RoyalJames

Water, beer and rum

11 posts in this topic

In the republic of pirates Woodard states that:
”..Royal Navy rations gave each man a half pint of rum and a gallon of beer every day..”

What about water? Did they drink water, or was the beer of such low alcohol strength that it served as the common drink aboard? In that case, how did they provide those quantities, were they able to brew beer along the way?

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From what I know, and this may be dodgy, this is essentially how grog became a thing. What I've been told is that initially the navy tried supplying drinking water, but stagnant fresh water tends to grow all sorts of nasty stuff in it when left alone for long periods. So, they tried beer but it was very expensive and had the side effect of getting the crew pissed. Rum solved the first problem (what with having all of the sugar cane in the world from the Caribbean colonies) but only exacerbated the latter (plus, any good drinker can tell you, liquor does not quench thirst worth a damn). So, a solution was devised involving mixing rum, water, and various fruit juices (often lime). The alcohol in the rum kept the water from going scummy, the water diluted the alcohol so no one would get so drunk off the stuff, and the juice made it taste a bit better, prevented the mixture from spoiling, and helped keep scurvy at bay.

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I think you are right about blending the grog, making it strong enough to get the drink clean but not that strong that it got the men drunk.

any good drinker can tell you, liquor does not quench thirst worth a damn

Exactly, half a pint of rum every day and in addition a lot of salted food, would require something to keep the body’s fluid balance.

After a quick glance at the Endeavour (thus one single ship, and slightly outside the period) it seems like they took onboard a lot of water from the start. About 30 tons divided into 30-gallon and 100-gallon barrels. Beer was loaded in England but at no other place (I think), and wine at Madeira.

A while ago I found a video clip of a guy storing water in a barrel for some months and then drank it as an experiment. The look of his face was indescribable, and he couldn’t force himself to swallow it. Unfortunately I have lost the link, but will post it if I find it again.

From Endeavour again, 1771 Jan 1:

“I had been unacountably troubled with Musquitos ever since we left Batavia, and still imagin'd that they increasd instead of decreasing, although my opinion was universaly thought improbable; today however the mystery was discoverd, for on getting up water today, Dr Solander who happned to stand near the scuttle cask observd an infinite number of them in their water state in it, who as soon as the sun had a little effect upon the water began to come out in real Effective mosquetos incredibly fast.”

Further on, it is described that they had some sort of machine to purify water (probably just boiling it) but they didn’t use it because it required too much firewood.

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After a quick glance at the Endeavour (thus one single ship, and slightly outside the period) it seems like they took onboard a lot of water from the start. About 30 tons divided into 30-gallon and 100-gallon barrels. Beer was loaded in England but at no other place (I think), and wine at Madeira.

Captain Cook is known to have brewed beer during the voyage to, among other things, help prevent scurvy. It was not beer in the modern sense, as the fermentable sugar was provided primarily by molasses and not grains.

We at first made our beer of a decoction of the spruce leaves; but, finding that this alone made it too astringent, we afterwards mixed with it an equal quantity of the tea plant (a name it obtained in my former voyage, from our using it as a tea then, as we also did now), which partly destroyed the astringency of the other, and made the beer exceedingly palatable, and esteemed by every one on board. We brewed it in the same manner as spruce beer, and the process is as follows. First make a strong decoction of the small branches of the spruce and tea-plants, by boiling them three or four hours, or until the bark will strip with ease from the branches; then take them out of the copper, and put in the proper quantity of molasses, ten gallons of which is sufficient to make a ton, or two hundred and forty gallons of beer. Let this mixture just boil; then put it into casks, and to it add an equal quantity of cold water, more or less according to the strength of the decoction, or your taste. When the whole is milk-warm, put in a little grounds of beer, or yeast if you have it, or anything else that will cause fermentation, and in a few days the beer will be fit to drink.

“Any one who is in the least acquainted with spruce pines will find the tree which I have distinguished by that name. There are three sorts of it: that which has the smallest leaves and deepest colour is the sort we brewed with, but doubtless all three might safely serve that purpose.

-Cook's Second Voyage towards the South Pole, 4th edit. vol i. pp. 99 and 101.

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Given that one of the primary reasons for stopping was to refill the water casks, I often wonder about this notion that water was kept for months on end or that it required alcohol to be added to it to kill off bacteria/make it palatable/etc. They were quite particular about the water they drank, as well, suggesting that perhaps the water would stay pure longer.

"The best water was that which came from rain water or from fountains or springs, and flowed swiftly. William Vaughan indicated that good water was known ‘By the clearnesse of it. That water is best which is light, transparent, agreeable to the sight, "Christalline, and which runneth from an higher to a lower ground’. (He also added that ‘some use to try [test] water by putting a clean Napkin in it and if any spots appeare upon the same they suspect the goodnesse of the water’.)" (Andrew Wear, Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680, p. 143)

Dampier gives an account of collecting rain water to refill their supply, specifically differentiating it from the water used to cook with.

