Not Just the Rum that Kills You — Lead Poisoning in Sailors and Soldiers in the 18th Century West Indies

For Royal Navy sailors and British soldiers in the West Indies during the 18th century, rum was a refuge for the discomforts of the duties of the day. The rum also may have been killing them. It wasn’t the alcohol, but the way it was distilled that proved deadly.

A group of scientists from Lakeland University, Ontario have examined 31 bodies found in the Royal Naval Hospital cemetery in English Harbor, Antigua.  As reported by the Daily Mail: 

‘Excessive drinking and lead poisoning have been suggested as being serious health issues for the navy of the period,’ Professor Varney told MailOnline. 

‘But this idea had never been tested on the remains of individuals serving in the navy at the time. Previous work in this area includes the testing of the skeletal remains of enslaved labourers from a sugar planation in Barbadoes. But not with SR-XRF that we have been using.’

The concentrations ranged from between 13 and 336 parts per million, where a ‘normal’ range of lead is 5 to 30 ppm. A person with more than 80 ppm of lead in their bones normally shows symptoms of lead poisoning.

There were many ways that the sailors and soldiers could have been exposed to lead, which was used in almost everything during the period. Nevertheless, rum was a particularity effective way to get lead poisoning. The rum was distilled from sugar using stills with lead condensing coil tubes.

‘Rum was both formally and informally distilled using lead worms (condensation coils) on stills, and it was consumed in quantity by naval personnel who were entitled and accustomed to at least their daily allotment of rum, a well-established tradition in the Royal Navy, ‘ Varney said.


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