One of the most common mistakes among contemporaries is the deep, often unconscious belief that the world has started today, or yesterday at the latest. What I mean is, the belief that many of the phenomena we see in our world are completely new, never seen before. That is the case, for example, in the modern obsession with wellness, body care, health etc. We think this is something new, a mania of our rich and affluent society, unknown in the past, which was poorer, rougher and only mindful of the basic things of life. Well, this is not true.

XVIII century Britain was rich and powerful. No important political or economic perils threatened it. And, like today, good society was very worried about wellness and health, both of body and mind. Modern scientific medicine was only beginning and the air, the climate, food, drinks, habits were being studied with great commitment to protect and improve people’s health and well-being. For example, it is in this century that spa treatments and the use of sea bathing for therapeutic purposes became widespread.

The first Italian distillers of the XIII century called the spirit they produced aqua vitae, water of life, beca

use they believed it was a panacea for many ills and since then the links between spirits and wealth in European culture have always been

strong. I don’t know much about the history of medicine, but I think that their belief had a real basis. As we know, alcohol is an antisepti

c and it is reasonable to think that the sick people to whom aqua vitae was administered had health benefits, even though at the time the existence of microbes was unknown. For centuries, in Europe and then in the American colonies there was a widespread persuasion that distilled beverages were nourishing and healthy.

In  the XVIII century  the surge of  new, scientific medicine started to undermine the confidence in the health-giving properties of alcohol and some doctors began to advise against the perils of spirits abuse. The temperance movement moved its first steps.

Therefore, in order to spur the consumption of rum, it was necessary to present it as something healthy and useful for the well-being of the people. Even better if  it was possible to ease the burden of the new-found diffidence towards spirits o

n its competitors which, in the Great Britain of the time, were mainly two: brandy among the upper classes, and gin among the lower ones. And both of them were targeted.

As early as 1690 a Dalby Thomas, an advocate for British Caribbean sugar interests, writes: “ [Rum is] wholesomer for the Body, which is observed by the long living of those in the Collonies that are great Drinkers of Rum, which is the Spirits we made of Molasses, and the short living of those that are great Drinkers of Brandy in those parts.”

And even in 1770 when rum imports had been surpassing brandy ones for decades, a Robert Dossie, physician, wrote: “

The drinking of Rum in moderation is more salutary, and in excess much less hurtful, than the drinking of Brandy” Pages and pages of medical evidence, chemical dissertations, pseudo-scientific experiments followed.

Gin was an easier target. It was a dangerous competitor for bread in the use of the precious grain and its huge diffusion among the poor was a major social problem of the time, to the point that towards the end of the century Parliament intervened with prohibitions and limitations that greatly reduced both production and consumption. But to rum advocates it was not enough. It was necessary to reaffirm that gin was hurtful to the health and at the same time persuade English people with “scientific” arguments that rum was not harmful, quite the contrary, it could be beneficial to hu

man health. So, in 1760 an anonymous wrote:

“Since the Suppression of Gin the Consumption of Rum has been greatly increased, and yet Dram Drunkenness, with all its dreadful Effects, has entirely ceased.” And later he goes on: “Gin is vastly more destructive to the Human Frame than the Sugar Spirit.”

Then, our author  prescribes rum as a cure for lack of appetite and other illnesses, maintaining that rum is highly recommended for “weak and depraved appetites and Digestions, an

d in many other Distempers of the declining sort” and, after citing long recommendations of authoritative doctors, he concludes: “Gin is a Spirit too fiery, acrid, and inflameing for inward Use – But … Rum is a Spirit so mild, balsamic, and benign, that it its properly used and attempered it may be made highly useful, both for the Relief and Regalement of Human Nature.”

So, with a little help from its friends, rum began to conquer the minds and the throats of British people.


