Accounting for Alcohol – part 5, “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?”
This is a summary of the next chapter in our Accounting for Alcohol book, written by Karen McBride and Tony Hines. It explores accounting and controls for alcohol in the Royal Navy in the time of Nelson, and is a really interesting topic.
In today’s world, we may find it difficult to imagine, but beer and other forms of alcohol were part of the normal diet of a sailor in times past. As the authors note, beer was bulky to carry and required much room to store, and of course, it had a cost and needed to have an inventory level maintained and controlled. Thus, the British Royal Navy instituted rules and procedures to ensure alcohol use was controlled, both in terms of cost and volume per sailor. The authors provide some examples of forms used to comply with these regulations, and here is a great example from 1808:
It appearing that considerable quantities of wine and spirituous liquors have
been fraudulently run-on-shore from His Majesty’s Ships of War and Transports,
to the great prejudice of His Majesty’s Naval Service, and diminution
of the Revenue; for the better preventing of such practice in future, and
for punishing those who shall dare to continue or renew it, all Captains or
Commanders of His Majesty’s Ships or Vessels are hereby strictly required,
and positively directed, not to suffer any of those species to be ever issued
to the Companies, or any part of the Companies, of the Ships or Vessels
respectively under their command whilst in the Home Ports, nor at Sea, until
after the Beer is all expended.
The chapter is guided by Focault’s notion of governmentality. Rather than I explain this in the context of the chapter, the author’s words are very useful:
Foucault’s work observes that the unthinkable may become thinkable, where procedures and methods are put in place for one purpose but end up being utilised for another purpose that was not expected at first (Foucault, 1980). We argue that initially
the accounting and control of beer was determined for cost and provision
control; beer was issued for the seafarers’ health and well-being, replacing often
foetid water. Later it was used for the prevention of scurvy. Finally, it was used to
keep the men in a controllable but mildly inebriated state, which alleviated the
hardships they were under. Accounting was instrumental in this, as it provided
the means by which the allocation was measured and supplemented.
The chapter has many examples of how accounting was used in the control of alcohol on ships, including some comment on the Royal Navy’s own brewery in Portsmouth. It is well worth a read.