English people are real masters in creating rituals from scratch, or almost from scratch; after all, even sport is an invention of theirs! But, when it came to the daily distribution of grog, a real problem had to be solved: when mixing the rum with water, they had to be careful “ … that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum”.
In order to do that, it was necessary to assess the number of the men who were entitled to receive their ration that day, excluding those who were unwell, out of ship, under punishment, underage, and even the (few) who didn’t drink spirits. So, the quantity of rum changed every day. Not a drop less than necessary should be used, or the men would be defrauded; nor a drop more, or the Navy would be robbed. Moreover, the individuals involved had to be tightly controlled, lest they should steal some rum from the stores. Then, the rum had to be mixed every day with the correct proportion of water. It was at this stage that they had to make it impossible for the men involved in the issuing ritual to hide part of the rum and dole out grog with too much water in it.
The procedures regulating the daily issue of grog, the so called “tot ”, dealt with all these difficulties, and they evolved with time into a proper rite of the Royal Navy: it constituted the most pleasant part of the day, a key moment of bonding for the men, which strengthened their collective identity, confirmed hierarchical ranks and was the expression of masculinity and adulthood. A ritual so rich in meaning that it would deserve a thorough study. In the course of time there were changes, and there were slight differences from ship to ship, but its substance remained the same.
What follows is a reconstruction – necessarily abridged - of the tot, as it was performed in the first decades of the XX century, a period about which we have the most reliable, if nostalgic, sources.
At 10.30 in the morning the stores assistant – nicknamed Jack Dusty – starts the bookkeeping and assesses the exact amount of rum required that day.
At 11 Six Bells are followed by the boatswain’s whistle. “Up Spirits!” calls the boatswain’s mate, followed by the murmurs of the men who are eagerly awaiting the main social event of the day. Then, the Petty Officer of the day goes up to the Officer of the day and politely reminds him that it is time for Up Spirits. The Officer ushers into the spirit room a small party consisting of the Petty Officer, Jack Dusty with his helper, nicknamed Tanky, and often a small guard.
After a complex and ritualized routine, which includes taking the keys, going below deck and unlocking the door, the whole group enters the spirit room where Jack Dusty and Tanky draw out the right quantity of rum. Another intricate routine follows, to lock the room, retain the key and go up into a room where rum is measured again, under the watchful eye of the Officer of the day.
In the meantime, by 11.45 the grog tub, with its splendid brass lettering The King – God Bless Him has been set up on the deck.
When the party with the breaker of rum reaches the tub, Jack Dusty starts the proceedings and the rum is measured again. Next, Tanky measures the water in the tub and offers a glass to the Officer, with the words “Test for salt, sir ”. If the water is good, the Officer nods, the rum is poured into the tub and stirred thoroughly. Grog is ready. The men form long lines and the issue starts.
When everybody has received their ration, what is left over in the tub is emptied over the ship’s side into the sea. Even this part of the ceremony follows a precise procedure of words and gestures.
The whole ceremony is often accompanied by the sound of bagpipes!
-This article is written by Marco Pierini-
My name is Marco Pierini. I own and run a small tourist business in my seaside town in Tuscany, Italy. With my partner Francesco Rufini we founded La Casa del Rum (The House of Rum) that runs a beach bar, distributes Premium Rums and organizes rum seminars and events.
Many years ago, I got a degree in Philosophy in Florence, Italy, and I studied Political Science in Madrid,Spain. But my real passion has always been History and through History I have always tried to know the world, and men.
Then, I discovered rum and I decided to make a profession of it. I realized Rum has a long, terrible and fascinating history, made of planters and slaves, sailors and pirates, imperial fleets and revolutions. Yet, a History still largely unknown. So I decided to join my lifelong passion, History, to my current job, rum, by writing about the History of Rum.
And here I am.