Between 1689 (beginning of the so-called King William’s War) and 1815 (final defeat of Napoleonic France), England / Great Britain and France fought each other in a long series of wars which, according to some historians, were merely phases of one long conflict for supremacy in Europe and all over the world. In this context, the foreign policy of Great Britain had two fundamental objectives: to defend and expand its colonial and commercial empire and to maintain the balance of power among the many States of Europe, so that none of them could be strong enough to dominate the whole continent.

It became therefore increasingly intolerable for the British to finance France, and its ally, Spain, through the massive imports of wine and brandy. Regarding wine, an alternative was quickly found. Trade agreements were signed with Portugal, and Portuguese wine replaced French wine to a large extent, thanks also to the British fondness for sweet wines. But brandy was a hard nut to crack. The English upper classes loved it and didn’t want to do without it.

And then rum arrived. It was entirely produced in the British colonies by British labor and capital, and transported to the Mother Country by British ships, so the wealth spent to buy it stayed at home. It was therefore the perfect beverage to replace brandy. But the English upper classes, the better sort, were not acquainted with it, and its consumption, at the beginning of the century, was still almost non-existent, to the point that Daniel Defoe, in his Moll Flanders published in London as late as 1722, when relating an episode in the life of his heroine, feels obliged to explain to his English readers what rum is: “However, I called a servant, and got him a little glass of rum (which is the usual dram of that country), for he was just fainting away”

Moreover, the upper classes did not consider it suitable for themselves: it was rough, not refined enough and anyway it was too cheap. It was necessary to get the people used to drinking rum, and, at the same time, to improve its image in order to make it worthy of the upper classes. It did not seem an easy undertaking, but the lobby of the West Indies planters, the Parliament, the Government and British officials in general joined forces to devise what today we would call a massive promotional campaign to boost rum consumption. And they were extremely successful.

Here are some figures:

in 1697 England and Wales imported (legally) only 22 gallons of rum. In 1710 the gallons were already 22.000 and in 1733 500.000! As of 1741, rum imports regularly overtook those of brandy.

How did they do that?



In April 1731 the British brig Rebecca was sailing, probably not far from La Havana, when a Spanish guardacostas stopped and boarded it looking for smuggled goods. It is not clear what really happened on board and at the moment it seemed a trifling event. 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”.

The Taking of Porto Bello, Samuel Scott 1741

A large British fleet set sail for the West Indies under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who became a national hero thanks to the conquest of the important Spanish town of Portobello, on the Atlantic coast of what is now Panama. Later on things didn’t go so well for him, but this is a matter of no interest to us now. For every rum enthusiast, his lasting fame is due to the invention of Grog.

At that time, in the West Indies a daily distribution of rum as an alternative to beer was already quite normal. Sailors usually drank it pure, all the allowance down in one gulp. It was a very dangerous practice, the cause of many accidents in the rigging at sea and also of many problems of discipline. We must not forget that at that time the alcoholic strength of rum was probably much higher than what we are used to today. In any case on board British warships accidents, disease and harsh punishments, also caused by rum, ravaged the crews, often more harshly than enemy weapons.

Worried about the health of the sailors and the efficiency of the fleet, Vernon tackled the problem head on. First of all he consulted the captains and the surgeons of his fleet, then on August 21st, 1740, he 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.”

Praise be given to those who invented the metric system. The history of systems of measurements before it was adopted, and in Britain and the US even afterwards, is a real quagmire. With the added complexity that in the past units of measures often changed  name and dimensions depending on the content (for example, liquids or grain), the Country and the years. In addition to that,  pre-industrial production techniques were not able to manufacture standard barrels, always of the same dimensions.

Luckily, it is enough for us to know that  “a quart” was the fourth part of a gallon, roughly 1 liter, and half a pint was about a quarter of a liter. Therefore, the new beverage had roughly 1 part of rum for 4 parts of water. Sailors did not like such a novelty, they wanted to get drunk with real rum, not to drink it watered. But discipline was cast-iron and they had to accept it. Drunkenness on board did not disappear, but it decreased significantly and so did accidents and punishments. In summary, the innovation was a success.

