The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 14 No 4 - December 2008

Eating and drinking practices of the mid-19th century armed forces in South Africa

by Marian Baker

'We, the singers, took up our position under the fly or side of the tent. After a few songs had been sung a can of grog was handed out and a small tot and we were told to help ourselves. Some of the party did so somewhat too freely. About 11 pm, whether from excitementorthe strength of the grog I cannot say, but about that time several of the singers were entirely unable to give even one verse of a song. The finale was called for. Such an attempt at the National Anthem I never heard before or since, and the singers except myself, staggered off to their tents.' (Adams, 1941, p 235).

The above description of the 'singers', who were in fact a number of 7th Dragoon Guards deployed in the Eastern Cape in the mid-1840s, prompts a number of interesting considerations. The primary one, for the purposes of this article, is the consumption of alcohol. Even though the above portrayal is one of 'recreational drinking', heavy drinking was considered a common and incapacitating practice in the 19th century army which could lead to bungling and inefficiency and to more serious cases of insubordination.

The subject of alcohol and other consumables might not be in the heroic mould, but the army was reputed 'to march on its stomach' and regular supplies offood and drink were vital to the survival of a regiment. In addition, the procurement and cooking of food was integral to the daily grind of soldierly life in the mid-19th century. The Commissariat (the provisioning branch of the army) was obliged to provide basic supplies, but, as we shall see, these were not always available especially when detachments of soldiers were on campaign and were expected to forage for their own 'subsistence'.

In general, the situation of 19th century soldiers in the Eastern Cape was one of hardship and discomfort. The British Government's policy at the Cape was consistently parsimonious. 'The financial pressures which restricted the number of soldiers serving in southern Africa also meant that many of those posted there were obliged to live in wretched conditions.' (Boyden, Guyand Harding, 1999, p47). For much of the 19th century, garrison accommodation in the Eastern Cape was completely inadequate and men had to make do with wattle and daub 'huts' and bell tents. Soldiers were habitually under-nourished, fatigued and forced to adapt to a changeable climate which was prone to severe heat and sudden, devastating thunderstorms, despite being described by Lord Charles Somerset as 'the most healthy and temperate climate in the universe' (Milton, 1983, p 81). It is not surprising that the subjects of sleep, food and drink were of abiding interest to most of the authors of 19th century South African military memoirs.

The following article concentrates on the experiences of men in the British regular forces in South Africa. However, reference is also made to members of the colonial burgher forces. The experiences of the Khoi soldiers in the Cape Mounted Riflemen and those of the Khoi and Mfengu levies have been omitted. This is a regrettable exclusion, for as V C Malherbe (2002) points out, their story has frequently been under-represented in historical accounts. They too suffered from a serious ack of sustenance and equipment, and often found themselves in the unenviable position of having fought in campaigns with little subsequent reward. In addition, although the article alludes below to the dietary habits of the amaXhosa in the 19th century, it does not address how the amaXhosa structured and sustained their food and drink supplies while fighting in the Frontier Wars. Hience, this important dimension has been lost as a consequence of the limited perspective of the article.

In his history of the British soldier from the 18th century until the Crimean War (1854), Richard Holmes comments that the consumption of alcohol was an inexorable and pervasive practice in the British Army. Drinking alcohol on duty was, in itself, a punishable offence, but it was the consequences of drink that were far more ruinous. It threatened discipline, as tempers were frequently inflamed by its effects, resulting from time to time in brawls, duels, uncontrolled floggings and verbal aggression. Many crimes and desertions were kink-related and these misdemeanours often had serious repercussions: it was a capital offence for a soldier to strike an officer or an NCO, an act which became more common when men were intoxicated. Holmes (2001, p 152) comments that, 'Drunkenness was a sinister counterpart to the courage and courtesy of many soldiers'.

Why was alcohol frequently considered to be the scourge of the army? It is easy to attribute heavy drinking to the 'character' of the soldier, but it is necessary to consider the social conditions and daily habits of soldiers in the 19th century to provide a more complex explanation for this phenomenon. Firstly, alcoholic beverages, usually rum and small beer, were part of army (and navy) rations, so alcohol took a form of remuneration as well as being structural to the social fabric of the army (Holmes, 2001). Secondly, environmental factors affected consumption. Because supplies of fresh water were generally inconsistent, many civilians in the 18th and early 19th centuries tended to drink ale or cider during the day, as water was frequently contaminated or too 'brackish' for consumption. Holmes describes army issue beer as, ' ... barely alcoholic small beer, brewed largely to make water safe and palatable, rather than the more robust porter [dark, bitter beer] men would drink given a chance' (Holmes, 2001, p 281). In fact, the procurement of fresh water was a constant problem during the Frontier Wars in South Africa as is evident in Buck Adam's narrative (1941, p49): 'Our Camp was very badly situated for water, every drop of which had to be carried up from the valley, a distance of nearly one mile [1 ,6 km]. At length we dug large holes in the sides of the hill to catch the rain water, which answered very well for washing purposes.' Furthermore, there was a hierarchy in relation to the access of water: 'The water for the Troops, which was obtained from a stagnant pool, was the colour and consistency of cream. There was spring of beautiful water near the Camp, but the quantity it yielded was so small that it was kept exclusively for the officers' (Adams, 1941, p57). Buck Adams, whose commentary also opened this article, was the author of a memoir, The Narrative of Private Buck Adams, which covered his experiences as a private in the 7th FrontierWar (1846-7) in the Eastern Cape. He was born in Spitalfields, London, in 1826 or 1827 during the reign of George IV. In March 1843, when he was 17 or 18, he enlisted with the 7th Dragoon Guards and subsequently came out to South Africa to take part in one of Queen Victoria's 'small wars'. After his discharge from the army, he ran a sweet shop in Tottenham in London and was involved in other enterprises such as the lumber trade. He died in his eighties in 1910 (Adams, 1941, p xix).

Capt T J Lucas's book, Camp Life and Sport in South Africa, is another invaluable source for everyday experiences of life in the field. His memoirs emanated from his experiences as an officer in the Cape Mounted Riflemen during the 8th Frontier War (1851-3). He too complained about the shortage of fresh water (Lucas: 1975, p161): 'I am dying of thirst, the case-bottle has run dry, and I am trying to extract the cork of a brandy flask with a penknife. No one ever thinks of drinking the water at Fort White without qualifying it. It is frightfully "brack" and appears to be a combination of white clay and salt water, with a dash of copperas in it-so bad indeed that tea and coffee made with it are hardly drinkable. Half the streams in Kaffirland [sic] are "brack". They are extremely deceptive in appearance, being as clear as crystal, and have a most inviting look to the thirsty traveller, whose face of delight, as he jump's off his horse and carries the water to his eager lips, is only to be equalled by his intense disgust, when finding it dreadfully disagreeable, he sputters it out again.'

Alcohol was not only used as a substitute for water, it was also drunk to bolster the mental and physical endurance that was expected of soldiers. Soldiers led hard and precarious lives and alcohol possibly took the sting out of some of the privations they experienced. It helped men to cope with cold and rain and to stave off hunger pangs. It also acted as a palliative for the boredom and inertia that soldiers frequently endured when they were not on campaign.

Alcohol was used for medicinal purposes, but this practice became less frequent after the 1830s when medical opinion became more convinced of the vitiating effect of alcohol on the constitution and became more critical of its use in hospitals. But this did not stop a number of soldiers from using it as a form of 'self medication' to relieve the pain and discomfort of previous injuries (Holmes, 2001).

Of course, alcohol was not only imbibed to console the downhearted, it was considered integral to the boisterous behaviour that was characteristic of an army made up of large numbers of young men who seemed to enjoy expending their excess energy on performing practical jokes, playing sport, cards and holding convivial gatherings. Perversely, alcohol played a role in the acquisition and maintenance of social status, provided one could 'hold' it sufficiently. John Bisset (in Butler, 1972, p127) describes his major at Fort Beresford in 1835: 'The major who commanded the post was a curious specimen of a soldier of the old school. In those days it was not so much the rank of the officer that obtained for him the admiration of the junior officers as the quantity of liquor he could stowaway under his belt, and it was quite wonderful what his old gentleman could do in this way.'

In Britain, from the end of the 18th century and during much of the 19th century, theories explaining drunkenness became more comprehensive. More or less contemporaneously, there was heightened public awareness of the dangers of alcohol. Roy Porter, in Flesh in the Age of Reason (2004, p399) writes that '[t]he eighteenth century brought the birth of the "consumer society". Among the items consumed in greater range and larger quantities were food and drink; this brought growing anxiety about the harmful consequences of abuse, notably drunkenness. Alcohol had traditionally been viewed as a good thing: drinking was convivial, wine nutritious, invigorating and medicinal. But, as with everything, excess was bad. Drunkenness had traditionally been viewed ... as a failure of self control on the part of the individual which it was his duty to correct. This viewpoint was somewhat challenged by the gin craze of the 1730s and 1740s - the product of dirt-cheap rot-gut - which forced public opinion to confront the phenomenon of mass and lethal intoxication. Partly in the light of this craze, the suggestion gathered support that habitual drunkenness was not simply a personal weakness of will: it needed to be understood in terms of the tyranny of habits which, reinforced by the chemistry of alcohol, became even more ingrained and difficult to combat - indeed, engulfed the personality.'

By the early 19th century physicians had identified the 'habit of drunkenness' as a 'disease' which should be managed by physicians and, by the mid-century, the condition of 'alcoholism' had been formulated (Porter, 2004). After 1868, there was a decrease in the number of convictions due to heavy drinking in the British Army. This was partly due to the increased knowledge of the affliction but was also a result of the influence of the Army Temperance Society (or 'bun wallahs' as they were termed by non-teetotallers). In the mid 19th century, Garrison Institute Coffee Shops had been established and provided non-alcoholic beverages, newspapers and warmth to soldiers for a nominal amount as an incentive to entice them away from the taverns (Holmes, 2001).

By no means all soldiers were heavy drinkers. A significant numberwere abstemious and hardworking. Also, for some soldiers such as Buck Adams's companion, 'Susan', food, not drink, was the abiding interest. Adams (1941, p173) writes that, '[a]s a matter of course he [Susan] was very hungry, and as usual began the old story - how many plum puddings and mince pies would be made at home, and how many there would be to partake of them.'

Neither were all drinks alcoholic, even though Sir Harry Smith (quoted in Milton, 1983, p129) testily maintained that the only spirit in certain battalions was 'alcohol'. Tea and coffee were common in South Africa by the mid-19th century and both Lucas and Adams make reference to these beverages while on campaign. Adams (1941, p79) seems to have been particularly well cared for by a hospitable 'Dutch' family near Colesberg, where he, ' ... made a very hearty breakfast of bread, butter, eggs and coffee .. .' While he was staying with the same family he received a meal of 'Bel tongue' (which he described as 'preserved beef) accompanied by a loaf of bread and a large earthen vessel containing coffee.

Coffee had not always been so readily available. During the early period of British settlement in the Eastern Cape in the 1820s, such were the privations of some of the settlers that roasted barley was ground as a substitute for coffee and local 'bush tea' was drunk with honey (Bryer and Hunt, 1984, pp 39, 40). The increase in trade and income from the rate 1820s, meant that provisions such as tea and coffee became more common. The London Journal (1849, p 273), with some exaggeration, described Grahamstown as a 'place of considerable business, monopolizing the entire trade of the frontier ... Many of the private houses and shops are of considerable size and the latter are well stocked with all that residents can require.' However, for people who lived in the country areas, such as Buck Adams's hosts, the practice would have been to purchase raw coffee beans sufficient for six months or a year which then were roasted in pans as they were needed. A pot of coffee placed on a 'konfoor' (a small round brazier) would have been constantly at hand in most 'Dutch' households (Cook, 1971).

'My name beginning with the letter "A" made me as a matter of course, first for every duty; consequently I was first to go for the duty of Troop cook. My first job was to go to the Commissariat wagon, where I received several lumps of beef. I asked the Corporal what I was to do with it and he replied: "Do with it? Why, boil it of course and make some soup." At all events I bundled the meat into the camp kettles with some water I had got from a stagnant pool, and started a fire under them ... after some considerable time boiling and the men being hungry, we decided to dish up. The meat had the appearance of pieces of thick leather very much shrivelled up, and the soup put me in mind of water that greasy dishes had been washed in. However, the Troop was moderately satisfied, so I suppose it was as good as they expected.' (Adams, 1941, pp 27, 28).

Adams's description coincides almost exactly with practices followed in the 19th century British Army, both in the selection of the cook and in the choice of ingredients. 'When soldiers were billeted on inn-keepers they received "diet and small beer" from their hosts at contracted prices. In barracks, however, the arrangements resembled those on campaign. Soldiers were issued with rations to a prescribed scale, forwhich subsistence money was stopped from their pay, and were then responsible for cooking them. Both on campaign and in barracks cooking was carried out by messes, with a soldier appointed to cook for a small group of comrades.' (Holmes, 2001, p280).

Rations during the Napoleonic period generally comprised a pound of bread, a pound of beef, an ounce of butter or cheese, a ounce of dried peas and an ounce of rice. Generally, trenchers of beef and potatoes were consumed at the main midday meal. After 1840, a thin meal was introduced, the 'tea meal', which took place around five in the afternoon and usually consisted of tea and bread.

Bread was heavy with a rich, black or brown crust and a sticky middle and was usually badly baked. In army slang it was known as 'pong' or 'tommy'. To add insult to injury, soldiers had to pay for their 'pong'. An infantryman's pay was a shilling a day (from 1797 until about 1867) of which sixpence was taken off for 'subsistence' and further amounts were deducted for medical treatment, breakages and soon. From 1847, all soldiers had to receive at least a penny per day over and above the stoppages (deductions) taken from their shilling per day (Holmes, 2001).

Breakfast was generally bread and small beer with tea being introduced from the 18th century, although Buck Adams writes that he was given a mug of greasy cocoa in the mornings on the troopship, Rodney, which brought him to South Africa. Lucas (1975, p 153) describes a much more palatable breakfast in the field during the 8th Frontier War: 'The bugle's shrill note sounds the halt, and the army goes to breakfast. The infantry form up and pile arms; the cavalry of saddle, the horses are turned out under the protection of the guard, to graze - having been previously knee-haltered ... The men now collect wood for their fires, and make coffee. I breakfast luxuriously off a cold chicken and a tin mug of coffee made in a kettle; and top up, I am not afraid to say, with a drop of brandy out of the case-bottle, and a short pipe; and exclaim in the fullness of my heart, or rather stomach, "that this is a jolly sort of thing, after all".'

Even though smoking does not strictly fall under the rubric of eating and drinking, the 'short pipe' mentioned by Lucas was ubiquitous. Smoking tobacco was a recognized appetite suppressant and 'a pipe' sometimes substituted a meal and nearly always complemented one. In one instance, Adams (1941, p81) recorded finishing off an evening meal with 'a pipe and a cup of peach brandy' (or what was known as 'Cape Smoke' because of its fiery nature).

The procurement of food often mirrored the unpredictability and hardship that characterized life on campaign. At times, Adams seems to have dined fairly well in the field, but on other occasions the supplies were exiguous and Adams's efforts to alleviate his hunger pangs verged on the farcical. In February 1846, he was part of a detachment of the 9th Dragoons and Cape Mounted Riflemen who had been ordered to seek out and capture army deserters in the Olifant's Hoek area (near Alexandria in the Eastern Cape). On the second day of the operation, Adams and the other men had to throw away the food they had brought with them, as it was 'quite uneatable' ... 'At daybreak I began to make my breakfast off some gum which I had broken from the mimosa tree, but it gave me such terrible pains in the jaws that I was soon glad to give up the job as hopeless; in fact so much so that I never ventured to indulge in the luxury of the gum breakfast again.' (Adams, 1941, p104).

