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Alcoholic spirits

Alcohol was both a God Send and Devil's Torment on board naval and pirate vessels. Thanks to Captain Billy Bones in the book, Treasure Island, the alcoholic beverage most associated with pirates is rum. Of course, rum has a long association with the British and American navies because both navies had liquor rations and that liquor was usually rum. Rum is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented molasses. At one time it was all the rage in the American colonies as well as Caribbean because of its inexpensive means of production. Rum was no the only alcohol on board a ship; beer and wine were also very common.

Why was alcohol on board ships?

Sailors needed to drink and water was difficult to keep fresh. Alcohol was used to extend the life of the water. Often, the first liquids to be consumed on the ship were beer. Beer would go bad just about as fast as water but it had some flavor to it and the alcohol helped the crews morale. Once the beer was finished or had gone foul, then the crew would turn to water. Water was stored in wood barrels and tended to go bad, especially on long voyages. However, the water could be made drinkable (bad beer was just bad beer). A dram (a small amount) of alcohol, normally rum, was often added to the water to kill the algae and make it taste better.

Many navies also had an alcohol ration which was strictly controlled by the quartermaster. This ration was usually about 4 ounces of rum a day. The purpose of the rum was to improve morale. In an effort to prevent hoarding of the sailor's ration, the rum was often added to water making it more difficult to store large quantities. This mix of rum and water called grog. There are many stories of why grog is called grog. The two most common involve Admiral Lord Edward Vernon (1684–1757) of the British Navy. One story claims the drink refers to his "Grogham" coat and that he came up with the idea of mixing the rum and water. Another story claims he was the old grog — an alcoholic. Vernon probably did create the policy of mixing water with the sailors rum ration but the word grog dates from an earlier time.

Whereas the common sailors drank rum and ale, the officers tended to drink wine. The most common wine in the British Navy, being port. Port wine which was first produced in 17th century in the Duoro Valley in Portugal. Port wine is a red wine that has been fortified with addition of grape brandy during the fermentation process, making it very stable and capable of enduring long sea voyages.

Coffee and tea were also added to the ship's water in order to make the water drinkable. Today we know that boiling the water killed the germs but this was not always possible or practical aboard a ship.

Rum and Pirates

What did pirates drink? Usually it was rum! Rum would often be the downfall of many pirate crews. Unlike military and merchant ships where some kind of authority measured out the rum being consumed, a democratically run pirate ship, with its weakened code of discipline, sometimes led to a complete disregard for sobriety. There are several accounts of pirate ships easily being boarded because the ship was too drunk to fight. One of the best known examples was the capture of Anne Bonney, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackham. Even Bartholomew Roberts, the tea totalling pirate was unable to stop his crew from drinking.

How many men on the dead man's chest?

According to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, you'll find fifteen men.

He was only once crossed, and that was towards the end, when my poor father was far gone in a decline that took him off. Dr. Livesey came late one afternoon to see the patient, took a bit of dinner from my mother, and went into the parlour to smoke a pipe until his horse should come down from the hamlet, for we had no stabling at the old Benbow. I followed him in, and I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright doctor, with his powder as white as snow and his bright, black eyes and pleasant manners, made with the coltish country folk, and above all, with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting, far gone in rum, with his arms on the table. Suddenly he &msash; the captain, that is — began to pipe up his eternal song:

"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest —
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest —
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"

The words to the the shanty?

Pirate rum

The Derelict
By Young E. Allison

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike
The bosun brained with a marlinspike
And cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped by fingers ten;
And there they lay, all good dead men
Like break o'day in a boozing ken
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Fifteen men of the whole ship's list
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
The skipper lay with his nob in gore
Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore
And the scullion he was stabbed times four
And there they lay, and the soggy skies
Dripped down in up-staring eyes
In murk sunset and foul sunrise
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Ten of the crew had the murder mark!
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead
Or a yawing hole in a battered head
And the scuppers' glut with a rotting red
And there they lay, aye, damn my eyes
Looking up at paradise
All souls bound just contrawise
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Fifteen men of 'em good and true
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Ev'ry man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
There was chest on chest of Spanish gold
With a ton of plate in the middle hold
And the cabins riot of stuff untold,
And they lay there that took the plum
With sightless glare and their lips struck dumb
While we shared all by the rule of thumb,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

More was seen through a sternlight screen...
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
Chartings undoubt where a woman had been
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
'Twas a flimsy shift on a bunker cot
With a dirk slit sheer through the bosom spot
And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot
Oh was she wench or some shudderin' maid
That dared the knife and took the blade
By God! she had stuff for a plucky jade
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight
With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight,
With a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-you-well
And a sudden plunge in the sullen swell
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

A short fragment of the shanty was written by R. L. Stevenson and used in the book, Treasure Island. Stevenson never wrote a full shanty and the shanty did not exist before Stevenson. It was a product of his imagination. An American writer, Young E. Allison, who was a contemporary of R. L. Stevenson expanded on Stevenson's little ditty, which had become famous with the publication of the book. The poem above was Allison's end product. It describes a ship wreck. According to most sources, Dead Man's Chest supposedly refers to a reef near the island of Tortola and not a pirate's treasure chest.

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The only author and editor of all pages on the site. Most of what I write about is based on years of book reading on the topic. My first web page was published back in 1994.

Updated: 04 September 2022