Nelson in his victorious battle over Napoleon’s navy.

            Had this decisive battle gone the other way, we might instead now be

            speaking French. Other than the daily rations of rum that the sailors had  

            and the courage it emboldened them with before going into battle, here is

            the other connection between this day and rum:


            Upon his death, the crew placed Admiral Nelson’s body in a large cask

            of rum to preserve it until the ship returned to England. Legend has it that

            when Nelson’s ship arrived in port, the cask was opened and found to be

            half-empty. His torso and head were significantly decomposed.


            Apparently, members of the crew had tapped the barrel and consumed a

            fair amount of the rum at sea. From that day on, sailors of the Royal Navy

            celebrate the battle of Trafalgar by drinking a ‘tot of Nelson’s blood’ (navy

            rum), toasting the memory of the great Admiral.


There was, until 1970, also the tradition that when a crew performed well, be it in battle or otherwise, they were rewarded with an extra ration of rum to celebrate. This was known as 'splicing the mainbrace'.

The origin of this term hails from the days of sail when the mainbrace was a heavy piece of rigging vital to the ship’s steering. Fixing it was a difficult and crucial task and after the mainbrace was spliced, it was customary for captains to order an extra drink for the crew. 

Then in 1970 the British House of Commons decided it was time to abolish the rum ration. The last time the sailors received their daily tot was on July 31 of that year.

That day became known as Black Tot Day – another occasion for traditionalists to visit the nearest pub to 'splice the mainbrace' albeit for their own account.


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Issue 392


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