Shanties and their stories


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History of the Sea Shanty
ROlLing down to old Maui

History of the Sea Shanty

The true shanty was a work song to enable the men to “haul”-“stamp”-“heave” and by frequent repetition in choruses-raising a sail or hauling an anchor got the job done. But in the rare periods of time off duty the men would sit on the deck and sing of home-the women left behind or yet to meet! Many also discovered that it was a great way to complain about the Captain and Officers, the food and bad conditions without being punished or lashed “I wasn’t singing about this ship sir” was a favourite excuse.

“A good shantyman is worth ten pressed men” is a famous quote from Stan Hugill, both a working shantyman and a great collector of shanties. The following, by him, sums it up. 

Imagine a square rigger on sailing day and the roar, from The Mate “Aaaall Hands”. The men, some of them the sweepings from the gutter, others seasoned deep water men, would tumble from their bunks, with fat heads and unsteady feet and climb the ladders to the fo’c’slehead. Here they would gather around the capstan. On the command, the capstan bars would be shipped in the scarlet pigeon holes; the bars would be breasted and with a shuffling gait the men would commence the long walk and heave around the trundle head. Until this moment The Mate would be in ignorance as to the seaman like qualities of the “crowd”. Seeing that they had been brought aboard by the boarding house masters, the evening before. Most, if not all, in various states of drunkenness. Looking up from his sidelong inspection of the anchor chain as the links slowly emerged from the river The Mate would cup his hands to his mouth and roar “Who’s the bloody nightingale among yer, are ye men or cawpsies ? If there’s a shanty man among yer fer gawds sake strike a light ” In answer to this challenge from the cavernous throat of some true son of Neptune comes the hurricane reply...

“ Oh say wuz you never dahn Ri-i-o Grande ?“

The refrain, a bit seedy at first, comes from half of the heaving men.

“ Wa-a-ay dahn Ri-o!”

The self imposed shantyman now gets into his stride.

“Where the water runs down golden sand!”

The sailormen, taking heart, bring in a fuller and beefier refrain.

“For we’re bound for The Ri-o Grande”.

A satisfied smile crosses the lips of The Mate. He’s got a good crowd; the shanty tells him that. “When the men sing right, the ship goes right” was the old sea adage.


ROlLing down to old Maui

ROlLing down to old Maui

As Introduced and Performed by John Charlish:

It’s a rough tough life, full of toil and strife
We whaler men undergo
But we don’t give a damn when the whalings done
How hard those winds do blow
For we’re homeward bound,
it’s a damn fine sound,
With our good ship taught and free
And we won’t give a damn
when we drink our rum with the girls of old Maui


Rolling down to Old Maui me boys,
Rolling down to Old Maui

For we’re homeward bound from the Arctic ground
Rolling down to Old Maui

We’ve often sailed, through that Arctic Gale
Through the ice and wind and rain
Those tropic fronds and those island lands
will soon be ours again
Six hellish months we have spent up north,
in that cold Kamchatka sea
Now were homeward bound, from the Arctic ground
as we steer for Old Maui


We’ll heave the lead,
when old Diamond Head
Looms up off Old Wahu
Our masts and yards they were sheathed with ice
and our decks were hid from view
The horrid ice of the sea-caked isles,
that deck that Arctic Sea
Are far behind, in that Frozen wind,
as we sail for Old Maui


How soft the breeze,
in the Southern Seas,
now the ice is far astern
Those tropic glades and those island maids
are awaiting our return
Even now their big brown eyes look out,
for a hoping for to see
Our baggy sails running ‘ fore the gales,
as we race to Old Maui


And now we are anchored in the bay
with those Kanakas all around
They greet us with their soft aloha,
Oh it is a pleasing sound.
And soon we’ll be on shore me boys,
and we’ll paint those beaches red
And we’ll wake in the arms of a native girl,
with a big fat aching head

Chorus ROlLing down to old Maui

As Introduced and Performed by John Charlish:

This is a whaling forebitter telling of the trials of whaling in the northern Pacific and the welcome return to the ports of Hawaii, to “Old Maui”. There are a number of different recordings and transcriptions of this song and the one I sing comes from the work of Stan Rogers.  Research suggests that it is a song created from the journal of the whaling ship, the Atkins Adams and dated 1858.

 It was originally known as Rolling Down to old Mohee and words of a similar strain have been found in the notes of George Piper, a whalerman in the northern seas between 1866-72. Similar lyrics were collected in 1924 by Joanna Colcord (an American seafarer and social worker, who collected songs from the hard-time sailors who passed through her workplace) and reproduced in Gale Huntington’s book,” Songs the Whalermen sang” (1964)

In all its forms, it is a song about a whaling expedition to the “cold Kamchatka sea”  in the 1850’s  when there were great numbers of Kamchatka Bowhead whales, Right Whales and Pacific Sperm Whales present in the Northern and Southern Oceans.

