The narrative most rum enthusiasts know about British navy rum usually starts around 1731, when the British Navy declared that (in certain parts of the globe) a daily ration of rum was to be issued to their sailors. Alternately, they might know that in 1740 Admiral Edward Vernon decreed that the sailors’ daily rum ration of an imperial half-pint (10 U.S. oz) was to be diluted with four parts water.
However, the British navy’s connection with rum goes back almost a century earlier, to 1655 in Jamaica, a date that the Navy itself cited in their 1966 recounting of naval rum history.
Unfortunately, the details of those early, informal tots are extremely murky. For instance, how much was a tot then? Was it every day? And did the sailors get Jamaican rum? The answer to that last question is “not likely”, since there’s little evidence rum was made in Jamaica that early, and a tale for another time.
If you dig around in old archival text long enough though, you may come across tantalizing insights. For example, in a May 31st, 1688 contract [i] between the navy and Ransford Waterhouse, who was a navy vendor. The entire contract appears below, but let’s look at an important snippet:
The said Ransford Waterhouse doth oblige himself to supply His Majesties Ships at Jamaica (that shall arrive from time to time, & at all times hereafter between the day of the date hereof, |and one yeare, or two yeares, or longer if said Commissioners shall think fitt) with good and wholesome proofe rumm, fitt for His Majesties Subjects ; viz., three-quarters of a pint of rumm, and a quarter of a pound of Muscovado sugar of 2 pence per pound to each man a day in leiu of half-a-pint of brandy formerly allowed by His Majesty to them…
In that era, the British navy wasn’t set up to consistently supply ships thousands of miles from home base. Instead, they signed contractors with merchant vendors in the field.
Waterhouse, one such vendor, commits to supplying British navy ships with “good and wholesome proofe rum”. That is, good rum of sufficient strength, although no specific criteria are given. The invention of the hydrometer wasn’t to be for another fifty years. Was Waterhouse diluting his rum? We don’t know.
In case you missed it on the first reading, three-fourths of an imperial pint (daily!) is a staggering amount of rum — the equivalent of 15 U.S. ounces. It’s fifty percent more than the amount formally decreed by the 1731 ration issue.
The rum supplied by Waterhouse almost assuredly wasn’t a custom multi-island blend like later navy rum was. Rather, Waterhouse was likely supplying regular casks of Jamaican rum, which would have been available not much longer after the British took over Jamaica. It’s an important point; The rum served to British sailors constantly evolved between 1655 and 1970.
Equally of note, this rum Waterhouse is to supply replaces the lesser, but still substantial amount of brandy (a half-pint daily!) normally provided to sailors. It’s a little known that before rum became the British Navy’s de facto spirit circa 1806, sailors were equally likely to get beer, wine, Batavia arrack or brandy as their daily tot.
Should you wade through the extensive, olde English legalese towards the end of the document, you’ll come across another interesting excerpt:
Ransford Waterhouse doth further covenant and agree to supply His Majesties said ships with Cask to Carry the said Rumm on board during their being in Harbour, but to bee returned againe ; Butt for what Rumme the said ships shall have occasion to carry to sea they are to provide Caske for it themselves for their Voyage.
Basically, it says that while ships are in port, Waterhouse will let them use the casks he supplied the rum in. But departing ships are responsible for supplying their own rum casks. Where they might obtain such casks isn’t specified. It’s possible that Waterhouse and other vendors might have simply sold casks to them as needed. I can’t help but think of the deposits on modern day soda bottles that some localities require.
How the British navy went from ad hoc rum issuances in 1655 to pumping out millions of gallons per year of a custom blend by the 1840s is a particularly interesting topic that warrants further research. The above is just one tiny, but intriguing glance into that narrative.
[i] The Mariner’s Mirror; Volume 8, 1922 – Issue 5