Edward Vernon (1684 – 1757)
Life on the ocean wave was a pretty brutal affair in the eighteenth century – not only did you run the risk of ship-wreck and drowning because of the rudimentary navigational skills and the ramshackle construction of your vessels but if you did engage with the enemy the conflicts were bloody affairs and, to cap it all, provisions were disgusting and were likely to cause your health to decline, if you were lucky. Some significant improvements were made to the matelot’s lot thanks to the efforts of our latest inductee into our Hall of Fame – Edward Vernon.
Vernon joined the navy in 1700 and enjoyed what could be best described as a rumbustious career. He was promoted to captain in 1706, taking command of the Rye, and had the good fortune of narrowly avoiding the naval defeat in Sicily in 1707 in which his commander, Sir Cloudesley Shovell – great name – and 2,000 sailors perished.
Vernon played a prominent part in an odd encounter which was known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Robert Jenkins was a merchant seaman who claimed to have had his ear cut off by Spanish coastguards in the Caribbean. Vernon, who by this time was in parliament, took up Jenkins’ case with gusto, urging reprisals and eventually got his way when in 1739 war was declared. Vernon got himself a post as Vice Admiral and led the fleet along with Major General Thomas Wentworth – he of golf course fame. Vernon captured Porto Bello, a Spanish colonial possession (now Panama), a feat for which he was awarded the freedom of the City of London.
However. Vernon’s next encounter with the Spanish proved to be disastrous. The assault on Cartegena de Indias in 1741 in what is now Colombia involved the biggest British amphibious attack before the Normandy landings, involving 186 ships and some 27.000 men. Notwithstanding the superiority in numbers – the Brits were pitted against 6 ships and 3,500 men – the one-eyed, one-armed Spanish commander, Blas de Lezo – fought tenaciously and forced the Brits to retreat in disgrace to Jamaica and the collapse of Robert Walpole’s government.
Vernon’s return to England saw him elected as MP for Ipswich and he continued his interest in naval affairs.
His great contribution to the sailor’s lot came on 21st August 1740 when Vernon ordered that their customary tot of rum be diluted with water. Because of the foulness of the water, citrus juice, usually in the form of lemon or lime juice, was added to the water to mask the taste. Miraculously, Vernon’s sailors became much healthier than their compatriots – because of the protection that the Vitamin C was giving them – and his recipe was adopted by the navy as a whole.
Vernon was accustomed to wearing clothes made out of grogram – a coarse fabric of silk mixed with wool and often stiffened with gum – and was nicknamed Old Grogram or Old Grog. In honour of him, his concoction came to be known as grog and was drunk on a daily basis in the navy until 31st July 1970.
Edward Vernon – for unwittingly improving the sailor’s lot, you are a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.
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