"[Feb 14, 1684] …we had a violent Storm, which held us to the 3d Day of March, blowing commonly S.W. and S.W. by W. and W.S.W. thick Weather all the Time, with small drizling Rain, but not hard. We made a Shift however to save 23 Barrels of Rain-water, besides what we drest our Victuals withal." (William Dampier, Memoirs of a Buccaneer, Dampier’s New Voyage Round the World -1697-, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY, 1968, p. 65)

There are also numerous examples from sailor's accounts of them drinking water. (Many of them discuss the lack of it; apparently it was so common a thing that it was only worth mentioning when they didn't have it. This is problem with trying to understand history using period writers - when something is common, it isn't mentioned because their readers would already know about this. They weren't concerned with what someone reading 300 years later would know.

"Space was at a premium on these small [Dutch East Indiamen] vessels. Ships had to carry sufficient water and provisions for their large complement of seamen and occasional passengers on the long journeys. Drinking water stood in large barrels became turbid and malodorous within a short time, probably as a result of the sulphates present in most surface and well water in Holland. In addition small worms would make their appearance in this favorable substrate! For the journey to the Cape [of Good Hope] ships carried about 420 litres of water and 76 litres of ship’s beer per man. Fluids had to be rationed during periods that ships were becalmed." (J.C. de Villiers, "The Dutch East India Company, scurvy and the victualling station at the Cape," SAMJ, February 2006, p. 106)

"[Octob. 8, 1709] …they also found indifferent good [good - indifferent here sort of means 'neutral'] Water on the N.E. side of the Island, which rejoiced us to be so unexpectedly supplied; for the other Water on this side of the Island, had purg’d those that drank it aboard the Dutchess like Physick [medicine]." (Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, The Narrative Press, California, 2004, p. 145)

"[1696] …and our provisions and water spending apace, before we came to the Line, we had put our men to a quart each man for twenty-four hours, which was but a small quantity to poor men that eat dry biscuit and salt beef boiled in salt water, and in a hot climate..." (Edward Barlow, Barlow's journal of his life at sea in king's ships: East & West Indiamen & other merchantmen from 1659 to 1703, Volume 2, p. 462)

"[1686] And to increase our Difficulties, this Day we were brought to one Pint of Water a Man per Diem; our Water being but little in the Ship, and we fearing withal least we should lose our Passage about the Cape, thought to bear away from the Island of Mayota or Joanna…" (Abraham Crowley, "Crowley’s Voyage Round the Globe", reprinted in William Hacke’s A collection of original voyages (1699), Scholar’s Facimiles and Reprints, Delmar, New York, 1993, p. 31)

"[Edward England] I made shift to do the like on the 8th, together with forty three of my Ship’s Crew, including two Passengers and twelve Soldiers, having but five Tons of Water aboard; and after a Passage of forty eight Days, I arrived here October 26, almost naked and starv’d, having been reduced to a Pint of Water a Day and almost in despair of ever feeing Land, by Reason of the Calms we met with between the Coast of Arabia and Malabar. [From Captain Mackra’s letter in the section on Captain Edward England]" (Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates (3rd Edition), London, England, 1724, p. 121-2)

"[bartholomew Roberts] The Current still opposing their Endeavours, and perceiving no Hopes of beating up to their Ship, they came to an Anchor, and inconsiderately sent away the Boat to give the rest of the Company Notice of their Condition, and to order the Ship to them; but too soon, even the next Day, their Wants made them sensible of their Infatuation, for their Water was all expended, and they had taken no thought how they should be supply'd, till either the Ship came, or the Boat returned, which was not likely to be under five or fix Days. Here like Tantalus, they almost famished in Sight of the fresh Streams and Lakes; being drove to such Extremity at last, that they were forc'd to tare up the Floor of the Cabin, and patch up a fort of Tub or Tray with Rope Yarns, to paddle ashore, and fetch off immediate Supplies of Water to preserve Life." (Johnson, 3rd, p. 224)

"[Roberts] They continued their Course, and came to an Allowance of one single Mouthful of Water for 24 Hours, many of them drank their Urine, or Sea Water, which, instead of allaying, gave them an inextinguishable Thirst, that killed them : Others pined and wasted a little more Time in Fluxes [diarrheas] and Apyrexies [intermittent fevers], so that they dropped away daily: ...when they had not one Drop of Water left, or any other Liquor ['Liquor' often refers to generic liquids as it does in this passage, not the distilled spirits we immediately think of] to moisten or animate. ...When the Morning came, they saw Land from the Mast-Head, but it was at so great a Distance, that it afforded but an indifferent Prospect to Men who had drank nothing for the two last Days; however, they dispatch'd their Boat away, and late the fame Night it returned, to their no small Comfort, with a load of Water, informing them, that they had got off the Mouth of Meriwinga River on the Coast of Surinam." (Johnson, 3rd, p. 241-2)