The next day was more felicitous and they were supplied with a sheep by a farmer near Grahamstown. This was cooked in 'two large camp kettles' and eaten with 'cakes' made from the pound of flour they had each been given. These 'cakes' seem to have been a variety of unleavened bread which was probably made by combining flour and water and then cooking a flattened round of the mixture on a griddle/girdle pan or a flat pan. The preservation of food was burdensome for most people in the 19th century and the Imperial Army and the burgher commandos in South Africa were not exempt from the difficulties of sourcing and preserving food. More often than not, they had to resort to eating 'veldkos' or to slaughtering animals for immediate consumption. The redoubtable Bertram Bowker, who was part of an earlier operation against the 'Fetcani' in 1828, describes how the commando obtained its provisions (Bowker in Butler, 1972, p 107): 'He (Major Dundas) had with him two Hottentot soldiers, one with a led horse with his traps and a bag of beads and buttons as a commissariat to buy what the men wanted to eat. He used to buy a fat cow now and then when we wanted meat. He also gave us beads and buttons to carry in our pockets, to buy milk and kaffircorn [sic] as we needed it. Those were our rations.'

Lucas (1975, pp161-2) has an amusing anecdote in his book concerning the use, and perils, of tinned food* in the 1850s: 'One of my fellow cornets, confident in his resources, asks me to dine with him ... He has long indulged a desire to try some tins of preserved meats, which he had providently brought out with him; and he now thinks it a good occasion to produce them. He accordingly puts the largest, labelled "Mock turtle, very rich" on the fire to cook. Suddenly, ... a loud explosion takes place, and some foreign body, which proves to be a lump of Mock turtle, hits him violently in the eye. In his hurry he has not sufficiently regarded the written instructions, and has put the tin of soup on without first opening it.' (* In 1810 a British man, Durance, invented a system of sealing processed food in tinplated, wrought-iron containers. The British Army made use of this new development and some soldiers carried tinned food with them to the Battle of Waterloo. However, the tins were very thick and unwieldy and often caused injury to those who attempted to pry them open. It was not until the mechanisation of the manufacture of tins that tinned food became a cheap and common alternative to fresh food).

There is a paucity of information in the selected narratives concerning the types of fresh fruit and vegetables soldiers ate while in the field. From the 1820s, there were private gardens on farms and in the villages throughout the Eastern Cape and settler accounts frequently boasted of gardens in which were grown fruit such as quinces and peaches. Many settlers were self-sufficient and enjoyed simple but wholesome diets. Bertram Bowker (quoted in Mitford Barberton, 1971, p44) writes that his father ' ... made a large garden at Olive Burn full of fruit trees. We used to have fruit for ourselves and our neighbours. His was the best vineyard that I have ever seen in the Eastern Districts. '

The amaXhosa, too, had well-stocked gardens and there are a number of records describing their cultivation of sorghum, sweet potatoes, mealies, pumpkins and melons. Lucas (1975, p 93) went as far as to categorise the amaXhosa as 'vegetarians' whom he claimed lived mainly off 'corn and sour milk'. However, somewhat contradictorily, he also described the amaXhosa as proficient hunters of antelope, hares and partridges for the pot. Research by Milton (1983, p 12) substantiates this description and he proposed that the above crops ' ... together with the flesh of wild animals hunted by the men and curdled milk, provided the staple food of the people.'

There were opportunities for trade between soldiers and civilians but these were frequently restricted, even during times of peace. One of the main reasons that expeditionary forces did not have access to fresh produce lay in their peripatetic existence which precluded them from growing vegetables for themselves and placed them far away from the sources of fresh produce. Furthermore, the Commissariat did not seem to be in the habit of providing the men with regular supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables. A lump of meat and some biscuit were the standard rations, and there seemed to have been an assumption that the men would look after themselves in the field (Mostert, 1992).

John Molteno (later a Prime Minister of the Cape) complained bitterly of the poor food and billeting arrangements when he was a member of a burgher commando in the 7th Frontier War. He 'slept in a "dung cart" and was fed "bony, poor and black raw beef' and biscuit dust - and did not like the treatment they received at the hands of the regular officers.' (Milton, 1983, p166).

There were also logistical problems which affected the transportation of goods. Wagon trains bringing food and supplies to the forces were often slow and incommoded by rough terrain and bad weather. During the Frontier wars, wagon trains were vulnerable to attack by the amaXhosa. The most famous incident occurred near Burnshill (close to the Keiskamma River) in 1846 during the 7th Frontier War, which proved to be devastating for the regular forces, when the baggage wagons of the 7th Dragoon Guards were immobilised and raided. Uniforms, guns, fine wines and the regimental silver and plate all vanished into the Amatole Mountains. The vanguard wagons and those carrying ammunition managed to reach Somerset's camp after a fierce fight, but the raid was particularly catastrophic for the rank-and-file soldier, as their clothes, blankets and cooking utensils were lost (Mostert, 1992).

British soldiers were provided with two large copper pans for every eight cavalry men and every twelve infantrymen. Sturdy camp kettles made of iron were used in the field, such as those mentioned by Adams. For personal use, a can for small beer and two tin mugs were provided. Men ate the food from wooden trenchers or pewter plates and also had a bowl and a spoon. Most men had their own knives (claspknives) which were used for anything from cutting up food to trimming fingernails (Holmes, 2001).

In the colonies, tin pots seemed to have been common and when Adams acted as a batman for Captain Bunbury of the Dragoons, he listed a tin pot, tin plate, knife, fork and spoon as some of the utensils used by officers in the field. He was frequently forced to improvise and ended up using a shovel blade to cook meals for Capt Bunbury (Adams, 1941, p231): 'Some people might ask what use I could make of the blade of a shovel in cooking. That was the most useful article I had and the most valuable. It was the frying pan - in short the sine qua non - for omelettes, fritters and many things; and lastly it was the roof of my pastry oven.'

Adams would have used live coals or an open fire for cooking food and boiling water on campaign. Gathering wood for the fires was yet one more sisyphean task the men had to face. Capt Lucas (1975, pp157-8), with insouciant disregard for the owners of kraals, wrote, that '[a]s many parts of Kafirland [sic] are destitute of tree or shrub; and afford no supply of firewood, the men are allowed, when approaching an encamping ground of this sort to forage for it on the road. Luckily, one cannot travel far in any direction, without coming across a mealy [sic] field or plantation of some sort surrounded by a kraal, or rough enclosure of thorn bushes, which supplies admirable material for this purpose. The column no sooner comes in sight of this desirable object, "yoicks, forward!" away go blue, green, red and brown jackets. The column, as if touched by the wand of Harlequin, dissolves in a moment, and a general scramble ensues .. .The mounted men jump off their horses, and presently come away like moving shrubberies; "Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane" is actually verified. The whole column is a moving grove ... Each man carries enough to last him the night and perhaps a trifle over for his unfortunate companions, who being employed on escort or other duty, cannot help themselves.'

The above article examines the day-to-day demands on nineteenth century soldiers in South Africa. In fact, one is constantly struck by the variety of military experience, the resilience of soldiers and their ability to make do in circumstances of severe hardship. Turning to 'grog' to alleviate stress or to overcome the jitters of a singing party, although perhaps not a laudable practice, becomes understandable in the robust context of 19th century soldiering. Finally it is, perhaps, the small events of everyday life and social interaction that provide us with insights into the broader social condition of the Victorian soldier, who was part of a system that seemed to be designed to hold him in miserable poverty. In assessing the contribution of food and drink to the functioning of an army, it is useful to consider their centrality to the survival of soldiers, but it is also necessary to reflect on the social and symbolic role they played both in systems of power (who ate and drank what) and in the way they contributed to the creation of morale and cohesion amongst men from disparate backgrounds.


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