Monkey business

In the oldest part of Amsterdam, just a few steps away from the Damrakwhich is where the ships of the Dutch East India Company used to anchor and unload their cargo from India, Indonesia and Japansits a pretty unimposing bar called In’t Aepjen. Translated into English, that means “In the Apes.”

It’s a funny name, and true enough, the tavern has a funny history. It’s a long history, too, stretching back to … well. That’s the matter of some debate. Some say the building dates back to the 1400s. Others, to the 1540s. One thing is for certain: It is one of just two surviving wood-frame buildings in the city after a massive fire in the year of 1452 led the city to end the practice of building structures out of wood.

(The other wooden structure is in the Begijnhof, a sort of Catholic religious community for women that didn’t require a life-long commitment that being a nun required. But that will be the subject of a future post.)

Sure enough, taverns back in the day had many colorful names, so one called In the Apes wasn’t so unusual in that regard. Across the sea in England, there are watering holes named Olde Trip to Jerusalem, The Cat and Custard, and the Jolly Taxpayer. 

It’s how In the Apes got it’s name — and what that name came to mean — that sets it apart.

Since In’t Aepjen is so close to the docks, it’s a given that its clientele in its early days was largely comprised of sea-faring men who were coming ashore with a few coins in their pocket and a little bit of time on shore leave. But apparently, some of these men had less coin on hand than they anticipated And when their drink tab exceeded their cash on hand, the barkeep and sailors turned to barter.

Worth at least a beer or two.

Many of the sailors turned to the one exotic thing the were willing to part with: the animals they brought with them from the jungles in Asia, South America or Africa. Sometimes these were colorful birds — parrots or macaws. But more often, they were monkeys of some variety.

And it’s not hard to imagine why.  The novelty of having a pet monkey is pretty alluring. But they are very intelligent and demanding animals, and they don’t necessarily make easy or good pets. I can even imagine that more than a few sailors showed up at the tavern intentionally shortchanged hoping to offload their shoulder-buddy on the bartender in exchange for a few rounds of beer.

But of course, that meant the tavern owner had to do something with these animals. For a while, it was possible to keep the creatures in the tavern — some apparently in cages — for the patrons to enjoy. But these were the days before Frontline and flea collars. It didn’t take long until bar patrons were scratching themselves silly from the fleas. And that’s not exactly good for business.

in't aepjen today
Modern-day interior of In’t Aepjen

Enter Gerard Westerman, a tavern regular who had a little extra land and an interest in animals. He offered to take the critters off the bar owner’s hands and set them up in a park-like garden that would eventually become the Artis Royal Zoo. Well. That’s how the story goes, but strictly speaking, real historians poopoo that telling of it.

The story doesn’t end there, though. The notoriety of the tavern would go far beyond just a few flea bites. Over time, the name of the tavern would become synonymous with poor decision-making made when you were lit. To “be in the monkeys” would come to mean to be in trouble because of something stupid you did when you were drunk.

Once again, it’s all thanks to the tavern’s location and it’s seafaring clientele. Recruiters for the Dutch East India Company realized that they could easily take advantage of the sailors when they were inebriated, so they gravitated to pubs like this one to ply their trade.

Unscrupulous recruiters would buy sailors a mug of beer, and at the bottom of the mug would be a coin. The sailor wouldn’t see the coin until they had drank to the bottom, but having drank the beer, it was seen as an agreement to sail for the Dutch East India Company for a period of time — often for as long as three years. If the sailor balked at this, the constables would be fetched and he could be made to live up to this unwritten, nonverbal contract. By some accounts, this is why drinking was switched to clear glasses, and why those glasses are lifted when people toast  — so they can see if there’s anything on the bottom of the glass. 

In't Aepjen Zeedijk
Zeedijk, with In’t Aepjen pictured to the left (with the round sign)

I’m not sure what year of law school this kind of contract law is covered in, but … yikes!

In’t Aepjen still exists as a tavern to this day, though it is monkey- and flea-free, and as far as I know, its patrons are not in danger of being pressed into three years’ service with the merchant marines.

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