Of Tapping the Admiral And Sucking the Monkey

Both of these slang phrases had naval origins, and, perhaps not surprisingly, both were Regency slang for the illicit enjoyment of spiritous beverages, both at sea and on shore. To be more specific, the enjoyment of spiritous beverages which were stored in casks or barrels. During our favorite period, these slang terms did not apply to drinking from bottles, glasses or any other container, with the exception of a cask or barrel.

The origins of tapping the admiral or sucking the monkey . . .

Though he had been killed in battle, in 1806, nearly six years before the Regency began, Admiral, Lord Nelson was still the most famous and well-known admiral during that decade. Despite the fact that he had been shot by a French sniper during the Battle of Trafalgar, the British victory during that crucial battle smashed the power of the French Navy and destroyed Bonaparte’s hopes of invading Britain, giving that island realm a much stronger sense of security. Since Admiral Nelson had engineered the battle plan, he was widely considered to be the hero of the day and was highly revered in Britain. Admiral Nelson had no wish to be buried at sea, and, as a senior flag officer, he had the right to have his body transported home to England for burial.

Though the Battle of Trafalgar had been fought in early October, it had taken place off the southern coast of Spain. Therefore, it would take some time to return Nelson’s remains to his homeland. In order to retard decomposition during the voyage to Britain, Nelson’s body was immersed in a large barrel containing brandy, blended with camphor and myrrh. This barrel was then sealed and lashed to the mainmast of his flagship, HMS Victory, which had been badly damaged during the battle. An honor guard stood watch around the barrel at the base of the mast while the Victory was towed to the Port of Gibraltar for repairs. While in port at Gibraltar, Admiral Nelson’s body was removed from the barrel of brandy and was laid out in a lead-lined coffin. The coffin was then filled with "spirits of wine," which was essentially pure ethanol. Again, Nelson’s coffin was given a twenty-four hour honor guard, while the repairs to the Victory were completed, and as the ship bore Nelson’s remains back to Britain.

Since the barrel containing Nelson’s body was in plain sight on the deck of the Victory, and under guard at all times, until it reached England, no one had the opportunity, or the temerity, to tamper with it or its contents. However, it was generally known in the Royal Navy that his body had been brought home in a barrel of brandy. And, for many years after his victory at Trafalgar, including the years of the Regency, Nelson was routinely considered to be "The Admiral" by a great number of people, especially the sailors of the Royal Navy, and even many in the merchant marine.

Most British ships carried the rum rations for their crew in barrels in the hold, usually in an area under the control of the purser, who was responsible for food, drink and other supplies aboard ship. In addition, many ships, particularly those of the Royal Navy, also carried barrels and casks of brandy and other better quality alcoholic beverages. Those more exclusive beverages were usually intended for the consumption of the officers and any important visitors who might come aboard. From time to time, there were a few members of a ship’s crew who felt they were entitled to enjoy those finer beverages as well, regardless of their rank. Those sailors would slip into the purser’s area of the hold, where, using a gimlet or a similar tool, they would bore a small hole in a barrel or cask. Once the hole was bored, the person who had made it would then use a straw to surreptitiously partake of the liquid contents.

Some of these furtive drinkers were wise enough to moderate the consumption of their ill-gotten alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately, there were a few others who guzzled all they could, as soon as they got their straw into a barrel or cask. Some of those greedy sailors were simply found to be inebriated, sometimes while on duty. However, there were a few who drank so much they gave themselves alcohol poisoning. Some of those who were poisoned by over-drinking had such a bad case that they actually died of it. Despite those deaths, there were at least one or two sailors on most ships who were willing to take the chance by secretly drinking spiritous beverages which were not meant for them. If the sailor survived Tapping the Admiral and imbibing that much alcohol, they were usually punished, often with extra duty and sometimes with flogging.

