By Mark Tully, 55th Foot
A gill of rum was part of the daily ration for both the British and Continental armies. It was often mixed with three parts water and carried in the canteens.(1) Due to occasional shortages both armies sometimes substituted spruce beer for their rum ration and the Continentals sometimes even substituted whiskey.(2) But, in general, the issue of rum was an integral part of daily camp life.
The basic ingredient of rum is molasses, a by-product of the sugar-refining process. Molasses was readily available from sugar plantations in the West Indies, and was one of the principle commodities that formed the "triangular trade" (other commodities included lumber, various foodstuffs, and negro slaves). Rum was considered to be good for preserving the health of the men, and an extra ration was sometimes issued in bad weather or to fatigue details and working parties.
John Bell, a late 18th-century physician, claimed that "old" rum was much better for the men and advised that they should never be given "new" rum as it had too high an alcohol content. He illustrates this point with an anecdote of a soldier accidentally drinking himself to death by consuming "his usual" quantity," but because he was drinking new rum, rather than that which was properly aged, it killed him.(3) This doesn't make any sense to me, but Dr. Bell was apparently convinced that rum should be well aged before issued for consumption.
The daily issue of the rum ration (either real or pretend) would make an interesting and educational scenario. Likewise, NOT issuing the daily rum ration could be used as a reason for the soldiers to "mutiny." Rum is also a good, period choice for after-public-hours festivities.
I have found that really good rum is the Mount Gay (I'm told it is pronounced "Mun-ge" by connoisseurs of fine rum) brand. According to their label, Mount Gay has been made at the same location in St. Michael on Barbados since 1703, so it's probably as close as you are going to get to an "authentic" rum. In my opinion it's a whole lot smoother than Captain Morgan and it sure beats those tacky flavored rums you can buy at any gas station or quickie Mart. If you're into rum, try some Mount Gay! (In strict moderation of course).*
Left: A Gill (pronounced jil)(4) measure in the author's collection dating from the early Victorian period. The basic style of gill measures remained virtually unchanged over the centuries, and this one is identical to several seen in period paintings and engravings (see any collection of prints or engravings by Hogarth).
To date I have been unable to find a manufacturer of reproduction gill measures, and I don't think any are currently available (please contact me know if you know otherwise). Original specimens can often be found at antique stores for $30-$50, but these may have a high lead content so should probably only be used for display.
*Note: Alcohol and firearms don't mix and it is not recommended that anyone consume alcoholic beverages before taking the field. Also, alcohol contributes to dehydration and is not a good beverage choice after a long, hot day of re-enacting. Use common sense at all times and consume only in moderation.
1) General Sir William Howe's Orderly Book, 1775-1776, Benjamin Franklin Stevens, ed (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1970)
2) Bolton, Charles Knowles, The Private Soldier Under Washington (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902)
3) Bell, Dr. John, An Inquiry into the Causes which Produce, and the means of Preventing, Disease Among British Officers, Soldiers, & Others in the West Indies, (London: F. J. Murray, 1791).
4) The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary states that a gill with a hard "g" (gil) is what a fish breaths through but a gill with a soft "g" (jil -- as in Jack & Jill) is a liquid measure. Norman Schur in his British English, A-Zed concurs, stating that in England a gill (gil) is a ravine, but a gill (jil) is a liquid measure.