Death of a monkey mascot

Anecdotes from the frozen wastes of Spain and Britain, with a brief burst of the usual twaddle.

In an LRB review of yet another Attila book, Michael Kulikowski writes:

High in the Pyrenees, early in the fifth century, a knot of Roman soldiers huddled together over the saddest kind of duty. A comrade-in-arms had died young, after just two years under the standards. They buried him with the honours he deserved, in his best uniform and his shining metal belt – the cingulum that was every fighting man’s pride, the sign that he was a soldier. No headstone would mark his grave – there was no one for miles to do the carving and, besides, headstones had been falling out of fashion for centuries. Only the memory of the young soldier would remain, fixed in the minds of onlookers by the spectacle, by the precious things deposited with the body, vanishing for ever as the earth fell on it. Without a headstone, we can’t know this young soldier’s name. In that, as in the manner of his burial, he is typical of thousands of fifth-century soldiers whose graves have been excavated. Or typical save in one respect: the dead Pyrenean soldier was a monkey, an adolescent macaque from the coast of North Africa, a thousand kilometres from where he died.

The motif of a monkey mascot undergoing ritualised death was the key to the election of a simian candidate promising “free bananas for schoolchildren” as mayor of Hartlepool several years ago, because:

Monkey Hanger is the affectionate term by which Hartlepudlians are often known by other residents of Great Britain. According to local folklore, during the Napoleonic wars, a French ship of the type chasse marée (literally, tide-chaser) was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool. The only survivor was a monkey, wearing a French uniform (presumably to provide amusement for those onboard the ship). On finding the monkey, some locals decided to hold an impromptu trial on the beach; since the monkey was unable to answer their questions, and many locals were unaware of what a Frenchman may look like, they concluded that the monkey was in fact a French spy. Just to make sure, the animal was thus sentenced to death and hanged from the mast of a fishing boat on the Headland. Nowadays, many Hartlepudlians have positively embraced the term, and only a small minority still consider the term ‘Monkey Hanger’ offensive.

I suspect that the Romans were indulging in mild anthropomorphism–we’re not talking Indian monkey generals, nor the various monkey deities of animist Orient and Africa, nor the gorilla in Russell Hoban’s highly entertaining underworld meditation, Kleinzeit, which sticks its paw through the letterbox and menaces the protagonist–Hades as bailiff. In the Hartlepool incident the monkey is a convenient peg on which to hang a dichotomy, with the figurative anthropomorphists on the one side shaking with laughter at their literal colleagues on the other. And so, says Auntie, Fiona-Jane Brown

suggests the Hartlepool legend stems from a similar incident off the village of Boddam, near Peterhead, in 1772.

A song of the time recalls how a monkey survived a shipwreck off Boddam. The villagers could only claim salvage rights if there were no survivors from the wreck, so they allegedly hanged the monkey.
Ms Brown claims the song was adapted over many years as it travelled down the east coast, eventually spawning a Hartlepool version and embedding the monkey myth in Teesside culture.

She said: “The evolution of the song remains an intriguing story in itself, but it’s also interesting how each community relates to it now. On Teesside, the legend has been generally adopted as a positive marker of social identity which survived on the football field. But in Scotland, the Boddamers have refused to accept what they see as a slur against their community, a bad memory of bitter rivalries of the past.”

Unfortunately her paper, The Fishermen Hung the Monkey-O, dealing with the eponymous ballad, seems to be unpublished.

Much more in this vein is to be found in a remarkable and popular book published in 1825, William Stewart Rose’s Apology addressed to the traveller’s club, or, anecdotes of monkeys:

Life on the rock of Gibraltar is very like life on shipboard. The transition, therefore, from one to the other is natural; and there is no place, after a ship, in which the habits of monkeys could once have been more successfully studied. I say once, because in former times monkeys, like fairies, mixed there more familiarly with men; probably, because the garrison was then small, and from necessity conducted themselves better towards these their neighbours; but now,

_________battalion-man and grenadier

“Have made the merry mortals disappear.”

I don’t think Darwin’s laurels are in danger, but does the subsequent history of the relationship between human and non-human primates bear that out? Or, in terms the childish noughties will understand, do fairies die when you stop believing in them? Whatever, here’s reason from Gibraltar why we should treasure them:

The Spaniards, a very few weeks before the memorable sally, attempted the surprize of one of our outposts, though heaven knows what excited them to such an enterprize. Such however was their object, which would have inevitably succeeded, if they had not had to pass a party of monkeys, whose assemblage was quite as extraordinary as the project of the Spaniards. These, on being broken in upon by the invaders, set up a loud cry, and alarmed the outpost which was menaced. Surely these beasts deserved as well of our garrison as the geese did of that of the Capitol.


  • Rose credits Dryden with the merry mortals, but I can’t find the reference.
  • I may not have told you about the time when we mounted a stage version of Jaws and the audience stood up at the end and cried, “Maw! maw!”
  • Even further from the point, is it true that Gateshead is to be renamed Gazzaville when Paul Gascoigne finally pops it?


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