By the beginning of 1806, a new slang phrase had begun to enter the vocabulary of many English sailors, particularly those of the Royal Navy. A sailor who had illicitly drilled a barrel of rum or other alcoholic beverages, and helped himself to the contents, was often said to have been "Tapping the Admiral." There are some who believed this phrase originated because the barrel which held the body of Admiral Nelson had actually been tapped by some of those aboard the HMS Victory on the return voyage. However, since that barrel was under the constant watch of an honor guard until the ship arrived in Britain, that was hardly possible. Rather, it seems more likely that the phrase came about simply because it was widely known that Admiral Nelson’s body had been transported back to England in a barrel of brandy. Today, there is a pub in northwest London which is named Tapping the Admiral.

The slang phrase "Tapping the Admiral" originated in the early nineteenth century. However, another slang phrase, which eventually came to mean the same thing, had much older origins. "Sucking the Monkey" is a slang term which originated in the West Indies, during the American War of Independence. During that war, the ships of the Royal Navy were regularly calling in at port cities in the British West Indies to replenish their supplies. While the ships were in port, a number of West Indian women were regularly allowed on board to sell fresh coconuts and fresh fruit. It was not long before some of the more enterprising sailors were able to prevail upon at least a few of these women to drain the coconut milk out of some of the fresh coconuts and fill them with rum. Of course, these rum-filled coconuts could be sold for a higher price, so the women were more than happy to comply with the sailors’ requests, usually unbeknownst to the ship’s officers. In fact, this covert practice was so well concealed from most ships’ officers that unexplained drunkenness aboard Royal Navy ships remained a mystery for many years.

Those men who acquired a rum-filled coconut would drink the contents by inserting a straw into the hole in the shell by which the coconut milk had been drained out and the rum poured in. A number of the sailors had seen monkeys during their travels and they felt that the three large dark spots on the coconut shell made it resemble the face of a monkey. Thus, this practice of drinking rum from a coconut shell became known among sailors as "Sucking the Monkey." Even after the war in America was over, and British ships no longer put in to West Indian ports on a regular basis, the slang term remained in use in the Royal Navy. By then, the phrase was used to refer to someone who drilled a hole in a barrel or cask filled with an alcoholic beverage in order to surreptitiously drink the contents with a straw.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, this same slang term had made its way into the civilian population in Britain. There were instances when someone slipped into the wine cellar of a public house or private home to surreptitiously drill a hole in a barrel or cask of fine liquor and use a straw to suck out the contents. Similar instances occurred when someone hired to deliver a barrel of fine liquor might do the same en route to the final destination. There are even a few court cases in late eighteenth century and early nineteenth in which an individual was charged with draining a barrel or cask of fine liquor, either in a cellar or while transporting it. The term "Sucking the Monkey" often appears in the court records, as well as news reports of those cases.

Dear Regency Authors, might you find a use for one or the other of these slang terms for illicitly drinking an alcoholic beverage directly from a barrel or cask in an upcoming romance? Perhaps the hero is an officer on board a Royal Navy ship who has to deal with a foolish sailor who has tapped the admiral to the point that he has poisoned himself. How will the hero handle the matter? Or, might one of your characters hire a drayman to transport a special barrel of very fine brandy from their country house to their townhouse in London. When the barrel arrives, nearly empty, how will your character deal with that turn of events? Are there other ways in which tapping the admiral or sucking the monkey might be used to add flavor to a new Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Of Tapping the Admiral And Sucking the Monkey

  1. something to consider for my naval hero William Price in his second adventure sailing north, when some enterprising sailor feels he needs to tap the admiral to keep warm in Scapa Flow – and might succumb to hypothermia rather than alcoholic poisoning owing to the opening of the pores from alcohol

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      That plot bunny should dovetail nicely. I understand that consumption of alcoholic beverages makes the drinker feel warmer, for a short time. But, as you say, it actually causes the blood vessels to expand, thereby triggering significant body heat loss through the skin. From what I understand, consuming alcohol also suppresses the body’s ability to shiver, by which the muscle movement would help one to keep warm.

      Good luck with your story!



      • it’s one of those works in progress I could not contemplate over the heat wave, because I couldn’t get into the mindset of Scapa Flow …. and now we are having a lovely Indian summer, which i am not complaining about! so it will have to wait until I have emerged from the current muse of 17th century dragons and the perfidy of King Philip of Spain

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