At the beginning the order applied only to the fleet commanded by Vernon, but after a while the Admiralty extended the same rules to the whole Navy. Then, over time the allowance decreased and was distributed only once a day, creating  one of the most impressive, enduring, typical, and frankly astounding, rituals of the Royal Navy. Usually called Up Spirits and also simply Tot, it lasted for 200 years, as we will see in future articles.

The new beverage had no name, but with their traditional flair for names, sailors soon gave it one. Vernon’s nickname was “Old Grogram” from a waterproof cloak he usually wore, made of a fabric called Grogram.

So his drink was called “Grog”.






On a cold 26 December 1654 a big fleet left England: 37 men-of-war under the command of Vice-Admiral William Penn and with General Robert Venable in charge of an army of 3.000 soldiers.

The orders were clear:  to attack and conquer the large  Spanish island of Hispaniola, present-day Santo Domingo and Haiti. It was an entirely new enterprise for England: it was not another privateer enterprise, like Francis Drake’s ones and similar, but something different and much more ambitious. For the first time England attempted to conquer and hold the colony of one of its European rivals; Oliver Crowell’s ambitious “Western Design” was on the move.   

After a one month’s voyage, in late January 1655 the fleet arrived at Barbados, at that time the most important British colony in the Caribbean. After a short stay to embark provisions and more troops, among them many indentured servants that wanted to flee the island, it moved to Hispaniola. There the fleet landed the army ashore to attack the town of Santo Domingo. The attack was ill prepared and worse carried out,  and the reaction of the Spanish cavalry was strong and effective. After a crushing ground defeat, the English troops retired in disarray and had to re-embark quickly. Maybe only the absence of a Spanish fleet avoid a complete disaster.

After this crushing defeat, Vice-Admiral Penn was very worried. To return home defeated and with empty hands could be very dangerous. So, in May 1655 Penn decided to attack Jamaica, at that time a small, poor Spanish island, sparsely populated and virtually undefended. This time the amphibious attack war prepared with care and it was success, Britain took possession of Jamaica. But this did not appease Cromwell that was devastated by the Hispaniola disaster to the point he fells ill and sent Penn and Venable to the Tower.

C.Sheldon 1907

And it was in Jamaica in 1655 that rum was for the first time distributed on board the ships of the English Navy. The thing happened quite unofficially and we don’t have many details about it. But we know that rum was distributed to the crews instead of the customary daily allowance of beer.

When abroad the captains were allowed to buy wine, and sometimes also brandy. But they were expensive and often produced by enemies. And in the Caribbean they were difficult to find on a regular basis and in the quantity needed by thousands of men.

On the contrary, in Barbados and the West Indies a new, strong beverage was cheap and easily available in huge quantity: Rum. With its alcoholic strength it occupied relatively less space in the hold than beer and moreover it was produced by English subjects. But, maybe more importantly, rum did not deteriorate when stored on board, on the contrary, it improved. Finally, if mixed with rum the same water stored on board was drinkable for long periods.

So rum began to be part of the ordinary daily rations of British sailors and soldiers in the West Indies. But for decades its diffusion relied on the personal decisions of captains and officers on the ground, without any standard rules for the whole Navy.

Only in 1731 did the “Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea” state: “Of the Provisions. In case it should be thought for the Service … in ships employed on foreign voyages, it is to be observed that a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack, hold provision to a gallon of beer

Navy Rum was born.


In the middle of the XVII° century, rum starts from Barbados (and Martinique) its long, victorious march to conquer the world. A world which was very different from today’s, and where sugar was  a source of enormous wealth and the cause of bloody wars and, leaving aside Portuguese Brazil because of its relative isolation, the heart of sugar production was in the Caribbean. Continue reading “RUM AND EMPIRES IN THE XVII CENTURY”