In every movie, cartoon, comic or any other fictional sources I have read or watched that involves sea pirates, it is always shown that their favorite beverage is rum.

I want to know why sea pirates are always associated with rum. Is it the truth that in the Golden Age of Piracy, sea pirates used to drink rum? Or is it just another random concept conceived like mice like cheese? Is there any scientific reason associated with it?

  • I see the question has been edited to one about the accuracy of the association between rum and the golden age of piracy. I think this is on topic now.
    – Nathan
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 16:56
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    A key point here is that while the question refers specifically to pirates, the answers all refer to the navies of that time and that location - in this regard, pirates, British warships and Carribean merchant ships are pretty much the same.
    – Peteris
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 19:51
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    The correlation is between the seamen and the rum, not between the pirates and the rum. Fun fact: Even in the (sea) navy of Austria-Hungary Monarchy they had a fake rum made by an Austrian booze company, called Stroh. Neither the Empire nor the Navy survived, nor Austria or Hungary have any sea port left, but Stroh is still alive and it now makes rum made from real sugar cane.
    – Greg
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 4:12
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    M-mice don't like cheese?
    – Mac Cooper
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 10:34
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    @MacCooper No. todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/09/mice-dont-like-cheese
    – user556
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 13:05

5 Answers 5


Rum was easily obtained in the sugarcane rich Caribbean and olden day South Seas Pirates, who would drink anything they could get their hands on if it had a kick, were associated with the drinking of rum. So, while they would drink other forms of liquor if they could obtain it, the average Pirate crew member drank what he could afford, and that's what made rum the drink of choice. In 1740 the addition of citrus to watered down rum, better known as Grog, proved to be helpful in warding off scurvy. I've also read that casked water took on a dreadful flavor after being stored for extended periods of time so adding water and citrus to rum (grog) eased the consumption of the tainted water.

It is because of the reasons listed above that Rum swilling Pirates became a timeworn stereotype.

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    +1 for the point of Rum as a preservative. Rum was used to preserve even the Dead Body of Adm. Horatio Nelson post Battle of Trafalgar But the Rum was diluted to be made Grog to ensure the sailors are not too drunk to operate sails.
    – RicoRicochet
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 7:03
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    @RicoRicochet - It was a cask of Brandy and not Rum that was used to preserve the body of Lord Nelson post Trafalgar.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 13:20
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    Casked water stored in wooden barrels would not only have a dreadful flavour, but could at times be a downright health hazard. That is the true origin of the grog ration - alcohol kills some of the bacteria and makes the water drinkable. Otherwise the navies of the era never would have bothered, with the ill effects alcohol tends to have on discipline.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 13:28
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    @MikeL.: Actually, I am not sure about "ill" effects on discipline, see my answer. You keep the sailors busy until their shift is done, then you keep them busy queing up for their ration, then the ration keeps them happy until sleepy sets in. Better than having the lot sit around and mope about how hard you've been driving them...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 15:28
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    Well after the drinking water was safe, the rum ration was still watered. My granddad was in the merchant navy, according to him the reason is that once it's watered it doesn't keep (alcohol no longer strong enough, I suppose, and moulds and bacteria do so love sugar solution), so by watering it you prevent hoarding and therefore binge-drinking. Or anyway, you attempt to prevent those things. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 17:21

Historical evidence suggests, and I am writing from the wiki article of origin of Rum, that during the late 16th and early 17th century, sugarcane plantation slaves in the Caribbean islands discovered a byproduct of sugar-making i.e. Molasses can be converted to an alcoholic beverage. After fine tuning the distillation process they produced the refined Rum. And thus, the origin of Rum can be attributed to the Atlantic region of Caribbean - West Indies.

Now this era (late 16th - early 17th) was the Age of Sail, and all the European powers (British, Dutch, Spanish, Portugeese, French etc etc.) had colonial interests in the New-World (Americas). Thus, it also ushered in the era of piracy and also state sponsored privateering.

Historically, the association of Rum and Pirates was enforced during the Rum-Ration given by the Royal Navy to its Privateers (replacing French Brandy). Many of the privateers later became pirates or buccaneers raiding Spanish flotillas. Since, Rum was in abundance in their area of operation (i.e. Atlantic and Caribbean) it became their favorite beverage.

From a literary point of view, the association of Rum and Pirates was enforced by R.L.Stevenson's Treasure Island. Pirate characters such as, Capt. Billy Bones and Capt. Flint had been depicted as having high affinity to Rum.

