‘Very sad about tot…’
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In a number of respects the Old Navy that I knew and loved is no more. Sailors do not sleep in hammocks these days, the female of the species now serves alongside chaps at sea – and the tot is no longer on regular issue.
It was in Jamaica back in the mid seventeenth century that rum, also colourfully known as rumbustion, rumbullion, kill devil, Barbados waters and red-eye, was first issued on board ships of the Royal Navy – a full half pint of neat rum a day, instead of the beer ration. Disturbed by the ensuing problem of drunkenness Admiral Vernon (nicknamed Old Grogram because of the boat cloak he favoured made out of that material) ordered that the rum issue be diluted 1:4 and issued twice daily; thereafter the drink was called ‘grog’. By 1793 the dilution was usually 1:3.
From Vernon’s time to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, two issues of grog per day remained the custom whenever beer was unavailable. But the use of rum gradually became more widespread, as did the issuing ritual. In Kydd’s day, the ship’s fiddler played ‘Nancy Dawson’, the signal for cooks of messes to repair to the rum tub to draw rations for their messmates. This was always done in the open air due to the combustible nature of rum!
Rum became a currency onboard with its own special vocabulary:
Sippers – a small taste.
Gulpers – the next level up – a substantial swig from a mate’s ration.
Sandy bottoms – you got the entire tot!
In the Age of Sail ‘sucking the monkey’ was a way for Jack Tar to illicitly get his hands on rum from ashore. Canny hawkers would empty out the ‘water’ from coconuts and fill them with rum. The innocent-looking fruit was then ferried out to ships in bumboats – with many eager matelot customers awaiting!
Although Horatio Nelson’s body was preserved in brandy en route back to England, to this day navy rum is known as Nelson’s blood. This is perhaps due to the widespread myth that his body was preserved in rum, and that sailors aboard HMS Victory made a small hole in the cask in which it had been placed then syphoned off and drank some of the spirit, hoping to imbibe not only the rum but of the essence of their great hero.
July 31, 1970 saw the last issue of rum in the Royal Navy. It became known as Black Tot Day.
The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Michael Le Fanu (affectionately known as ‘Dry Ginger’) issued this message:
- Most farewell messages try
To jerk a tear from the eye
But I say to you lot
Very sad about tot
But thank you, good luck and good-bye.
Michael Le Fanu was set to take over as Chief of Defence Staff but a sudden serious illness prevented this. He passed away in November of that year.
Coconut: By Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen (List of Koehler Images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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