"[Edward Low] After these Depredations, they steered for the Island of Madera, where missing other Booty, they took up with a Fishing-Boat, with two old Men and a Boy in her, one of which they detained on Board, but sent the other ashore with a Flag of Truce, demanding a Boat of Water of the Governor, on Pain of taking away the old Man's Life, whom they threatened to hang at the Yard-Arm, upon their refusal, but the Thing being complied with, the 'old Man was honourably (as the Pyrates say) discharged, and all the three much handsomer cloathed than when they took them." (Johnson, 3rd, p. 373 - emphasis mine)

You also find reference in the sailor's journals and the medical books to "small beer", which is a type of beer that contained very little alcohol. (As opposed to the regular beer, called "strong beer.")

"[1692] In the meantime came down the Dutch sloops from their factories to buy some strong and small beer and wine out of our ships." (Barlow, p. 433)

"And we eating ‘Peter Waren’ [petty warrant] victuals, as all the King’s ship do when they lie in harbour, which is a little brown bread made of the worst of their wheat, and drinking a little small beer, which is as bad as water bewitched, or, as the old saying is amongst us seamen- ‘Take a peck of malt and heave it overboard at London Bridge, and let it wash or swmin down the river of Thames as low as Gravesend, and then take it up.’ It would make better beer than we drunk; and also a little old, tough beef, when all the best was picked out, leaving to us poor seamen the sirloin next to the horns; and a little fish, or if they had not fish, then they would give us seven or eight pence in money for a month’s fish a man." (Barlow, Volume 1, p. 127)

And the beer may not have been all that much better than the water in any case.

"[George] Monck, writing on July 5 [1653], attributed much of the sickness to beer which was unfit to drink, and unlikely thought this may now appear as a source of infection, the naval beer of the period had too low an alcoholic content to inhibit bacterial growth. The Navy Commissioner [Nathanial] Bourne, writing a few weeks later, stated that even the new beer for the fleet was ‘so bad as none can be worse’, and must be thrown overboard." (John J. Keevil, Medicine and the Navy, vol. 2, p. 47)

However, there was certainly a problem with keeping the water from going bad. (Note that Dampier's account, while commenting on the quality of the water, still makes reference to men having "their Allowance" of it.)

"Besides the badness of our Water, it was stowed among the Pepper in the old, which made it very hot. Every Morning when we came to take our Allowance, it was so hot that a Man could hardly suffer his Hands in it, or hold a Bottle full of it in his Hands. I never any where felt the like, not courl have thought it possible that Water should heat to that degree in a Ship’s Hold. It was exceeding black too, and looked more like Ink than Water. Whether it grew so black with standing, was tinged with Pepper, I know not, for this Water was not so black when it was first taken up." (Dampier, p. 351)

"Having nothing to do till the Vice-roy’s Orders came, I went among some Islands to find a Watering-place, and, on a pretty high Island about a Mile long, and half as broad, I saw a fine clear Stream trickling down the Face of a Rock, about half a League from our Ship. I ordered my Men to fill about 20 Tuns of it, and being clearer than we had before, we made use of it, for drinking and boiling Rice. About 10 Days after we made Use of it, all my Men were affected with a violent Head-ach, and, among the rest, myself, which was a Distemper I never had been troubled with before.

I began to suspect that the Water might be the Cause, and ordered a large Copper-pot to be filled with it, and to boyl one Half of it away, and set the rest to Cool a day and a Night, which was accordingly done, and, on pouring off this water, I found a large Handful of a dark gray salt at the Bottom, of a sharp unsavoury Taste, which made me empty what remained of it into the Sea… (Alexander Hamilton, British sea-captain Alexander Hamilton's A new account of the East Indies, 17th-18th century, edited by Justin Corfield, Ian Morson, Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, N.Y., 2002, p. 487-8)

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There are also numerous examples from sailor's accounts of them drinking water. (Many of them discuss the lack of it; apparently it was so common a thing that it was only worth mentioning when they didn't have it. This is problem with trying to understand history using period writers - when something is common, it isn't mentioned because their readers would already know about this. They weren't concerned with what someone reading 300 years later would know.

And yet you find the most excellent citations on the subject. It's the same with all subjects, but I have wondered about water enough to find these invaluable.

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I only picked about half of them to cite. There are many more. (This would actually make a good start for future Surgeon's Journal article.)

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Thanks, very interesting reading!

It seems to be out of doubt that they often drank water as it was.

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Just out of curiosity, I'd wonder how that barrel of water would have tasted had it been kept in a dark room instead of next to a window.

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