All this combined, we see, Jack Sparrow saying sadly-- "why is always the rum gone??" when rum goes missing.

Further, from an actual reason of having abundant Rum onboard ships was to be used as Preservative (thanx to Maj. Stackings for pointing it out), there is an anecdote in the English navy that, after the Battle of Trafalgar, the body of the victorious Admiral Horatio who died during the battle was put inside a Rum Barrel to be transported to England. But when they opened the barrel in England, it was found empty, thus giving rise to the Royal Navy slang - Tapping the Admiral.

EDIT - In reality the body of Lord Nelson was preserved in barrel of Brandy under supervision of surgeon of the navy William Beatty. The barrel was refilled with wine because brandy was absorbed by the dead tissue. This incident might have given rise to the anecdote. But still, rum has always been an integral part of naval activities till the advent of more modern rations and amenities.

  • 6
    While the empty rum barrel is an amusing anecdote, Nelson's body was actually placed in a brandy barrel under the care of the surgeon William Beatty (who replaced the liquid contents at Gibraltar and topped up the spirits on the return to England to keep the body preserved). The body (& barrel) was under Marine guard for the whole of the return journey, watched over by Nelson's chaplain Scott.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 11:43
  • wow,i also observed the same. thanks for this piece of information. editing my answer accordingly. Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 3:38
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    As a minor (but majorly disgusting) side note there is an almost certainly untrue legend that sailors "Sampled Nelsons Vintage" on the return journey from Trafalgar.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 9:56
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    – Himarm
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 20:50
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    Note not just the Caribbean — rum was a big industry in Colonial New England too. (FWIW, same Wikipedia article also addresses this question, with some citations which may be interesting to follow up on.)
    – mattdm
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 0:11

Origins and availability or the drink aside (this was covered by Rico and the Major already)... life on a sailing ship was hard.

Especially ships prepared for combat -- like a navy's warships -- had large crews, which made for very cramped living and no privacy. The work aboard was hard and dangerous, and that's before the guns were run out to engage an enemy. So there were strict rules, ruthlessly enforced to keep discipline up.

Rations aboard were pretty monotonous as well -- few provisions survived longer than a few days in the hot-humid conditions of the Caribbean, and you ended up with, basically, hardtack, jerky, and bean sprouts (if you were lucky) resp. scurvy (if you weren't lucky).

It's somewhat easy to see how discontent and mutiny might arise from such conditions.

Add rum, a cheap, non-perishable drink with lots of rations to be had from a single barrel (especially if you use it to make Grog). Their daily rum ration was something the sailors could look forward to at the end of their shift. If you give them just enough, you'll have sailors that are happy, then sleepy, but not mutinous. You also get a disciplinary measure (taking away their ration for the day) that doesn't chafe just as bad as harder work or the whip would.

And once the battle begins, you get anaesthetic and disinfectant out of the same barrel.

So now we know where the "rum ration" comes from on a navy warship. Now picture a pirate's vessel: Usually smaller, just as cramped, with all the possibilities of poorer provisioning and / or less discipline... and you'll see how more rum might actually seem like not a bad idea at all.

  • 1
    And if you're looking at any other locale, just replace "rum" with {distilled alcohol of choice}.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 14:12

The pirates, as well as regular navy sailors drank what was available. For example, the British sailors had regular rations of beer or wine. When this was not available, they drank rum or whatever was available. As rum was produced in large quantities in the Caribbean, it was the most common alcoholic drink there. As the most common pirates in the popular literature and movies operate in the Caribbean, they usually drink rum.

It is hard to imagine Mediterranean pirates drinking rum. Or those in the China seas.


Interest only:

Standard disclaimers: Correlation does not imply causation, YMMV, do not bend staple fold or mutilate, IANAL, DTTAH:


Googles NGram viewer returns the following interesting curve sets. The upper graph pair shows is a case insensitive search for "rum" and for "pirates" in English language documents in general.
The lower graph pair shows the same search in "English fiction".

Both graphs have the same frequency of occurrence in their body of literature per minor axis division but te upper graph is slightly more compressed physically. ie comparisons may be made in terms of eg vertical divisions rather than linear dimensions.

The real world results show a marked correspondence between occurrences of rum and of pirates with a few periods of substantial variation.

The fiction results suggest that rum gets increasing mention relative to pirates with time but that relative mention of both is higher than in the general literature.

The NGRam viewing system allows of access to the source documents so it would be possible to investigate the reasons for the patterns seen above. But, that may well spoil the fun.

enter image description here

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