Commercial open boat whaling by American and European ships occurred in the Arctic in the Sea of Okhotsk from the 1830s to the early 1900s. In this time the populations of the  hunted whales declined drastically, with some thought to be extinct by western historians. Peak catches were made in the 1840s and 1850s. It's estimated that as many as 15,200 Bowheads and 2,400 Right Whales were taken in the sea. (Called Right Whales because they were the “right” ones to catch, Sperm whales were prized for the reservoir of waxy “spermicetti” oil found in their foreheads and used for lubrication and illumination)

Stan Hugill says that as early as 1820 Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands (then called the Sandwich Islands), was considered “home” by the Yankee sailors who hunted the northern grounds where they fished the grounds off Kamchatka, the Gulf on Anadyr or the Bering Straits for the Right and Bowhead whales. 100 whaling ships were documented as visiting the islands in 1824, by 1846, the number had risen to 736.

By 1850 -60 , the Pacific whalers were meeting in Maui, or in nearby Oahu,( The Diamond Head of Wahu of the song) twice a year. Many 19th century whalermen used the port of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui as a place to refit and trans ship oil home after six months or so in the Bering Sea or the Arctic Ocean

The whaler man’s year began in March they fitted out their ships on Maui for the summer season in the Arctic, The Whaling ships would then sail north hoping to arrive as the ice started to break and then stay, until the ice threatened again in late October. (There are many songs and tales of ships stranded by Captains wanting “one more whale, before the ice”. Eg Frozen in Frobisher Bay”)

Whaling ships usually entered the Sea of Okhotsk in May and left in October, though they could enter it as early as March and leave as late as November. Most ships entered and exited the sea via the Fourth Kuril Strait some used Bussol Strait. Those cruising in the Sea of Japan first usually entered the sea via La Pérouse Strait. As the ships entered Arctic waters, a stove was put in the forecastle and tryworks were constructed on deck to process the oil.  A crow's nest was set up for whale spotting and finding ways through the breaking ice pack.

Soon after entering the Arctic seas, ships reached the main body of pack ice around 57° N and 150° E, and here they typically encountered the first Bowheads. They then worked through the ice either to the northeast , north or west . The Spring weather was usually foul, with fogs, ice sheets and freezing conditions making whaling one of the most hazardous occupations then known.

After spending a few weeks cruising, ships looked for shoreleads ( ice free channels, leading inshore)  to the bays of the Arctic coasts, which they typically reached in July; in light ice years they could reach these areas by June.

Whilst there was still an ice danger to themselves, the whaling ships would lower the whale-boats, rowed by crew members with a harpoonman in the bow. These boats were sent ahead on extended cruises to make their way through or in some cases over the ice to the heads of bays, where they could catch several Bowheads, have them flensed on the beach, and their blubber tied in rafts by the time the ships reached them.

 When the ice had fully left the bays, the whaling ships were able to move closer to the shore.  The whale boats rowed from the ship or were sent out on cruises lasting several days. Some whaling ships spent the majority of the season in a single bay; but most went from bay to bay. 

Once spotted and chased, the whales were harpooned, killed and brought to the side of the whaling ship where the blubber was flensed (cut and separated from the carcass in long strips).

The blubber was then cut into book-sized chunks (whaler’s bible leaves) to be rendered down by heating in the vats of the tryworks. These were furnaces, typically constructed of brick and attached to the deck with iron braces. A reservoir of water sat under the furnace bricks to keep the decks from scorching. Cast-iron trypots  were set on top of the furnace and contained the blubber as it was being heated to recover the oil. (A similar process to the heating of fatty pork to produce lard.)  Tryworks were traditionally located aft of the fore-mast, and were the most distinguishing feature of a whaling ship.

In some areas the carcasses were towed ashore where the process took place on land. Rendering the flensed blubber “books” produced the highly valued whale oil, which was then stored in barrels to be eventually placed securely below decks. The oil-free “books” were then fed to the flames to create heat to reduce further blubber. The smell must have been horrendous.

The barrels had been made often in the home ports by coopers, who marked the staves and then disassembled the barrels and flat-packed them for space saving transport. Each whaling ship carried a sailors skilled in barrel assembly (or indeed their own cooper) who would assemble the barrels as they were needed.

 Once all the barrels were full, sealed and stored below decks, the ship, full of oil and bone, would secured the  hatches, whaleboats would be  brought aboard and the tryworks  thrown overboard ready for  the ships to head south, “ rolling down to Old Maui” to offload and provision. Some ships would stay for “ six hellish months” luckier ones would make two or three trips  to Maui in any season. Captains often refused to leave until every barrel was full to maximise their profit.

