In 1952, Vice President Richard Nixon stepped onto public television to battle accusations of his using a campaign contribution slush fund. He denied these charges outright, but did admit there was a campaign gift he refused to give back: a cocker spaniel named Checkers. His televised address would forever be known as the “Checkers Speech.”
In 1974, the Save the Dunes Council, a charitable non-profit dedicated to protecting and advocating for the Indiana Dunes, was accused of using a slush fund to indulge in land speculation at tax sales, then selling purchased property for profit to the Department of the Interior.
Five minutes of research would uncover a hundred examples of slush funds in politics and business. Slush fund is a common term, but its origins are very uncommon. The term’s origins start out on the high seas, decades before the United States was even born.
The British empire thrived on the skill and strength of the Royal Navy, most famously demonstrated in the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. England’s sleek ships and speedy crews made mincemeat of the larger Spanish fleet. It was a victory still celebrated in the UK today.
However, when we think of the Royal Navy, we think of dirty ships and cruel captains. Little of that is true. Contrary to modern depictions, life in the Royal Navy wasn’t all that bad. The navy gave men a career and a life far better than that on shore. British sailors worked hard but were given plenty of time to rest.
Corporal punishment might seem cruel, but ten lashes from the cat o’ nine tails was preferable to a month in prison (as long as you avoided infection). Dirty ships? That’s right out. Sailors spent most of their time cleaning from stem to stern centuries ago AND today. And the captains might have been cruel, but they were, for the most part, competent. Better a cruel captain than death.
‘Seamen, love their bellies above everything else. Make any abatement from them in the quantity or agreeableness of the victuals, is to provoke them in the tenderest spot’ and ‘render them disgusted with the King’s service than any… other hardship’.
~Samuel Pepys, 1669
The most common stereotype is the poor quality of British food. The idea that these sailors ate thin gruel and maggoty meat is an absolute falsehood. As Samuel Pepys, a Royal Navy administrator who aided in the desperate search for scurvy’s cure, noted in his diary, a bad diet is the one crime British sailors would not tolerate. In the excerpt above, Pepys slyly suggested that an officer guilty of restricting sailors’ meals might not wake up the next morning.
To a crew in the British Navy—sailors and officers alike—an abundance of quality food was the life of the ship. So what did they eat? Ship’s biscuits and lots of salted beef and pork. Salted meats provided plenty of calories and protein. Before vitamin British doctors (Spain had figured it out a century earlier) realized scurvy came from a vitamin C deficiency, sailors were also required to swallow interim remedies.
Some of these experimental cures included sauerkraut, malt, vitriol of copper, hard cider, or seawater. None of it relieved symptoms, until they stumbled upon the “magic” cure: two oranges and—
What on Earth does this have to do with a ‘slush fund’?
My apologies. The point I’m slowly trying to make is that a ship’s cook held the life and happiness of the crew in his hands. He could dole out or withhold rations to a sailor. He also had access to the choicest food stuffs on the ship. Get a ship’s cook mad, and you’re guaranteed to gnaw on the toughest, grittiest slice of salt pork in the barrel. Or worse, get nothing at all.
These Royal Navy cooks also controlled another resources: the slush.
Ah. There it is. About time.
Anytime you boil something fatty, and in the Royal Navy that usually meant salt pork, you get a layer of grease or fat on the water’s surface. Today, we skim this layer of “scum” off the water and either rinse it down the sink or store it in a grease jar to be tossed later. But not in the Royal Navy. They didn’t call it grease or scum. They called it slush, much like the slush you shuffle through in the winter. In the image above, you can see the cosmetic similarities between the two.
How much slush could a ship produce?
I can’t give you an exact figure. You’re talking a huge cauldron of soup boiling meats several hours a day for hundreds of men for months at a time. That’s a lot of fat. We don’t use rendered fat today like we did then. Back then, this pure animal fat (or tallow) was used for candles. Boiling separated it from its impurities, saving the candlemakers labor and making it more valuable. By the end of a voyage, this could be hundreds of pounds of clean, rendered animal fat. Thousands of candles worth.
The ship’s officers and cook often struck an arrangement concerning the slush. They’d sell it to a candlemaker, which could be found in virtually any port, and keep the profits. Most of it went for ship’s crew for extra comforts; things like sugar, spices, or wine. But both the cook and the officers would tuck a little in their own pockets for the extra effort.
This hidden stash of cash became known as, you guessed it, a slush fund.
See, we got there.
Want to Know More?
For a fascinating look inside 17th century living, check out The Diary of Samuel Pepys. This site divides entries by subject and also gives a nice summary, since English in the 17th century still had vestigial remains of Middle English.