CBC Digital Archives

1972: Yo ho ho... but no bottle of rum

media clip
It's a tradition almost as old as the navy itself. Every day for the last 300 years, sailors looked forward to hearing the call of the bosun's pipe to "up spirits," when they would receive their ration of rum. But by 1972, there's no room for a drunken sailor in the modern Canadian navy. As we see in this clip, the ancient rite is given a burial at sea.

In this television stock footage (unedited video shot for use in a news item that either didn't make it on air, or no longer exists in the CBC archives) we board a navy vessel to watch sailors receive their final "tot."
• The tradition of issuing rum rations was established in Britain's Royal Navy in the 1700s as a way of steeling sailors against the cold Atlantic and the horrors of war. Daily doses of beer, wine or spirits were issued until 1831, when rum became the sole alcoholic beverage issued to sailors. The ritual was inherited by the Royal Canadian Navy when that force was established in 1910.

• Upon entering the navy, sailors of drinking age were given the choice of being either "wet" (where they would receive a daily ration of rum) or "dry" (or "temperate," receiving comparable pay instead.)

• The procedure for issuing rum was an extremely elaborate ritual. The ship's boatswain (also bosun, bos'n or bo's'n) blew a pipe announcing "up spirits" -- the most welcomed of about three dozen orders that could be given by a particular whistle. (This is one reason whistling by sailors on warships was taboo. The one exception was said to be the ship's cook, who whistled to prove he wasn't eating the food he was preparing.)

• Traditionally, on large vessels, the ship's butcher would tap a rum cask (stored "bung up and bilge free" in the spirit room.) Rum was siphoned out of the bung hole, and issued to the ship's chiefs and petty officers first. The rest of the day's ration was transferred to a small, locked cask. This was then poured into a large, inscribed oaken tub.

• High quality navy rum was a valuable commodity on both ship and shore, and the temptation to try to hoard it was great. The navy responded by instead issuing "grog" -- rum mixed with two parts water. Unlike "neat" rum, grog would not keep.

• The ration -- or "tot" (usually 1/8 of a pint of rum, though at times it had been more) -- was doled out to each sailor, to be consumed immediately, under the supervision of the officer of the day. After all sailors were served, the remainder was supposed to be poured down the ship's scuppers (the deck drains that let water flow overboard -- though the left over rum often miraculously found its way back into circulation.)

There were different toasts for each day. Here are a few examples:
• Sunday's toast was to "absent friends."
• Monday's toast was usually to "ships at sea."
• Saturday's toast was to "sweethearts and wives" -- and it was usually met with the response, "may they never meet!"

• As navies around the world modernized, there became less and less room for "a drunken sailor" aboard high-tech battleships. The United States Navy went completely dry during the Second World War. The Royal Navy stopped issuing rum rations on July 31, 1970, and the Canadian navy followed suit on March 30, 1972. The occasion became known as "Black Tot Day." Canada was the last of the Commonwealth navies to stop issuing rum rations.

• Despite the cancellation of rum rations, beer and port were still provided while at sea, and booze could be purchased extremely cheaply when ships were docked. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were a number of high profile alcohol-related incidents in Canada's armed forces. In 1997, the minister of defence briefly considered banning alcohol altogether.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News
Broadcast Date: March 30, 1972
Duration: 2:15
This clip has poor audio.

Last updated: November 3, 2014

Page consulted on December 4, 2014

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