Did Pirates Drink Rum?

Movie pirates are a rowdy bunch. When not thieving and scrounging, they usually kick back with their mates, telling tall tales over a barrel of rum. However, while not all pirates drank rum, there is truth to such depictions, and seamen and rum go back a long way.

Pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy did often drink rum. They favored a cocktail of rum, sugar, water, and nutmeg known as a Bumbo. However, piracy has existed for most of history and in many places, so plenty of pirates may not have drunk rum.

This article will briefly describe the history of rum, point out how it intersects with the story of seafaring in the early colonial era, and explain how the drink came to be indelibly associated with pirates. 

Rum’s Origins in the Atlantic Slave Trade

Whiskies, beer, and wines are all made from ingredients available to Europeans before the early modern era. Rum, however, is made from byproducts of sugar. Its origins are thus firmly rooted in the mid-17th century and sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean.

The most profitable trade route of the time serviced the Atlantic slave trade, which the European colonization of the Americas had facilitated. Many of the merchant ships of the day plied these lanes transporting enslaved African people to the West Indies, where the sugar plantations were. 

Here, they would trade people for molasses, another byproduct of sugar. Then, in New England, the molasses picked up in the Indies would be sold for rum. Finally, the rum would be exchanged for more enslaved people back in Africa. [1]

With rum such a central component of the trade, it is not surprising that it would eventually find a way into sailors’ diets. But why the association with pirates? 

Why Pirates Are Associated With Rum

Before the trans-Atlantic trade began, English sailors were entitled to a daily beer quota. Often, they would store beer watered down so that the alcohol in the beer would kill the germs in putrid water and make it potable longer when out at sea. [2]

But, without proper refrigeration, beer would spoil on longer voyages. Legend has it that when English Vice Admiral William Penn Sr. captured Jamaica, his crew was left stranded without any freshwater on the island. Penn solved his dilemma by having his men drink rum instead. [3]

Soon, sailors began carrying rum with their cargo and supplies. On long voyages that sometimes lasted months, rum would outlast water and beer; the water would spoil first, the beer next, and the rum would run out before it spoiled. 

In no time, rum became an intrinsic part of the sailor’s life. English sailors were given an eighth of an imperial pint of rum–known as a tot–at midday every day. The practice continued till as recently as 1970. [4] 

Crucially, the mid-17th century, when rum consumption among sailors took off, marked the inauguration of a golden age of piracy. [5] Driven by poverty and a lack of suitable employment opportunities in their European homelands, thousands took to piracy over the next century. 

Many of these pirates found themselves in the Caribbean and North Atlantic, where they were likely to intercept vessels carrying rum. Like other sailors, the pirates of the golden era too consumed the drink on their voyages.

Pop culture depictions are a final critical aspect linking the image of the pirate to rum consumption. Pirates have existed among most seafaring communities and in many places. But most representations of pirates in popular culture today are primarily drawn from the pirates of the golden era. 

So, while many pirates of preceding eras may well have subsisted on whiskey, wine, beer, or water, the familiarity of the pirates of this era with rum has made it the pirates’ drink in public perception.    

How Pirates Consumed Their Rum

One major downside of rum from a naval command perspective was that the drink was a little too strong. While this quality prevented good rum from spoiling on long sea voyages, it also made men rowdy and led to a lack of discipline. 

Another English Vice Admiral, Edward Vernon solved this problem by having his crew’s rations watered down. For good measure, Vernon added sugar to the mix to make it more palatable and lime juice to ward off scurvy; a gum disease caused by vitamin C deficiency that was common among seamen of the time. 

Vernon’s cocktail became known as Grog after the waterproof grogram cloak that gave him his nickname: Old Grog. Even today, people in some countries refer to alcohol as grog. And groggy has come to stand in for a state of confusion more traditionally brought on by a hangover.

Of course, pirates themselves didn’t drink Grog. Whether because, as social outsiders, they didn’t associate with English sailors or because the practice developed separately is not clear.

The drink the pirates favored was known as Bumbo. Like Grog, it involved watering down rum and adding sugar to make it tastier. However, the pirate cocktail replaced the lime juice with nutmeg.

However, the story of how rum drinking came to be so strongly associated with pirates would be incomplete without pointing out the role popular culture has played in creating this image over the years.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic yarn, Treasure Island, does include references to pirates drinking rum. But alongside the drink, it also lists many other beverages, including ale, wine, cognac, port, and brandy grog. [6]    

Stevenson’s list is likely a closer representation of pirate diets. Closer in time to the pirate era, its extensive and detailed listing of the various foods and beverages suggests greater familiarity with the diest of the sailors of the day. As outlined above, these would have been very close to pirate supplies.

Changes in technology and storytelling today necessitate swifter narratives. Other than literary or historical work, this has also resulted in more simplistic characterizations. In cartoons and movies in recent years, the image of the pirate as an avid rum consumer is often front and center. 

In The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for instance, the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow frequently references his favored beverage. He does so often enough for it to work as a running gag. 

Having been established, the pirates’ love of rum in books and movies will likely endure for the foreseeable future. 

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