By November, most ships had returned to Maui, this time to fit out for sperm-whaling in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Southern Seas. Hence this song, bidding farewell to the bitter North, and looking forward with a smile to the warmth of the South and fresh food. (How soft the breeze, from the Southern Seas, now the ice is far astern)

Whaling ships might stay in the Pacific Whaling grounds, north and South for up to three years, and temporary homes were established on the Hawaiian Islands for sailors between trips when the whalermen could exploit the delights of the “kanaka” maids ( A Hawaiian term usually to mean men, but also persons, wahine being a more female specific term) during refits.

The whalers brought massive change to the islands. Initially the local population had no immunity to European diseases. A Cold virus wiped out 80% of the population in 1819 and STD’s spread quickly through the port populations. The sailors reluctance to eat fish led to an expansion in the farming adding new foods like cabbage, corn, limes, pineapples, potatoes, coffee, and pumpkins to the native Hawaiian diet and an increase in cattle farming to provide dried meat for the whaling expeditions with a reduction in forest land to create grass feeding fields.  Traders moved in and imported new goods like cocoa, flour, soap, rice, cotton cloth, glass, crockery, iron pots and pans to Hawaii. Sailors pay went on drink and delights but the big money went with the barrels to the USA, UK and Russia.

Finally, the decimation of the whale population led to a steady decline in the industry, such that by the commencement of the First World War, there were few, if any whaling ships trading around Maui and the Northern seas. The search for the whale had led the ships into the breeding grounds and the subsequent killing of the mothers and calves with no opportunity to recover, in 1910 only 12 whales were spotted in the whole season in Kamchatka and 8 of these were killed!

 © The Wellington Wailers

Huntington G: Songs The Whalemen sang 1964
www.mudcat café blog and history  Whaling in the North Pacific
Stan Hugill: Shanties and Sailor Songs (1969)
A.L. Lloyd   Leviathan: Ballads and songs of the Whale Trade (1967) LP  Arctic Whaling


Oh the year was seventeen seventy eight 
I wish I were in Sherbrooke now!
A letter of marque came from the King
To the scummiest vessel I've ever seen
God Damn them all! I was told
We'd cruise the seas, for American gold
We'd fire no guns, shed no tears
Now I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett's privateers.

Oh Elcid Barrett cried the town,
For twenty brave men, all fishermen, who
Would make for him the Antelope's crew
The Antelope sloop was a sickening sight.
She'd a list to port and her sails in rags,
And a cook in the scuppers with staggers and jags.
On the King's birthday we put to sea.
We were ninety-one days to Montego bay,
Pumping like madmen all the way.
On the ninety-sixth day we sailed again.
When a bloody great Yankee hove in sight
With our cracked four-pounders we made to fight
The Yankee lay low down with gold.
She was broad and fat and loose in stays,
But to catch her took the Antelope two whole days
Then at length we stood two cables away.
Our cracked four-pounders made an awful din,
But with one fat ball the Yank stove us in.
The Antelope shook and pitched on her side.
Barrett was smashed like a bowl of eggs,
And the maintruck carried off both me legs.
So here I lay in my twenty-third year.
It's been six years since we sailed away,
And I just made Halifax yesterday.
©Fogarty's Cove Music, Inc

This is an intriguing song as it is a “modern” shanty, written by the Canadian folk singer and historian, Stan Rogers in 1976 and recorded on the album Fogarty’s Cove © FogartysCove Music. It refers to actual historical events and I am indebted to Dean Conlin for his detailed analysis of the lyrics in 1997 which can be found at

 Rogers takes a year (1778) in the middle of the American War of Independence, or the American Revolutionary War, if you prefer, when, in a bid to disrupt the American colonists who were fighting to gain their independence from Great Britain, George III either personally issued or had his Governors in Canada issue, “Letters of Marque”.  These were licenses for private ship-owners to equip their ships to attack the American and French merchantmen that were either supplying the Colonists with guns, ammunition and foodstuffs or returning with payment for the same or exports through the Royal Navy blockade.

 These licenced ships and their crews became known as Privateers and were often based in Nova Scotia as Canada was still a British Dominion. They raided up and down the East coast of America and into the Caribbean. The Sherbrooke of the song is a port on the eastern Canadian shore, though Rogers takes liberties with history here, as the town was not incorporated until 1815 and so was little more than a village on the given date of the song. ( It eventually was named after Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, who was Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia in 1811-16 and as Governor, was still issuing Letters of Marque to privateers during his tenancy!)   

