TAPPING THE ADMIRAL
Q From Wade Evans: What is the origin of the phrase tapping the Admiral, meaning to take a small quantity of strong drink? The story I have read is preposterous, but I can’t refute it because I don’t know the real background.
A Readers of a sensitive disposition should skip to the next item. Various versions exist of this wild tale but all purport to describe what happened to the body of Admiral Nelson after his death at the battle of Trafalgar. His remains, it is said, were put in a cask of rum to preserve them on the voyage back to Britain. Sailors who would do anything for a drink bored a hole in the cask with a gimlet and drew off quantities of the rum through a straw. So many did so that when the body arrived in London the cask was found to be nearly empty.
Though Nelson’s body was preserved in this way, albeit in brandy not rum, the story is clearly a folk legend. Similar ghoulish tales have been told in many circumstances, including one of a couple who bought a house that had once been an inn and who were delighted to find that one of the old casks in the cellar still held rum. Only after they had emptied it and cut the cask in two to make plant containers for the garden did they find the well-preserved remains of a man inside. Jan Harald Brunvand, the American academic who has made a lifelong study of such legends, has told versions in one of his books, including a related one dating back six hundred years about some tomb robbers in Egypt. Other tales tell of containers holding similarly preserved bodies of monkeys or apes that spring a leak on their way from Africa to museums; the leaking spirits are consumed with a gusto that turns to horror when the truth of the situation emerges.
Though the story about Lord Nelson is folklore, like all good tales it’s grounded in an acute understanding of the cupidity of human beings, provides a moral lesson, and is based on real situations. Important persons who died at sea in centuries past did indeed have their corpses preserved in a barrel of spirits so they could be brought home for proper burial (embalming didn’t arrive until the 1860s and even then wasn’t available at sea). A related expression, suck the monkey was current in the London docks in the nineteenth century to describe the practice of boring a hole in a cask of spirits to steal the contents; this might conceivably have built on the tale about monkeys’ bodies preserved in casks of spirits, though it is more likely to have had a different origin.
The expression tapping the Admiral appeared in the Royal Navy in the late nineteenth century in the sense you describe. We may deride the folk tale about sailors sipping from the cask containing Nelson’s body, but it does seem to be the origin of the expression.