Liquor on board

In addition to water rations, early nineteenth century crew and passengers received rum, wine and small or ‘ship’ weak beer as a daily allotment. Listed provisions included hogheads or butts of hard spirits and beer and cases of wine.

Most hard spirits such as brandy were regarded as medically beneficial and disbursed by the ship’s surgeon as a curative for seasick passengers. Higher quality wines were served at the Captain’s table and officers’ mess. These included French, Portuguese and Spanish wines such as champagne, port, sherry, Madeira and claret.  A case of wine could include between 30 to 72 bottles, much larger than the modern equivalent.

Crew rations also included the rum and water beverage ‘grog’ in half-pint to pint measures for openwater voyages. In order to prevent grumbles about rationing, grog was prepared on-deck in a large scuttlebutt. Hard spirits like rum were also used as currency and sometimes withheld as punishment for minor crimes.  On rare occasions, those who did not partake of alcoholic beverages were allowed to trade their spirits shares for ship’s credit.

Even amongst the passengers, public drunkenness and overindulgence in alcohol was not uncommon, and sometimes resulted in death. In a letter sent to George Fife Angas on 3 June 1836 whilst onboard Lady Mary Pelham, Alexander Dawsey relates the death of Mr I Doine Thompson from brain fever brought on by excessive alcohol consumption. He was even accused of drinking an entire case of wine, less three bottles!  Mr Thompson is accused of publicly rude and lewd actions, stealing provisions and willfully cruel behaviours until finally expiring from alcohol-induced hallucinations on 3 May 1836.

Passengers held different views on alcohol. Some wrote of their enjoyment of drinking and others were affronted by drunkenness. Many wrote about the medicinal qualities of alcohol. They advised others to bring whisky or port wine or brandy and appear to have genuinely held a view that alcohol could be a tonic in the cold sea air, or the heat of the tropics.

The 1839 Annual Report of Britain’s Agent General for Emigration includes details of supplies that ships were expected to carry for emigrants. After listing medicinal comforts such as ginger, arrowroot and barley, it prescribed –

There is also to be on board each ship, five dozen of port wine, twelve pint cases of preserved milk, twenty-four dozen of bottled porter, .. and a quantity of wine in cask not less than two gallons for every person above ten years of age.

The wine is also under the entire control of the surgeon superintendent … It will generally not begin to be issued until after the first month or six weeks at sea, and will then be served at the average rate of three or four times a week; but probably seldomer in the hot latitudes and oftener in the cold …. The quantity used during the voyage is not to exceed two gallons for every passenger above ten years of age; and no wine is to be allowed to children under ten. The amount of each issue is not to exceed a gill to each person.

The instruction that no wine should be given to children under ten years of age leaves us with a record of the official view. It might also suggest the instruction had to be given because not everyone held that view.

Sixteen years later official opinion changed. In 1855 the British Parliament passed the Passenger Act to regulate shipping and protect passengers. Among its many provisions, the Act banned the sale of alcohol to steerage passengers and its consumption except for medicinal purposes. The regulations did not apply to cabin passengers.

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