To Nelson’s Blood


Janet Kinnen, 53, works in corporate intelligence and is self-identified British.  She learned the following story while she was dating a Navy officer in London.  I collected it from her during a dinner conversation with my family.


You’ve hear the phrase, “Drink to Nelson’s blood,” haven’t you?  You haven’t? That’s a pity.  There’s a really great story that goes along with it, although I don’t think now is the best time.  Don’t want to spoil your appetite.  Alright.  Nelson was a Navy admiral, probably one of the best of all time, if you ask me.  But he died during the Battle of Trafalgar, hence Trafalgar Square, which is named after that battle.  You know, that place with all the blasted pigeons right in front of the British museum. Although, I dare say, there a few jolly good pubs right around there.  But Nelson hated the sea, which is bloody weird seeing as he was a bloody Admiral in the Royal Navy.  So, his final request, he asked to be buried on land.  And then he died.  This left his officers in an awful mess.  How were they going to preserve the body long enough to get it back to England?  So, they came up with an idea, which was to stuff Nelson’s body into a casket of rum and then they just told the crew not to drink from that barrel of rum.  Of course, they didn’t tell the poor fellows why not, so when they got back to England, they rolled out the barrel with Nelson’s corpse in it, opened it up, and found there was no rum left!  So, ever since then, for good luck, you drink to Nelson’s blood.


This bit of meta-folklore puts a new spin on an old saying of drinking to Nelson’s blood.  It adds a slight horror effect, completely disgusting the audience by implying that the crew drank the rum which had been storing Nelson’s presumably bloody body.  Consequently, it has a somewhat cannibalistic theme to it, dealing with issues of drinking a person’s blood.  The behavior is excused by saying that the crew simply did not know what was in the barrel of rum and so just assumed that it was simply rum that the officers were trying to withhold.  It also begs the question, if they had known, would they have acted differently?  The initial response is yes, reinforcing certain taboos in our western culture.  Nelson’s blood has in many cases also become synonymous with rum, so this story would also have connections to that phrase.  To Janet, this story is meaningful because it shows the effects of a lack of transparency in an organization and because it is associated with a good time at the bar.