Rum was first made in the Caribbean in the 17th Century, and there has been a strong connection to sailors since. Privateers and pirates had a notorious reputation as rum drinkers. Rum was carried on most every ship crossing the Atlantic, and was even used as currency for a period.
Rum has been the drink of navies, and the British Navy is well-known for serving it daily to its sailors. After the British captured Jamaica in 1655, they changed their liquor of choice from French brandy to Jamaican rum. From then on, rum became an important part of a British sailor’s life. The ration of rum continued until July 31st, 1970, when it was discontinued. This date is still remembered in the British navy as “black tot day.” (A tot is a small serving of a strong alcoholic drink.)
Of course, pirates would drink other kinds of liquor if they could obtain it, but the average Pirate drank what he could afford, and that’s what made rum the drink of choice. In 1740 the addition of citrus to watered down rum, better known as Grog, was found to be helpful in preventing scurvy. It has also been said that water in wooden casks acquired a terrible flavor when stored for long periods. Adding water and citrus to rum (grog) made it easier to drink.
Many pirates learned to sail and fight by serving in their national navy, and they also learned to enjoy their rum in the same way. In Jamaica’s early days, British Navy Navy support was inadequate to keep the island secure from the Spanish. The island’s governor lured pirates to Port Royal and enlisted their support in guarding the island from the Spanish by offering a safe trading port for fencing stolen goods. The taverns there were filled with bountiful rum to spend their ill-gotten gains on.
The pirate Henry Morgan, knighted, retired and appointed Jamaica’s acting Governor, drank himself to death in these taverns, reliving his glory days in the sweet trade. Port Royal came to be known as the “wickedest city on earth.”
Rum had many nicknames, including “kill devil.” From a 1651 Barbados document: “The chief fuddling they make in the island is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.” Pirates and others drank it so consistently they became dependent, and without it began to see hallucinations. Lack of rum on a pirate ship was a cause for desperate action, including robbing ships that the pirates had previously agreed were off-limits.
Robert Louis Stephenson penned the most famous sea chantey, and it includes rum:
Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil be done with the rest, Yo ho ho and a bottle or rum!
(A chanty is a song that alternates between a solo voice and chorus. This kind of song was originally sung by sailors while laboring together.)