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January 19, 2010

Let's Splice the Main Brace!

Last week George and I attended a lecture presented by the Key West Maritime Historical Society about The History of Naval Rum. George donned his new Pusser’s Rum t-shirt and we arrived early to get a good seat. Good thing we did, as the maximum occupancy for the room was reached quite early and some were turned away at the door. I hope they are able to present it again for those who missed it, as it was a very engaging talk and we both enjoyed it very much.

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The special guest lecturer was an expert indeed: Admiral Sir Edward Vernon. Born in Westminster England on November 12, 1684, he joined the Royal Navy in 1700 when he was about to turn 16. He rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a Captain in 1706 at the age of 22, and was in command of HMS Rye. In 1739 Vice Admiral Vernon led a fleet in the famous “War of Jenkins Ear” and with a very small force, he captured Porto Bello during a glorious victory. His later success at Cartagena in 1741 was less than glorious and he returned to England, where he served the last 4 of his 46 years of Naval Service and retired.

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Life at sea in the 1600’s and 1700’s was hard and tough, and Admiral Vernon was concerned with his crew’s well being; most other Admirals of his time were not. A daily issue of alcohol, referred to as a Tot, was to compensate for the hardships experienced at sea, and also helped to keep morale high and was believed to instill courage before battle. It’s no surprise that it also was the cause of many accidents and led to many punishments. In an attempt to prevent these, Admiral Vernon was the pioneer of change to the long standing tradition of alcohol rationing in the British Navy. He is most well known for his proclamation in 1740 that the standard issue of rum was to be mixed with water. Known to wear a Grogram coat, he had earned the nickname of “Old Grogram” or sometimes merely “Old Grog.” Thus the mixture of rum and water soon became known as Grog!

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Beer was originally the standard issue for seamen; each man was given 1 gallon per day. Small beer was very weak and spoiled within a few weeks, but was better and lasted longer than water stored in casks. Strong beer, which was frequently watered down, lasted longer and was therefore issued on longer trips abroad. India Pale Ale was a highly hopped beer and very strong so it was able to survive the long voyage to India. Beer, however, was a constant cause for complaint; it spoiled quickly and took up voluminous cargo space.

Only so much beer could be stored on board and captains would replenish alcohol stocks with whatever was available: Wines from Portugal and the Mediterranean; Fortified wines (brandy added) such as port or sherry; Arrack was a strong drink made in the Orient from fermented palm sap, fruits, rice, or molasses; and of course Rum which was made from sugar cane in West Indies and Caribbean.

Columbus introduced Sugar Cane to the West Indies in 1493. The first rum was made in Brazil, Barbados and Jamaica. By the mid 1700‘s, Rum was made throughout the Caribbean. The sweet juices from the sugar cane are first turned into molasses. This syrup is then fermented and distilled into rum, which is then aged in casks giving it the gold color, or charred casks for darker color. Rum was cheap in the West Indies. It also stowed easily and didn’t deteriorate. Sailors instantly preferred the taste of West Indies & Caribbean Rum to the beer they had been used to.

When Vice Admiral William Penn’s fleet conquered Jamaica in 1655, shipboard supplies of beer were diminishing so Rum was purchased locally. This was the first use of Rum in the Royal Navy. Admiral Vernon served in the West Indies from 1708 to 1712, commanding the 60 gun ship Jersey.

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Before 1740 the daily rum ration per person was one half pint (80z), measured out above, of 96 proof. It was drank neat in one gulp with no “heel taps,” which meant without putting it down. Besides the ships stores of rum even more was smuggled aboard by enterprising sailors.

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The Scuttled Butt on Deck

On August 21, 1740 Admiral Vernon ordered the standard issue of one half pint of rum to be mixed with one quart of water. It was mixed on deck in a scuttled butt (open cask) to ensure no man was defrauded his allowance. He also ordered that it be rationed out in two servings: the first between 10am and 12pm, and the second between 4 and 6pm. He encouraged the addition of sugar and limes, which was also helped in the prevention of scurvy. The original ratio in 1740 was 4 parts water to one part rum, however this resulted in discontent. The standard ration became 3 parts water to 1 part rum; two part grog was more popular but not a standard measure, and Officer’s were allowed “Neaters” or pure rum.