 The commonest ships used by the Privateers were sloops, fast and manoeuvrable single masted fore and aft rigged vessels, ideal for short-range attacks but unless well maintained, not ideal for long hauls to the Caribbean. The Antelope of the song was, from the description of the young seaman whose history the song relates, “the scummiest vessel I'd ever seen” a hint at the more unscrupulous owners who took any vessel and crew they could lay their hands on in the search for quick profit.

The “Elcid Barratt, who cried the town” did not exist, but his desperation to get anyone to join his crew was real, as unprincipled captains sought out “ bold fishermen” who were not against grabbing a quick return with a bit of privateering. Posters of 1778 for the Privateer Revenge call for men          "desiring honour and fortune". Indeed, the chorus of the song reflects the reality in that guns were rarely fired and thus tears rarely shed as clever Captains quickly overhauled the vessels they were chasing and following a warning shot or two across their bows, took control of ship and cargo.

 Both Conlin and Rogers agree that most sloops had a minimum crew of 30 in order to put a crew aboard the captured vessel, so the Antelope of the song setting off with 20 good fishermen, Elcid Barratt himself and a very drunk cook seems more than foolhardy.

 gers calls his ship The Antelope, a common name for ships in the 1700’s ironically referring to a fast African deer-like animal in direct contrast to its actual condition, for the ship was“ a sickening sight” . She sails on June 4th 1778, (the King’s Birthday), with a “list to the port and her sails in rags” and the crew “pumping like madmen all the way” on their 91 day voyage to refuel and refurbish at Montego Bay in Jamaica. It was here that ships would be beached, taken above the tideline, laid on their sides and the hulls scraped and plugged ready for further action. Once refloated, sails, rotten from rodent attack and salt, would be made good or replaced, the ballast relocated and the stocks would be replenished. The Antelope in the song sails in 5 days, far too soon for this work to be carried out, greed overtaking safety in the search for the “American Gold” of the chorus. In fact, these merchantmen provisioning the Colonists, rarely carried gold, the payment being assured through banks and intermediaries, it is more likely, Conlin (1997) notes that the captured cargoes would provide the reward, with whale oil and rum worth their weight in gold.

 The actual description of the eventual sighting of a merchantman, described as “broad and fat and loose in stays” is a mix  of artistic licence and historical fact. Most sloops were about 100 tons and the merchantmen tended to be 400 tons + so the time between sighting and capture was often quite quick as the lighter sloop was both faster and more manoeuvrable. Where the song does explore the truth is in the armaments used for the altercation.


Rogers’ “cracked 4 pounders” were common armaments on privateer vessels, being light, about the thickness of a telegraph pole and not needing too much powder to launch a 4lb ball. However, “the awful din” they created had little effect or accuracy unless used close up and real privateer captains had to be good seamen to get close enough for their firepower to be effective. The merchantman, being larger could take the weight of heavier guns which accounts for the American vessel in the song “stoving in” the Antelope with “one great ball”  (The song has the distance between the two ships as  being “2 cables away” . For the mathematicians amongst you, 1 cable = 1/10th of a nautical mile or 100 fathoms and 1 fathom = 2 yards, therefore they were 400 yds away, too far for the 4 pounders to be effective or accurate)

 So, the song explores the carnage a better equipped vessel can wreak on smaller, lighter opposition, as the main mast is shot away and Barratt is “ crushed like a bowl of eggs” by the falling yards. Our hero finds himself minus his legs as a result of the main truck falling into the sea. Some debate has been had over the origin of this part of the ship as to whether it refers to the carriage on which the cannon sat or  the round cap found at the very top of the mast, which, accompanied by the tangle of associated rigging, crashed down as the  Antelope disintegrates. (As a point of reference, however, the song exaggerates the violence of privateering as the aim was always to capture, undamaged the merchantman. No privateer suffered the fate of the Antelope, though some were lost to shipwreck and some American privateers had disastrous run-ins with the Royal Navy of the time)

 Six years later, our hero finds himself, at the age of 23 “ a broken man on a Halifax pier, the last of Barratt’s Privateers”  Halifax being the main British controlled Canadian port on the eastern seaboard and home for many privateers at the time. Did he take 6 years to get from the Caribbean back to Halifax as a result of his disability, or was he held prisoner and released at the end of the war and forced to make his own passage home?

 Stan Rogers has woven a song of history and story with the adage never let the truth get in the way of a good story uppermost in his mind and it remains a rousing song about a troubled period of naval history and the greed of those who hung on the coat-tails of power.

 John Charlish

Sources:Wikipedia: Barratt’s privateers
Dean Conlin (1997)Is Barratt’s Privateers a True story?
Mudcat Café: Barratt’s Privateer blog
History of Sherbrooke Village: