Johnny Newcome's poison: Alcohol use and abuse in the British West Indies garrison, 1792--1815

Date of Completion

January 2000


Anthropology, Cultural|History, European|History, Latin American




Military drinking contributed significantly to the costs of maintaining the overseas empire, yet it was so integral to the fabric of eighteenth-century military culture and society that it could not be excised. Heavy drinking held a prominent place in British culture and society, including the military, when, at the end of the eighteenth century, a total war threatened the very existence of the empire. In this struggle, the West Indies colonies were considered of critical strategic importance, but military campaigns there were fraught with difficulties, which military drinking stood to exacerbate. ^ This dissertation addresses the problem of excessive drinking at this critical juncture in British history. What were the causes of military drinking in the West Indies garrison? How extensive was it, and what were its effects? What measures were taken to address the problem, and how effective were they? ^ In addressing these questions, this study draws on a variety of sources, published and unpublished, particularly from military officers and physicians. These sources demonstrate that drinking was widespread in the garrison, due to a variety of environmental, supply, and cultural considerations, as well as to a variety of personal reasons of each drinker. ^ Military drinking had substantial effects on morale and discipline in the garrison, and also on the health of the soldiers. Officers and physicians recognized these effects. The role of drink in British society and culture, however, prevented direct corrective measures. The urgency of the West Indian situation led the Army to adopt innovations that indirectly eased the burdens caused by alcohol abuse, and contributed to later reforms, not only in the military but also in British and West Indian society as a whole. ^ Military drinking was a cultural phenomenon. Even in a controlled environment such as the West Indies garrison, the Army lacked the ability and the inclination to prohibit drinking outright as a matter of general policy. Instead, reforms were modest, pragmatic, and adopted by local commanders based on immediate necessity. While the Army traditionally has been considered conservative, it generally paralleled cultural evolution and civilian reform efforts in the decades following the war. ^