Thursday, September 10, 2009

History: "Whiskey! For all hands!"

After posting last week about pirate grub I started doing a little more research into pirate grog and was not the least bit surprised by what I found. Shall we talk about spirits, of the sea and otherwise?

First and foremost and probably most important of all, pirates and privateers drank. Early and often. Usually to excess. It was an entitlement issue, and with some grounding in reason.

Most sailors in the trade started their careers at sea with one navy or another. While drinking was sanctioned and regulated in the Royal Navy from the 17th century on, for instance, many a Captain or Admiral became notorious for his insistence on watering the beer and wine and then later the pervasive rum. Sailors grumbled at the muck that these commanders passed off as "tot" and lack of a decent drink at dinner and supper was commonly spoken of as another good reason to join a pirate crew. Because of the egalitarian attitude aboard ship, and also because more than one piratical Captain was fond of spirits himself, no one tried to curtail the debauchery that went on.

Then, too, there was the fact that people honestly drank more back in the day. Water was untrustworthy. Just because our ancestors didn't know about parasites and bacteria doesn't mean they couldn't put two and two together and get four. Drink from a certain well or ditch and you get the runs for days. Ergo: don't drink from the well or ditch. Have a beer instead. Sure, it needed water to make but the fermentation process cured all ills. In a time when "Let us liquor!" was a common greeting among respectable men, it can be no surprise that a bunch of guys who were in a gray area of their society ethically and morally speaking drank their fair share.

Pirates and their privateer cousins didn't seem to be particularly picky about their spirits. Beer was popular for short journeys or at the beginning of a long one, but it soured fast and had to be consumed first. Wine would of course last longer in bottles, which were comparatively fragile, but in large casks it not only took up room but turned to vinegar eventually. Sherry and brandy were also drunk and during the privateering era in the early 19th century, whiskey was popular. Nothing beat rum for its staying power, though. First mentioned in Spanish manifests in the mid-17th century, it was made from molasses and not only did it not sour it didn't lose its kick with time. Plus it became extremely affordable once the slave trade and sugar cane began to boom in the Caribbean. The Brethren of the Coast couldn't get enough of the stuff.

Unfortunately, the price for drunkenness was sometimes life. There are no statistics available analysing how many pirates and former pirates died of alcohol related illnesses, but more than one man surely met Davy Jones with the help of the grog. Henry Morgan died in his fifties of a disease that sounds suspiciously similar to cirrhosis of the liver. Even so, he was unusually long lived for one who plied the trade.

Calico Jack Rackham, Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts (despite his own personal habit of never touching liquor) are just a few of the famous who were caught off guard with drunken crews and no way to effectively fight back when the enemy came calling. If life and limb weren't lost, a valuable ship might very well be. Dominique Youx, off the coast of Mexico and celebrating the taking of a prize, notoriously called for barrels to be brought on deck and opened: "Whiskey! For all hands!" The sailors set to drinking and Dominique's sloop Tigre ran aground on a sandbar, cracking her hull in half. The drunken crew might very well have drown had some locals not sent boats out to collect the victims of the shipwreck. As we like to say here at Triple P: don't drink and navigate.

Time ashore, though, was virtually made for imbibing and mixed drinks were not unheard of. Rumfustian, notable not only for its funny name but for the fact that it did not contain rum, was a mixture of beer, sherry, gin, sugar, cinnamon and a raw egg. The entire conflagration was served hot, and was therefor more popular in the colder months and around the Holidays. Another delightful concoction was bumboo, said to have come to the Caribbean with West African slaves. This was a simple mix of rum, water, sugar and citrus fruit which probably morphed into what we think of today as the classic grog.

Cheers to you, my Brethren. What ever your choice of drink, may it always be fresh and tasty!


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! ..."don't drink and navigate"... an important safety tip for just about anyone. Thanks! Oh, and while Rumfustian does have a funny name, it sure sounds nasty... I'm just saying.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! We like to keep things safe here at Triple P, and that means no rumfustian for you!

CRwM said...

Though it isn't entirely pirate-specific, the book "And a Bottle of Rum" is an excellent history of that wonderful spirit - which gives us the phrase "at loggerheads," oddly enough.

An excellent post, captain.

Pauline said...

Ahoy CRwM, you old sea dog! Thanks for the recommendation. Sounds like fun. Well done on anticipating the Sailor Mouth post, by the way. Not just an excellent writer, Brethren, but psychic, too!