October 13th, 2016
Up Spirits, Low Spirits
Sailors, it is said, have a fondness for strong drink, whether it’s singing pirates in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (“Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum”) or the Royal Navy’s official daily ration of grog (tragically deep-sixed in 1970.) The origins of the practice are old, deriving from the era in European history when alcohol was so pervasive that there was no more thought of excluding alcohol from aboard ship than would be of excluding food.
Back then, the clergy had a religious obligation to drink wine and the nobility were compelled to demonstrate their importance by drinking the most expensive alcohol they could find in the largest quantities they could survive. But for the ancestors of you and me, ale was the ticket, morning noon and night, childhood through old age. There was a reason, too, namely that the water in early modern Europe was little more than a pathogen delivery system. So ale it was, ashore and aship, where the Royal Navy specified a gallon per crewman, per day.
The trouble was, that’s a substantial logistical undertaking. Big ships, Nelson’s Victory for example, would quaff 850 gallons a day. What’s more, ale didn’t always keep well. So over time, the daily ration shifted to distilled spirits, more compact and more enduring. Britain’s politically powerful sugar plantations in the West Indies made it more or less inevitable that rum would become the R.N.’s official spirit.
There was considerable ritual associated with the daily ration, known as a “tot.” Initially, the tot was four ounces, split between two servings, one before noon and one before sunset. It was served uncut in the early days, and it’s an interesting side note that the term we use to describe the alcohol content of a beverage — proof — is part of this tradition. It turns out that if you soak a pellet of gunpowder in an alcoholic beverage that is more than 57.15% alcohol by volume, it will still burn. It was a 16th Century taxation test to “prove” that a given spirit was high alcohol content which gives us the notion of “100 proof.” And we can be certain that the Jack Tars of the Royal Navy tested their tots to be sure they were getting the real thing.
But after 1740, orders changed, and the seamen got their ration as “grog,” diluted 1:4 with water. If you were higher up in the chain of command, you still got your ration neat. But if you were even higher, an officer, you’d wouldn’t have any ration at all. That’s because you would have brought aboard good stuff for yourself.
The rum was kept in an ornate barrel, typically adorned with large brass letters reading, “The King, God Bless Him.” Twice a day, the bo’sun would pipe the No. 4 General Call followed by the order “Up Spirits!” Inevitably, some wiseacre would reply “Stand Fast the Holy Ghost!” as “rum bo’suns” from each mess would make for the rum tub, pail in hand. Sailors would wash the outside of their “tot glasses” but never the inside, for tradition says that the unwashed glass makes the tot stronger.
All very charming and colorful and one can certainly imagine the reasoning behind warming Jack Tar’s belly, when he lived with zero creature comforts in a crowded, unheated, barefoot life. But there was another aspect of the average Tar’s life that makes me think Up Spirits was there to counteract low spirits.
If you think very, very hard, back to high school history and the part on the American Revolution or maybe the War of 1812, you just might remember the word “impressment.” It referred to a habit the Royal Navy had, of stopping passing merchant ships and taking some of their sailors for their own. Those in the Colonies/States felt hard put-upon, but in truth it was nothing compared with conditions in Britain.
When British sailors returned to their homeland — often months or years after departing — a literal gauntlet of impressment ships was waiting for them off the shore. If they managed to make it to shore, “press gangs” would search for them and it was difficult — as a tanned, tattooed and quite literally tarred sailor — to escape notice.
Sooner or later, just about every merchant seaman’s luck would run out and instead of a homecoming, he’d find himself outbound again, often without his few belongings or even his pay from his last voyage (traditionally delivered at the end of his entire hitch.) It was so common that many sailors’ wives became “impressment widows,” not merely devoid of their husbands, but of their pay as well; the first poverty survey in London found that over half of the women and children in penury were families of long-missing sailors and soldiers.
