In the late 18th Century, water purification as we know it today, didn’t exist. People went to wells, pumped the water into a container and took it home. For a warship or a merchantman, the water was put in wooden casks, hoisted aboard and stored in the hold.
What the crew has is water full off living organisms sealed in a wooden cask. Within days, algae grew and the water looks, tastes ad smells bad besides being unhealthy. To use the term of the day, it had putrefied.
So, what did the crew drink? The enlisted men drank beer, porter and grog – rum with lime juice and diluted with water. The officers drank beer, wine and on some ships, whiskey.
Porter is an alcoholic beverage that is someplace between a stout and a beer. First brewed in England, porter is darker, is brewed with more hops than beer and has a ‘maltier’ taste.
The Royal Navy’s Victualling Board – the organization that supplied ships – specified a ration of one gallon of beer per officer and sailor per day. This was increased to two if the ship was headed to the tropics.
Back in the 18th Century, beer was brewed at home well as in breweries. Citizens on both sides of the Atlantic found it to be healthier than what one collected at the town pump. The alcoholic content ranged from one to three percent.
Drinking beer on board ship had another benefit. It eliminated scurvy on long voyages. In the 1740s, Sir John Pringle, the doctor considered to be the father of modern military medicine, noted that scurvy doesn’t appear until after the beer runs out. This revelation came after the Dutch East India Company discovered in the 1600s that fresh citrus fruits kept the dreaded, debilitating disease at bay on long voyages.
Scurvy is caused by not consuming enough Vitamin C. As the disease progresses, limbs swell, joints ache, teeth fall out, ulcers form on the skin and one’s skin cracks and you start bleeding.
In the enlisted messes, beer was poured from a cask into the sailor’s tankard at mealtimes. It was the captain’s option if he wanted to authorize and additional ration in hot, humid weather.
The enlisted men were also authorized a tot of rum in the form of grog twice a day, courtesy of the King. Grog was introduced in the 1740s as means to prevent scurvy.
In the wardroom, officers drank wine, usually red, paid for by separate funds collected from the officers. Royal Navy ships offered port, paid for by the king. Some captains allowed ‘spirits’ to be served. Spirits were whiskeys brewed in Ireland and Scotland and later, the Thirteen Colonies.
The Continental Navy and then the American Navy adopted the rum ration until it was eliminated in 1852. The Royal Navy continued serving rum until July 31st, 1970, a.k.a. Black Tod Day, when, for the last time on Her Majesty’s ships, the command “up spirits” was heard.
On July 1st, 1914, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels issued Executive Order 99 which prohibited the consumption of alcohol on U.S. Navy ships. The order still stands although during long at-sea periods, crews are sometimes allowed two cans of beer, preferably served cold.