On July 31, 1970, Britain’s Royal Navy officially stopped its daily ration of rum to crewmembers aboard naval ships, ending a centuries-old tradition.
Mourning the End of the Tot
“Up Spirits” was the famous call that seamen aboard Royal Navy vessels had heard each day around noon for more than three centuries, signaling them to report to the deck and receive a tot, or shot, of rum.
Before rum, the Navy had served beer to its sailors. But as the Navy began traveling to all parts of the world, it needed a drink that wouldn’t rot in barrels and would take up less cargo room. According to the Web site of Pusser’s Rum, sailors were first served rum in 1655 and it became standard practice by 1731.
Sailors were originally served a gill (a quarter of a pint) of rum in the afternoon and evening. The rum helped to boost the spirits of men on a long journey, but often they would become intoxicated by saving their tots and drinking them together. In 1740, Adm. Edward Vernon, nicknamed “Old Grog,” ordered that the rum be watered down before being served so that sailors would be forced to drink it right away.
The watered-down rum, which also had lime and sugar added for flavor, was unpopular with the sailors and derisively called “grog.”
Sources in this Story
- Squamish Yacht Club: History of the Tot
- Pusser’s: Pusser’s Rum History
- Institute of Naval History: The British Navy from Within (1914): The Tradition of Grog
- Axford’s Abode: “Up Spirits!”
The officer in charge of dispensing the rum onboard ship was called the purser. Mispronunciations eventually gave way to calling the rum “Pusser’s.” The name stuck and Pusser’s is now a popular brand of rum, especially with the older generation of Brits.
In 1831, rum became the official beverage of the Navy. During the 19th century, the serving was reduced to an eighth of a pint and later the evening serving was eliminated.
The tot played an important social role on the ships. “At sea, rum was a kind of currency, just like money,” says Pusser’s Rum. “To offer a shipmate a portion of one's tot, no matter how small, was deemed to be the apotheosis of generosity.”
In 1970, the House of Commons, feeling that the crews needed to be alert and sober to operate the technologically advanced equipment, decided to abolish the practice of serving rum, though sailors would be allowed an extra can of beer every day.
The daily tot was served until July 31, 1970, a day that came to be known as Black Tot Day. Ships bemoaned the dark day in many different ways; some held elaborate ceremonies, and others threw their final ration overboard. The HMS Dolphin paid respects to the tot’s demise by having “a gun carriage bearing a coffin that was flanked by two drummers and led by a piper playing a lament,” says Axford’s Abode.
The official Web site of the Royal Navy provides a comprehensive look at its history, including its victory over he Spanish Armada, Horatio Nelson’s triumphant death in the Battle of Trafalgar, and its actions during World War II.
On March 30, 1972, the Canadian Navy ended its own 6-year tradition of rationing rum to its sailors. The CBC features historic unedited video of Canada’s version of Black Tot Day, showing the men toasting the queen and drinking their final shot of rum.
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