“Tapping the Admiral”

Today we learn about Lord Nelson, a British maritime hero whose body was preserved on the way back to London by pickling it in a barrel of brandy. Fair warning: Lord Nelson’s death is heroic, but the mortuary practice which followed it is gross and may even stop you from drinking for a few hours. However it is a part of this week’s Corpses of Interest segment, celebrating the recent discovery of King Richard III buried underneath a parking lot.

Lord Nelson, as you’ll recall, is the admiral who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Trafalgar. The victory provided all sorts of good material for plucky British operettas about eating limes and wearing powdered wigs and such. More specifically, Trafalgar stopped Napoleon from invading Britain, thus sparing us from the prospect of palatable English cuisine.

Back then the military didn’t have drones, so Lord Nelson actually had to show up on the deck of his ship to survey the battle personally. Unfortunately for him a French sniper managed to plug him, affording perhaps the most British death in all of history. When the captain of his flagship noticed that the admiral wasn’t around, he found Lord Nelson kneeling on the deck and bleeding profusely. Nelson told Captain Hardy, “I do believe they have done it at last… my backbone is shot through.”

That anyone could refer to a musket ball shattering his spinal column and lodging in his gut with such eloquence and politeness is astounding. One time I bent over to pick up a bottle cap and threw my back out, and I could barely even swear coherently. I did manage to swear, profusely in fact, but it took a lot of effort. If I got shot in the back with a musket I would not say things like, “I do believe.” I would say, “AAAAAAAAH! AAAAAAAAAH! BURN FRANCE TO THE GROUND! EVEN PETS!”

Captain Hardy ordered men to take the bleeding admiral below the decks, but on the way Lord Nelson paused the sailors carrying him so he could instruct a midshipman on how to properly handle a tiller. After relaying these helpful marine instructions despite having a steel marble lodged in his spine, Nelson draped a handkerchief over his face so that he would not cause alarm in the crew. Quite the team player. And again, almost obscenely British in his polite and orderly demeanor.

Lord Nelson died a few minutes later, on the eve of his greatest military achievement. Recognizing that the admiral constituted a great war hero, his men sealed his body in a barrel of brandy they had on hand to pickle it on the return voyage to England.

In Portugal they swapped the brandy out for wine. According to crew hearsay, the level of brandy had dropped precipitously from when they had plopped Lord Nelson in. Made of stout stuff and very likely raging alcoholics, the crew of the HMS Victory went ahead and drank the brandy knowing that it had an admiral stewing in it.

To this day the phrase “tapping the admiral” is a colloquial expression for grabbing a drink, particularly in the British Navy. A macabre reference to Lord Nelson’s final voyage, when nasty seamen helped themselves to the brandy they pickled him in.


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