For almost half a millennium the alcoholic spirit Rum – specifically dark “navy” rum – has been associated across the English-speaking world with war and adventure. Since the English conquest of Jamaica in 1655, rum was part of daily rations issued to the British Royal Navy – that is, until “Black Tot Day” in 1970 – more of which anon. The habit then spread to the Commonwealth navies and to that of the United States. Of course, the famed spirit also found its way to the Hollywood-beloved “Pirates of the Caribbean”, who did indeed enjoy it just as much as their celluloid brethren pretend to.
Why? Well, in the hot days of summer, sailing tropical waters, rum doesn’t spoil like beer, plus it can supposedly be used to kill bugs when added (in generous quantities) to water. Finally, of course, for a naval power with substantial trade to and from the Caribbean islands, it was easy to get hold of.
Perhaps it was natural, then, that an Army unit specialising in “piracy on the High Desert” should take its alcohol rations on long range patrols in the form of rum. This is exactly what the LRDG did.
The Royal Navy had a definite etiquette to their rum consumption. Ranks of Petty Officer and above were issued neat rum, Junior ranks were issued “grog” – 34% rum to 66% water, mixed. Originally the issue had been half a pint (!) per man per day. However as time went on, it was realised that men under the influence of half a pint of rum were not always good sailors (especially given the naval habit of saving your ration, and drinking several days’ tots at one session!) and so the ration grew less and less – until at 6 bells of the Afternoon Watch, 31 July 1970, the standard daily issue ‘tot’ was 1oz! This was the day when the British Admiralty finally admitted that operating helicopters and computerised weapon systems whilst “three sheets in the wind” was not to the military advantage of Her Majesty. So, the 31st was Black Tot Day – when the British military finally bade farewell to the daily tot of rum. It is still, however, issued on special occasions – the order to “Splice the Mainbrace” means to pass out rum rations – for example, for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
Royal Navy issue rum has a definite blend – once blended on Thames-side warehouses at Deptford in London, it is mainly British Guiana rum, with Trinidad rum for lightness and Cuba, Barbados or Martinique rum for body. This was accounted for, and signed out by, the Purser of a ship’s company. Navy slang turned this to “Pusser”, and in the modern Royal Navy “Pusser’s” is still “jackspeak” (navy slang) for “issued kit”. It’s also the trade name of Pussers Rum, which is the brand name for the commercially-sold original blend of Navy Rum which both the Royal Navy and the LRDG once drank.
But back to the sands of North Africa in the 1940s. Most British and Commonwealth military “everyday living” gear came from enormous supply warehouses throughout the Empire – Supply Reserve Depots. This had been the system for most of the first half of the 20th Century. There were several such Depots in Britain, and at other bastions such as Gibraltar and in India. From here were allocated thousands of blankets, knives and forks, mugs, and so on and so forth. Most were stamped with the initials SRD – indicating they had come from such a depot.
The LRDG eagerly received their rum ration in large gallon earthenware jars, “Rum Jars”, and, like everything else, they were also stamped SRD. Wags in Cairo suggested this stood for “Seldom Reaches Destination”. Why? Humourists – often those who had not seen combat, certainly not combat under such traumatic conditions as the LRDG – suggested issuing neat spirits in gallons to the wild and rascally warriors of the LRDG was perhaps not advisable? Might it not vanish at high speed? They seldom made the same jape twice, if members of the Group were within earshot. Generally rum was consumed in the deep desert as a “Qibli Special” – equal parts rum and lime juice…. (Qibli being the fierce sandstorms of Libya) … but I dare say at times it was drunk neat too!
The Rum Jars had been a feature of Commonwealth military life for a while. Canadian and British veterans of WW1 recalled how they kept morale up amidst the mud and rats of the trenches. The acronym SRD was the topic of some debate – some said it stood for Services Rum – Diluted. Others opined that it was Spiced Red Demerara. But they are remembered by many, from many theatres of war.
