In April 1731, at sea, probably not far from La Havana, a Spanish coast guard stopped and boarded a British brig, Rebecca, under suspicion of smuggling. What happened next is not clear, but seven years later, in 1738, the Rebecca’s Captain Robert Jenkins exhibited to a committee of the House of Commons his own left ear, cut off by the Spanish that – he said - also pillaged the ship and insulted the British King. British public opinion was already angry with Spain for other “outrages” on British ships and war began in October 1739, later called “War of Jenkins’ Ear ”.
A large fleet sailed to the West Indies under the command of Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon, a great Captain that showed his professional qualities, and his humanity, with the quick conquest of the important town Porto Bello.
In the West Indies, the daily distribution of rum as alternative to beer was normal. But usually sailors drank the spirit pure, in one gulp, a dangerous practice indeed, the cause of many accidents in the rigging at sea and also of many problems of discipline.
Vernon consulted the captains and the surgeons of his fleet, then on August 21, 1740, signed a General Order that deserves to be widely quoted:
“Whereas it manifestly appears … to be the unanimous opinion of both Captains and Surgeons, that the pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams, and often at once, is attended with many fatal effects to their morals as well to their health, which are visibly impaired thereby, and many of their lives shortened by it, besides the ill consequences arising from stupefying their rational qualities, which makes them heedlessly slaves to every passion; [I order the Captains]
... to take particular care that rum be no more served in specie to any of the ship’s company under your command, but the respective daily allowance of half a pint a man for all your officers and ship’s company, be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to every half pint of rum, to be mixed in scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon 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, and when so mixed it is to be served to them in two servings in the day, the one between the hours of 10 and 12 in the morning, and the other between 4 and 6 in the afternoon.”
“a quart” was the fourth part of a gallon, roughly 1 liter, so the new beverages had roughly 1 part of rum for 4 parts of water. At first, the seamen did not like the new system, but it spread quickly all over the Royal Navy and they had to accept it. Drunkenness did not disappear on the ships, but it decreased significantly.
Edward Vernon’s General Order was the beginning of one of the most impressive, strong, typical, and frankly astounding, rituals of the Royal Navy that lasted for more than 200 years, but we will write about it in future articles.
The new drink had no name, but with their traditional flair for names, the sailors soon gave it one. Vernon’s nickname was “Old Grogram” by a waterproof cloak he usually wore.
So his drink was called “Grog”.
-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.