The body of Britain's most legendary admiral was shipped home in a cask of booze
Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson remains Britain’s most famous naval hero. It was the fear of Lord Nelson and his fleet that kept Napoleon’s armies from crossing the English Channel. He was known for his supreme understanding of naval combat tactics and his unconventional strategies.
“Something must be left to chance; nothing is certain in a sea fight” – Lord Nelson
Lord Nelson was wounded many times in his career. He lost sight in his right eye during a campaign in Corsica. He lost his right arm trying to conquer an island in the Portuguese Azores. He also destroyed most of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, effectively stranding Napoleon and the French Army in Egypt.
Let me alone: I have yet my legs and one arm. Tell the surgeon to make haste and his instruments. I know I must lose my right arm, so the sooner it’s off the better.” – Lord Nelson
He met his fate in another decisive fight against Napoleonic France, at the Battle of Trafalgar. He fought a combined French and Spanish fleet, sinking twenty two enemy ships without losing a single one of his own. Nelson was shot in the shoulder by a French musketeer during the battle. The bullet would make its way to his spine, and he succumbed to this wound shortly after. He lived long enough to know he’d won the battle.
Nelson’s victory secured English rule over the seas for the rest of the Napoleonic Wars, even though the Vice-Admiral wouldn’t be around for them.
After the battle, a storm threatened the admiral’s flagship, HMS Victory, which was missing its mainmast and would not be able to return to England quickly. The ship’s surgeon, rather than bury England’s greatest hero at sea, wanted to get Nelson’s body back home for a state funeral. His solution? Shove the Vice-Admiral’s body in a cask of brandy to preserve it during the trip home.
“If I had been censured every time I have run my ship, or fleets under my command, into great danger, I should have long ago been out of the Service and never in the House of Peers.” – Lord Nelson
After the long trip home and Nelson’s elaborate state funeral, Nelson’s body had spent 80 unrefrigerated days before his final burial. In the days that followed, people questioned the decisions of the ship’ surgeon, wondering why he didn’t use the ship’s supply of rum to preserve Nelson’s body. In his official account, the surgeon maintained that brandy was better suited for preservation, but public opinion was so strong, people just assumed he used the rum. It was so prevalent that Navy rum soon became known as “Nelson’s Blood.”
After the body was removed, it was found that the Victory’s sailors had drilled a hole in the cask, and drank from it. though some speculate the sailors drank all of the brandy, no one knows for sure. But henceforth, the act of drilling a hole in a cask became known as “tapping the admiral.”
Nelson is so pivotal to the history of Britain that in 2002 BBC poll, Nelson still rated #8 on a list of the most important Britons. His likeness towers over London’s Trafalgar Square atop a 169-foot-tall column surrounded by giant lions. The Victory, first laid down in 1759, is preserved as the flagship of England’s First Sea Lord, and is currently the oldest ship still in commission.