Many of the jars were dumped in the desert, or smashed in combat. It’s also true that the selfsame earthenware jars were used to contain other liquids too, like ink, and they do appear sometimes in antique shops around the world. But there is a distinct group of such vessels which are known as Rum Jars. They can sometimes be found in the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian deserts, generally smashed. But not always are they so damaged……
In the summer of 2000 I’d spent an exhilarating week in the Great Sand Sea, on the Egypt/Libya border, looking for artifacts and interesting mineral specimens. After several days in remote, dusty, windblown dune camps, generally sleeping under a tarpaulin slung from my old Land Rover, I headed into Siwa oasis, once LRDG HQ, in the heart of the north of the Sand Sea, for a rest and refuel. Siwa at the turn of the millennium was still pretty basic (some would say it still is!) and it wasn’t uncommon to find 1940s British military issue gear for sale in the soukh, or used to form parts of the buildings in Shali, the old mud brick settlement at the centre of the oasis. Jerrycans and “flimsies” were often used for walls, vehicle chassis members were used for floor joists, and so on.
I’d had an excellent meal of curried camel meat in the old town and was pottering about in the evening markets. I’d bought a large wok-type campfire frying pan which had been made by beating the top of an oil drum into a dome shape, and wandered into a small hut in the centre of the marketplace. Inside, lit by a couple of paraffin lamps, there was a motley collection of pottery, all obviously home made but, according to the teenage lad whose stall it was – “very, very old”. Yes, of course. And in the corner, away from the light…. I tried not to stop and stare. In the corner, away from the light – was a Rum Jar. Almost perfect, with a stopper intact in the top. I pretended not to see it, and concentrated instead on some of the amorphous blobs of red clay which formed most of the stall contents. With desultory lack of interest I asked the price of a few, and their purpose. The lad gave half-hearted answers. I carried on looking vaguely interested at what seemed to be a gerbil roaster, or perhaps an hedgehog press. Then, affecting vague surprise, I “caught sight” of the Rum Jar. What was this, I asked? The lad didn’t know. In my patchy Arabic I said it looked good for carrying water in the desert. How much was it?
The young shopkeeper knew it was old, and knew it was special, but didn’t know what it was, or a price. He didn’t want to sell, however. I shrugged (meanwhile screaming inside) and carried on looking at the pottery mutations. After a while I ambled off, pretending lack of interest, and went in search of beer. The evening passed. In time I returned to the shop, armed with a plastic bottle of mineral water as a prop. Once again, I pottered round the garish pottery objects, and once again I looked with vague interest at the Rum Jar. Speculatively, and with great theatre, I compared it to the mineral water bottle I was carrying – and asked the lad if I could buy it for water. No, he said, it’s very old. I named a figure – around ten times that for which the small clay objects were being hopefully touted. Nope, no joy. I doubled it. He looked doubtful. I produced a fistful of notes – around thirty sterling. The lad’s eyes bugged like pingpong balls. I laughed and said it was only for water. Cash is King. Hypothetical numbers to the lad had become a pile of notes to brighten up an evening without sales. Done. Sold.
I walked out with an LRDG Rum Jar, trying not to grin like a maniac. On getting back to my Land Rover, I uncorked it. The faint smell of….Navy Rum. Still. After 60 years. Oh, my goodness. The jar was marked W Buchan, of Portobello, Edinburgh, a well-known pottery in Midlothian famous for making Rum Jars (In fact, their biggest wartime contract was for Rum Jars). Wonderful. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”.
My Rum Jar is home in York now. It’s full of a gallon of Pussers “Gunpowder” Rum – so-called because its strength was tested (or “proved”, hence the term “proof” alcohol) by soaking a piece of gunpowder in it and testing to see if it would ignite. It sits next to a silver scorpion-marked tankard once kept at the LRDG Officers’ Mess, the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria, and used to toast successful returning patrols in rum. Sometimes I pour a tot from one into the other…… “Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!”