It went on for hundreds of years and it’s important to understand that the enforced near-slavery of impressment was not a black market trade in sailors, but rather the law of the land, the official policy of Great Britain. It was also the rawest of deals, since the Royal Navy not only paid less than the merchant service, but chances of living through a voyage were considerably slimmer. For example, during the 22 years of the Napoleonic Wars, roughly 100,000 Royal Navy seamen died. Of those, disease claimed 80,000, accidents took 13,000 and actual warfare got the rest.
There was another cruelty to it, and one that is difficult to see from this distance in time. Sailors — good sailors, like the ones the Royal Navy was after — were highly skilled at very difficult work. They were unusual in their world because, unlike other skilled workers, they were not artisans, and they had no property. What they had were their skills and savvy with their bodies and, most of all, their freedom. Almost alone in the European world, the sailor could move and choose where to move, what ship to join, what destination to discover.
Unless, of course, the press gang got him.
The big question behind all this is — why? And why in Great Britain, the font of constitutional liberties going back to the Magna Carta in 1215? Rule Britannia, patriotic song from the 18th Century and the effective anthem of the Royal Navy, gives us a clue:
To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine:
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.
Britain and more importantly, the British Empire, was completely and utterly dependent upon Britannia’s effective rule of the waves. The mercantile society that drove more and more power to the commoners looked modest walking down Britain’s high streets, but in truth it was the center of a web of trade created and maintained by the violence of the most powerful technology on Earth, the sailing man-of-war. The American colonies, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Singapore, India and Burma, the Middle East, Australia — the Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets — was a wealth pump that required protection from rival empires and enforcement against the societies on the extractive end of things.
But that meant the world’s biggest navy, and that navy was nothing without the skilled sailors who could “hand, reef and steer” those ships anywhere on Earth. Trouble is, there were never enough skilled men willing to join the Royal Navy, with its high death rates, lousy food, brutal discipline and lack of freedom. So an exception was made in the social contract — and the skilled seamen of Britain were stripped of the rights of their own bodies. People weren’t blind to what was happening. Impressment was continually debated in Parliament, but its nickname tells us most of what we need know. Impressment was “the evil necessity.”
The irony to the repeating refrain of Rule Britannia isn’t remotely funny:
Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves.
The Press Gangs trolled the port cities and towns of Britain looking for victims and some of their happiest hunting grounds were taverns, where drunken sailors could be picked off at will. Unsurprisingly, there was resistance. Returning merchant captains would shield their vulnerable crewmen by show logs with sailors “run,” “dead,” and “drowned,” while they were really hiding in the cargo. Those without hiding places would dress up as landlubbers, cooks, invalids and women. The same game of charades would take place ashore, very often in taverns, where recently landed sailors would be found spending their wages and celebrating their survival with more than a “tot” of rum.
Drunk sailors were easy pickings for Press Gangs, who would press them to say yes and seal the deal by accepting the payment of one shilling, “the King’s Shilling,” as they entered service to the monarch. If the sailors were more wary, the Press Gang would pick up a round or two, just enough to slip the shilling into the mug of the mark, who would discover when he drained his ale that he had “accepted” the King’s Shilling.
But if everything was weighted against our sailors, they could turn the tables. The Press Gangs that hunted sailors were — if anything — just as needing of balm for their emotional wounds. Sailors discovering cudgel-bearing Press Men boarding their ships would sometimes accept that they had lost the game and offer the Press Gang a drink. Or two.
One crew in the port city of Hull got their impressors so hammered that the crew slipped over the side and stole the Press Gang’s boat, while the Press Men drunkenly sang.
A thirteen year old apprentice aboard another ship — immune to the press — distracted the Gang from their search for hidden sailors by innocently offering up some rum with, “Sir? Will you have a dram?”
And, perhaps my favorite, the strategy of one Noah Brown. A free black sailor in 1812 America, Brown’s route shuttling between Providence, Rhode Island and New York City put him square in the crosshairs of the Royal Navy. His solution was to keep an ample and highly visible supply of rum aboard, and what’s more, to spike it with 18th Century catnip, laudanum. “Them press gangs were dear lovers of the article,” Noah’s son recalled. They “would have it if any was found on board. And, drinking of it freely, they would soon be unable to do anything.”
I’ll drink to that.