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Admiral Vernon calling "Up Spirits!" on the boatswain's pipe

Following dinner at 1 bell (12:30), the petty officer of the day would remind the Officer of the day that it was time for “Up Spirits”. The boatswain was called to play “Nancy Dawson” or another lively tune which was the signal for the cook of each mess to repair to the Rum Tub. The requisite amount of rum from the spirit room was brought topside and mixed in the Scuttled Butt with water. The Store’s Assistant- “Jack Dusty” was to keep track of how many rations went to each mess. He was nicknamed Jack Dusty because he was in charge of making the bread, and was usually covered in flour.

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Rationing out of the Scuttled Butt

Still, even mixing water into the half pint of 96 proof rum didn’t reduce the accidents, or behavioral problems and resulting punishments; many began to advocate a reduction in the daily rum issue, beyond the watering down. In 1824 the Admiralty reduced the rum ration to ¼ pint per day, and compensated the seamen with a monetary bonus and increased meat ration. Grog was also restricted to noon issue only. Conveniently the Imperial Gallon was introduced that same year, which increased measures by 20%. So while the ration was reduced in theory, the actual amount was not much different.

The issue of grog came under fire many times. Eventually a ¼ pint a day was still considered too much, and “Rum Rats” always had a way of getting extra supplies on board. In 1850 the ration was cut in half again: 1/8 pint per person per day. When discussions began of ending the tradition, there were disagreements of how and when to ease off the rum consumption. It would be difficult to deal with the response from the seamen during peace time, while they also considered it equally offensive to end it during war time. Finally, it was determined there was “no place for rum in the modern sophisticated Navy” and the long standing tradition of daily rum rations ended on August 1, 1970.

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Enjoying a tot of grog

The American Connection
During the war of Jenkins Ear in 1739, the North American Colonies provided 3000 volunteers to assist the British Navy. Serving along side Admiral Vernon was Lawrence Washington who, upon returning to Virginia, built his plantation and named it Mount Vernon after him!

The American Colonials serving with the Royal Navy became accustomed to their daily grog. The Continental Navy issued ½ pint per man each day and the US Navy (which originated from the Continental Navy) re-established the tradition in 1795 and also began issuing ½ pint of rum per sailor per day. In 1806 they tried to substitute whisky as it was considered “more American,” but the sailors objected. By 1835 the rum ration was restricted to Officers only, and on September 1, 1862 Congress and Lincoln ended the “Up Spirits” ration, over 100 years before British Royal Navy.

Some Terminology

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While ashore, British Sailors sometimes referred to their rum by the compass: a “Northwester” was a 50:50 mixture of rum and water; a “West Northwester” was two parts water to one part rum; “More Northing” is a request for more rum in the mixture; and “Due North” is a “Neater“, or pure rum

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Square Rigged Ships
The line controlling each end of the yard (horizontal bar) is called a Brace. The Main Brace is the largest and most important of all the Braces. The Main Brace could become worn and damaged in heavy weather, or from shot during battle and could part. A parted Main Brace must be spliced, which was an exacting task demanding speed, resilience and knowledge. A small reward was thus justified, so the sailor was given an extra ration of rum or grog. This would disgruntle the other sailors who wanted the rationing to be fair and even for everybody. Eventually whenever the Main Brace was spliced, the entire crew would be included in the reward of an extra ration. “Let’s Splice the Main Brace!” became a signal or invitation for all to drink.

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These flags mean "Splice the Main Brace"

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Uh oh! Looks like George is enlisting!

All the information and images in this post are credited to the Key West Maritime Historical Society. The presenter acknowledged the book "Nelson's Blood, The Story of Naval Rum" by James Pack.

Posted by Heather at January 19, 2010 12:20 PM


Looks like a great lecture! I'll toast you all and drink a painkiller out of my Pussers Painkiller Club mug when I get home from gymnastics with Lily and Alison tonight! I now stock the cabinets with that crazy coconut stuff. Who knew it came in cans!? Miss you both lots. XOX PS - Dead after Dark was a fun read.

Posted by: Julia Ghoulia at January 21, 2010 10:25 AM

Very cool indeed - Admiral Vernon looks as if he could have been a great grandfather of mine!

Posted by: Brett McDonald at July 30, 2011 09:29 PM

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