Grog and the Barbary Wars


Editor’s note: For readers seeking more information on grog and the history of naval drinking, be sure to check out our podcast on the subject here, and articles here and here.

America’s military actions in the Middle East and North Africa are not isolated to the modern era. In truth, American military forces have been conducting operations in the region against non-state actors terrorizing civilians for nearly the entirety of American history.

In the late 1790s, America had come into its own as a commercial state. While still a long way from the robust, globe-spanning trade empires of Britain and France, the upstart nation had garnered a reputation as a land of merchants, and the American vessels traded in ports all over the world.

A vessel flagged under a fledging nation however, was not without risk. Unlike Britain and France, which backed their merchants with powerful navies and strong diplomatic ties, U.S.-flagged ships enjoyed few protections. America could not field a standing navy until 1789, as only with the adoption of the Constitution did the federal government gain the authority to raise a military in peacetime. Congress did not commission the first U.S. warships until 1794. Even then, Congress remained reluctant to construct expensive warships. For a time, the French Navy agreed to serve as a guarantor of U.S. vessels, but as U.S. merchants became more successful, the French started to fear American competition and withdrew their protection.

To a handful of North African states, these wealthy yet unprotected vessels seemed like an opportunity for profit. Semi-independent states such as Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis all maintained small privateer fleets that would capture vessels and hold the passengers and cargo ransom. Either the ships’ owners paid significant ransoms, or the government-backed privateers seized and sold the captured ships’ valuables. Starting in the late 1790s, the states began to seize American vessels, and the United States, lacking any sort of naval force, had little choice but to negotiate with the fiefdoms. While these “Barbary States” were ostensibly part of the Ottoman Empire, in each city-state a regent ruled with considerable autonomy.

President John Adams and his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, reached negotiated settlements with the three states. Despite costing the United States government almost 20 percent of its revenue, U.S. ships were able to pass by the North Africa region relatively unmolested by 1797.

In 1800, the situation began to deteriorate. The pasha of Tripoli, sensing that he was receiving less annual tribute from the Americans, began to push for an increase. For months, he sent long, rambling statements to the U.S. consulate, ultimately demanding a greater tribute lest he would renew his campaign of seizing ships. The United States called his bluff and refused to change the level of tribute. The pasha therefore ordered his privateers to resume seizing American flagged vessels.

Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, and he was determined to confront the pasha of Tripoli. In June, Jefferson dispatched three frigates and a schooner to the Mediterranean under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. The pasha, who had grown tired of negotiating with the Americans, had formally declared war in May of that year, by chopping down the American flag flying outside the consulate.

The American sailors had to reckon with many hazards on the long journey to face the unknown enemy in Tripoli. However, they had one ally on their side: the beverage known as grog.

Grog traces its origin to a 17th-century British admiral, William Penn (father of the founder of Pennsylvania). In Penn’s time, sailors were often issued a gallon of beer a day while at sea. Beer was generally considered more filling and less prone to spoiling than water. However, on a transatlantic voyage, the store of beer for the crew took up considerable space. Penn, who was commanding a group of vessels around Barbados and Jamaica, ran out of beer while underway. In lieu of beer, he purchased Jamaican rum from local sources. This proved to be a hit with not only the sailors, who appreciated the stronger drink, but with officers as well, who were happy to replace the gallons upon gallons of beer with only a few dozen gallons of rum. In 1731, the de-facto policy of switching from beer to rum while at sail in the West Indies was codified, with half a pint of rum equal to a gallon of beer.

Predictably, issuing sailors pints of rum at a time backfired. Sailors would save their rum rations, or trade with other sailors, and drunkenness soon became a problem on board ships. A solution (of sorts) came from Vice-Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon in 1740. In an effort to curb drunkenness, he ordered that the rum ration be cut with water and lime juice.

Rum was considered part of sailors’ compensation for service, so sailors were deeply wary of officers diluting their rum. Therefore, the rum and water were mixed on deck, in full view of the crew and under the watch of an officer. Once the rum was mixed, the call of “Muster for Rum” would sound and the crew would assemble to receive their twice-daily ration of Vernon’s water, rum, and lime mix. Vernon was well known for wearing a cape made out of a waterproof material called grogam — as such, his sailor called him “Old Grog,” and his concoction was simply dubbed “grog.”

Though Vernon did not know it at the time, his grog served another purpose. The addition of lime juice to the mixture provided the sailors with badly needed vitamin C, which warded off scurvy. The medical community discovered the preventative effects of vitamin C in 1747, and the entire British fleet implemented the practice of serving lime- or lemon-infused grog.

Naturally, when Congress founded the United States Navy in 1775, they borrowed the British tradition. In 1809, then-Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith proposed switching the rum for American-made rye whisky. This proved a hit with sailors, and the ration came to be known as “Bob Smith” instead of grog.

Fueled by grog and patriotism, sailors from the U.S. Navy made their way to Tripoli to confront the pasha. When the squadron’s commander, Commodore Richard Dale, arrived at Gibraltar, he confirmed that the Tripolitan government had declared war on the United States. The American flotilla reassured the other “Barbary” states of Algiers, Tunis and Morocco that the United States planned to honor their treaties, and their quarrel was only with Tripoli. The American fleet set about escorting U.S. merchant vessels and blockading Tripoli for a time, and the American frigate Enterprise engaged and defeated the Tripoli, a Tripolitan warship.

The war dragged on, however, and the Tripolitan forces were proving elusive. Despite an American blockade of the harbor, the small, nimble enemy vessels slipped out of the blockade and continued to harass American ships, though less easily and effectively than before. Jefferson complained about the pasha’s way of war: “Their system is a war of little expense to them, which must put the great nations to a greater expense than the presents which would buy it off.”

The war persisted in a stalemate until 1804, when an Army officer and former American consul for Tunisia, William Eaton, proposed a plot to overthrow the pasha and install his exiled brother Hamet. The cunning Eaton assembled a 500-man mercenary army and a contingent of Marines. The ragtag group marched 500 miles through the desert and captured the town of Derna, near Benghazi. While a tactical victory, politics in Washington shifted, and the pasha became more amenable to a peace deal. Tripoli and the United States signed a peace accord in June of 1804. The public considered the war a victory, as the United States achieved its goal of safe passage through the Mediterranean. The U.S. Navy also proved itself able to conduct prolonged naval operations far from its home shores, no small task for any naval power.

As for grog, the tradition of a twice-daily grog ration did not last long in America, as the pressures of the temperance movement forced the U.S. Navy to abandon the practice in 1862. The Royal Navy, however, kept the tradition alive for centuries. A rum ration was issued until 1970, when the British Parliament, after extensive debate, ended the practice for good.

Just because sailors do not drink grog anymore does not mean you cannot get a taste of tradition. I have also included a Caribbean grog recipe, for those long voyages to the East Indies.

Traditional navy grog recipe (it’s worth noting that the original was made in bulk, and doesn’t reduce down very well):

1 shot rum, dark or light
1 tsp. sugar
Squeeze of lime
Boiling water to fill a mug

Caribbean grog recipe:

1 shot of light rum
1 tsp. honey
Squeezes of grapefruit juice, orange juice, and pineapple juice
Cinnamon stick
Boiling water to fill a mug.

Up Spirits!”


Paul Lewandowski is a graduate student, veteran and writer. He prefers a good gin gimlet to just about anything else. America is his favorite country and his favorite color is a tie among red, white, and blue.