The use of lead equipment in 18th century rum production may have contributed to the deaths of British sailors in the Caribbean think archaeologists.
Recent examination of skeletons from the Royal Naval Hospital cemetery in Antigua showed extremely high levels of lead in the bones, possibly caused by the high levels of the metal in the sailors’ rum ration. Anthropologist Tamara Varney said historians have long believed a high death rate among members of the British Royal Navy and at a time when the navy dominated the Caribbean was due to alcoholism and lead poisoning.
If the bodies came from the early 19th century then food stored in lead cans would be a likely suspect but the bodies in question date from the time of the French Revolution, just before canning came into widespread use in the Navy.
Rum was given to the sailors as part of their daily ration (mixed with water and citrus juice) and in tropical regions like the Caribbean their ration was often augmented to help ward off diseases such as Yellow Fever, which ravaged the European garrisons stationed on the islands at the time. So serious were the epidemics that being sent to the Caribbean was often tantamount to a death sentence and the islands gained the grisly moniker of ‘the white man’s grave’.
Many of the bones found there also showed high levels of mercury, which was, likewise, widely used as a medicine at the time as its dangerously high toxicity was not understood. Soldiers and sailors of the 18th century therefore were, unknowingly, being poisoned with heavy metals from both the cure and supposed preventative to the already lethal ailments surrounding them.