Novelists are generally just that. Novelists. That’s not a criticism but an observation. With the rare exception of a writer like Dudley Pope who had developed some chops as a writer of nonfiction, most novelists rely on a handful of works for any historical period. It is impossible to read Bernard without hearing the echoes of The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, The Letters of Private Wheeler, and, of course, Elizabeth Pakenham’s indispensable biography of Wellington. For the novels set during the Age of Sail it is obvious that Sea Life in Nelson’s Time by John Masefield (1905) is the Q document.
What sets Masefield apart from other sources is that 1) he didn’t actually experience the events, 2) his sourcing is opaque, to say the least, 3) he’s not a historian, and 4) his later fame, a Britain’s Poet Laureate, gives credibility to the work.
I say this because much of Masefield’s description of life at sea during the Age of Sail permeates fiction set during that era. And a great deal of what he describes is simply wrong when weighed against contemporaneous accounts. Be that as it may, his influence is there and must be addressed.
The real story follows.
We find references to sailors referring to issued wine as either Black Strap or Miss Taylor. Where does this come from?
In 1733, the Admiralty issued Regulations and Instructions relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea which, though frequently reprinted, were mainly unchanged until 1847. It these Regulations the British seaman is authorized a daily issue of one gallon of small beer. When beer is not available it is allowed to be substituted with either a pint of wine or half-pint of distilled spirits.
Obviously these substitutes were procured locally. Rum would prevail in the West Indies, arrack in the East Indies, and wine in the Mediterranean. This is what Masefield has to say:
When all the beer had been expended, the captains allowed the issue of wines or spirits. A pint of wine, or half-a-pint of rum or brandy, was considered the just equivalent of a gallon of beer. The wine in use was of
very ordinary vintage. It was often purchased abroad, and varied with the port of purchase. The sailors seem to have preferred white wine. They disliked the red wines issued to them in the Mediterranean. They
called them ” Black Strap.” To be stationed in the Mediterranean, was “to be black-strapped.” Their favourite wines were two cheap Spanish wines: “rosolio” and “mistela,” the latter a fiery white wine, affectionately known as ” Miss Taylor.”
Black strap if fairly easy to identify. Being a Southerner, I’d grown up listening to old folks refer to a mixture of rum (or any hard liquor for that matter) and molasses as “black strap.” As it turns out, that was not very helpful in this case. An 1890 dictionary of slang has this to say:
Thick, sweet port. A contemptuous term, in allusion to its dark colour, Strap being an old name for wine.
This seems to be borne out other references to poor quality port being called “black strap.”
The hunt for “Miss Taylor” is more difficult as the only references to it link directly back to Masefield. If Masefield is correct, and his explanation seems reasonable, then a variety of wine called “mistela” is the beverage in question.
This is the most cogent definition I’ve found:
Mistelle, [mees-TEHL] French term for grape juice in which fermentation has been stopped by the addition of alcohol. Because only small amounts of the grape sugars have usually been converted to alcohol, mistelle is very sweet. It’s used mainly as a base for apéritifs, particularly vermouth. The Spanish equivalent is Mistella or Mistela.
As an aside, I can safely say I’ve never experienced a “fiery white wine.”
“Rosolio” is more obscure. Rosolio appears to be a liqueur. The various recipes vary but they all involve the maceration of rose petals in potable alcohol to extract the color, flavor. In which case it would have been issued as distilled spirits, not as wine, were it issued at all.
It is hard to believe that the notoriously skinflint pursers on British warships would have purchased Rosolio and not extremely cheap wine for issue.
There are accounts that indicate in the Mediterranean that Rosolio was believed to have medicinal value. If that is true, then it may have come aboard ship as part of the surgeon’s stores and issued for some reason of health. It is hard to believe that “Rosolio,” if Masefield’s spelling is correct, was ever issued in substantial quantities aboard Navy ships. It is more likely that the sailor’s experiences with it were derived from shore runs, illegal purchases from bumboats, and by word of mouth.