Dangerous Drinks from History (1): Fool’s Rack (distilled jellyfish blubber).

John Fryer 1650 – 1733) was an English doctor and Fellow of the Royal Society, now best remembered for his descriptions of travel in Persia and East India. In India he served as surgeon to the East India Company. In the following excerpt, written around 1674, he describes the pomp and ceremony of the daily routine enjoyed by the President of the English settlement at Bombay. He goes on to say that despite all this extravagance the lifestyle was extremely unhealthy on account of the climate: “…but for all this gallantry, I reckon they walk but in charnel-houses”. The excerpt ends with a fascinating reference to “Fool’s Rack” a brandy made from distilled jellyfish blubber. It is easy to imagine the train of thought that led to the creation of this drink. It likely began as an entrepreneurial enterprise, based on the enticing possibility of making money out of something found lying around on the beach. Moving on from there, the next idea might have been that the jellyfish venom had some latent recreational properties, and that its fatal qualities could be eradicated in the distillation process. Who knows. Whatever the thinking, Fryer tells us that it caused “those that take it to be fools”. The drink certainly occupies a niche in the rich and inventive history of man’s pursuit of drunkenness over the centuries.

The President has a large commission, and is Vice-Regis : and he has a Council here also, and a guard when he walks or rides abroad, accompanied with a party of horse, which are constantly kept in the stables, either for pleasure or service. He has his chaplains, physician, surgeons, and domestieks ; his linguist, and mint-master : At meals he has bis trumpets usher in his courses, and soft music at the table ; If he move out of his chamber the silver staves wait on him ; if downstairs the guard receive him ; if he go abroad, the Bandarines and Moors under two standards march before him. He goes sometimes in the coach, drawn by large milk-white oxen, sometimes on horseback, other times in palenkeens, carried by Cohors, Mussulman porters : Always having a Sumbrero of state carried over him : And those of the English inferior to him, have a suitable train.

But for all this gallantry, I reckon they walk but in chamel-houses, the climate being extremely unhealthy; at first thought to be caused by Bubsho, rotten fish ; but though that be prohibited, yet it continues as mortal: I rather impute it to the situation, which causes an infecundity in the earth, and a putridness in the air, what being produced seldom coming to maturity, whereby what is eaten is undigested; whence follows fluxes, dropsy, scurvy, barbien (which is an enervating the whole body, being neither able to use hands or feet), gout, stone, malignant and putrid fevers, which are endemial diseases : Among the worst of these, Fool’s Rack (brandy made of blubber, or carvil,by the Portugals, because it swims always in a blubber, as if nothing else were in it; but touch it, aud it stings like nettles; the latter, because sailing on the waves it bears up like a Portugal Carvil: It is, being taken, a jelly, and distilled causes those that take it to be fools). [Note: A carvil was a type of sailing boat, not an especially big one. Over time, as its reputation became ever more fearsome, the jellyfish came to be known as the Portuguese Man of War on account of its resemblance to to a boat. Here we see the beginnings of that usage.]

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