Jul 312018

On this date in 1970 the Royal Navy ceased issuing the daily rum ration (daily tot) to sailors, as they had been doing since the 17th century (in decreasing amounts over the years). The day became known as Black Tot Day. By the time the rum ration was cancelled the word “tot” was probably appropriate, but when the ration began it was half a pint of straight rum per day. Anyone see a problem here?

In the 17th century, the daily drink ration for English sailors was a gallon of beer. Dehydration was a common problem on long sea voyages because the manual labor involved was brutal, and fresh (healthy) drinking water was typically not available. The drinking water in towns was not safe – not just by modern standards, but also by standards of the day. Water that was stored in barrels on ships for weeks or months at sea was probably unsafe to drink when it was taken on board, and became slimy and crawling with nasty things before long. On shore, everyone drank beer as their beverage of choice for quenching thirst: morning, noon and night. They did not go around drunk all the time, though, because they drank small beer, whose alcohol content by volume (ABV) could be as low as 0.5%. Table beer was typically less than 1% ABV although it could rise to 2%. A beverage having 0.5% (or less) is classified these days (and during Prohibition in the US), as alcohol free. Thus, a gallon of beer per day per sailor, made perfect sense. It was still a bit too little to stave off dehydration, but a small amount of water could make up the difference. It was common for workers who engaged in heavy physical labor to drink more than 10 imperial pints (5.7 liters) of small beer during a work day to satisfy their thirst.

Think of the logistics. An average frigate (not a big ship by any means) would have a crew of about 200 (some more, some less). That’s 200 gallons of beer per day. Two months at sea and you are talking about 12,000 gallons of beer, plus water. Their diet of salted meats also meant the need for serious hydration along with the heavy labor. As the Royal Navy began journeying farther and farther from home ports in the 17th century, the need for a more efficient method of carrying liquids was needed. Also, there was a problem with beer (more likely what is called ale nowadays) because it soured over long periods at sea and became as unpalatable as fresh water. In 1588, The Lord High Admiral Charles Howard noted “nothing doth displease the seaman so as to sour beer.”

General at Sea Robert Blake, sometimes called the “Father of the Royal Navy,” was the first to officially issue a fortified spirit to Royal Navy sailors in 1650, replacing their daily gallon ration of beer with a half pint of French brandy. Using this system, a ship with a crew of 200 had to carry 750 gallons of spirits instead of 12,000 gallons of beer for a 2-month voyage, and there was no possibility of the spirits spoiling.  In 1655 the British took over Jamaica from the Spanish and vastly increased the island’s output of sugar and rum. In consequence, rum became the spirit of choice for daily rations for all Royal Navy ships operating in the Caribbean. The obvious problem is that half a pint of ardent spirits contains much more alcohol than 8 pints of small beer.

Over time, drunkenness on board naval vessels increasingly became a problem. At the beginning of the 18th century an English captain visiting the West Indies fleet noted:

I really do not think it an exaggeration to say that one-third of every ship’s company were more or less intoxicated, or at least muddled and half stupefied, every morning.

In 1731, the Admiralty issued Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea; the first official document to attempt to control spirits, and their effects, aboard vessels of the Royal Navy. Prior to this time the quantity and type of alcohol was determined by individual captains. The Admiralty specified that, “It is observed that a pint of wine or half a pint of brandy, rum or arrack, hold provision to a gallon of beer.”  Wine and brandy continued to be issued in stations away from the Caribbean for some time, but as the production of rum spread, so did its consumption in the Royal Navy.

Old Grog

In 1740 in an attempt to curb drunkenness on board ship, Admiral Edward Vernon ordered the rum to be mixed with water in a 4:1 (water to rum) ratio and split into two servings per day, one at the noon meal and one in the evening. Vernon was well known for wearing a cape made of coarse grosgrain fabric, colloquially called “grogram,” and was often known as Old Grog because of it. So, when he proposed the water and rum mix for the sailors, they nicknamed it “grog” after him. If you know anything about alcohol you will know that mixing it with water does nothing to change its potency. In fact, it will get you drunk quicker. Splitting the ration in two did, at least, mean that the sailors were not quite so hammered during the after lunch watches.

In the 19th century, there was a change in the attitude towards alcohol due to continued discipline problems in the navy. In 1824 the size of the tot was halved to a quarter pint in an effort to improve the situation. In 1850, the Admiralty’s Grog Committee, convened to look into the issues surrounding the rum ration, recommended that it be eliminated completely. However, rather than ending it the navy further halved it to an eighth of a pint per day, by eliminating the evening serving of the ration. This change led to the ending of the ration for officers in 1881 and warrant officers in 1918.

On 17th December 1969 the Admiralty Board issued a written answer to a question from the MP for Woolwich East, Christopher Mayhew, saying “The Admiralty Board concludes that the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual’s tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people’s lives may depend”. This led to a debate in the House of Commons on the evening of 28th January 1970, now referred to as the ‘Great Rum Debate’, started by James Wellbeloved, MP for Erith and Crayford, who believed that the ration should not be removed. The debate lasted one hour and 15 minutes and closed at 10:29pm with a decision that the rum ration was no longer appropriate.

31st July 1970 was the final day of the rum ration and it was poured as usual at 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11am) after the pipe of ‘up spirits’. Some sailors wore black armbands, tots were ‘buried at sea’ and in one navy training camp, HMS Collingwood, the Royal Naval Electrical College at Fareham in Hampshire, there was a mock funeral procession complete with black coffin and accompanying drummers and piper. The move was not popular with the ratings despite an extra can of beer being added to the daily rations in compensation.

A special cancellation stamp was issued, available from Portsmouth General Post Office, with the slogan “Last Issue of Rum to the Royal Navy 31 July 1970”.

I gave a recipe for rum baba here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/prohibition-ends/ It involves bathing the pastry in actual rum, not rum with the alcohol cooked off. I’ll give you Jamaica rum cake here with a small twist. After baking the cake you can store it in an airtight tin and splash it with a little rum every so often (as you would an English dark fruitcake), in honor of Black Tot Day. Browning in the ingredient list is a burnt brown sugar sauce from Jamaica.

Jamaican Rum Cake


1 cup pitted dates
1 cup dried figs
2 ½ cups Jamaican rum
½ cup sliced almonds
½ cup brandied cherries with their liquid
½ cup currants
½ cup candied orange peel
½ cup dried prunes
½ cup dark raisins
½ cup golden raisins
juice of 1 orange
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra
2 cups flour, sifted
2 cups brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
1 tsp molasses
1 tsp browning
5 eggs


Put the dates, figs, 2 cups of rum, almonds, brandied cherries with their liquid, currants, candied orange peel, prunes, and dark and golden raisins into a food processor. Pulse this mixture until the solid ingredients are evenly chopped into smaller pieces. Stir in the orange juice.  Let this mixture marinate for 2 to 3 days.

Preheat the oven to 350˚F/175˚C.

Grease two 9” round cake tins and line them with brown or wax paper.

Place the butter, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt, molasses, browning and eggs in a stand mixer and mix thoroughly on medium speed. Slowly add the rum-marinated fruit to the mixture, a little at a time, and mix until of the ingredients are thoroughly combined.

Divide the cake batter between the prepared cake tins.

Make a water bath by half filling a roasting pan with water. Place the tins in the water bath and bake for 1 hour 30 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick in the center of the cakes. They are cooked when the toothpick comes out clean.

Cool the cakes in the tins on wire racks for 20 minutes, then turn them out. Sprinkle with the remaining rum, let them cool, and store them in airtight tins.

The cakes will keep for several weeks, and you can add more rum as needed.

Yield 2 cakes.