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The Coasts of High Barbary/The George Aloe & the Sweepstake

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The Coasts of High Barbary is considered to be both a sea shanty and a traditional ballad (Child ballad # 285). The original version, probably, is from the early seventeenth century, it tells of two British merchant ships The George Aloe and The Sweepstake attacked by a French ship, one sank (The Sweepstake) but the George Aloe chases the pirates and defeats them .

So ‘in the seventeenth-century comedy “The Two Noble Kinsmen” we read:
The George Alow came from the south,
From the coast of Barbary-a;
And there he met with brave gallants of war,
By one, by two, by three-a.
Well hail’d, well hail’d, you jolly gallants!
And whither now are you bound-a?
O let me have your company”


High Barbary: barbarian pirates

Although pirate activities were endemic in the Mediterranean Sea, the period of maximum activity of the barbarian pirates was the first half of the 1600s.
The Muslim pirates of the African coasts came from what the Europeans called Barbary or Algeria Tunisia, Libya, Morocco. And more precisely the city-states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, but also the ports of Salé and Tetuan.

The most correct definition is barbarian pirates because they attacked only the ships of Christian Europe (also doing raids in the Christian countries of the Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean to get slaves or to get the best redemptions). The term included Arabs, Berbers, Turks as well as European renegades.
In the affair there were also for good measure the Christian corsairs, which carried out the same raids along the coasts of Barbary (mainly the orders of chivalry of the Knights of Malta and the Knights of St. Stephen, but obviously in these cases it was a matter of “crusade” and not piracy !!

The Coasts of High Barbary:Look ahead, look-astern

The sea ballad The Coasts of High Barbary resumed popularity in the years between 1795 and 1815 in conjunction with the attacks of Barbary pirates to American ships. A ship (presumed to be of American nationality) is boarded by a ship of Barbary pirates and after a furious battle she manages to sink it.

Tom Kines in “Songs from Shakespeare´s Plays and Songs of His Time”,1960

Quadriga Consort from Ships Ahoy 2013

Assassin’s Creed Black Flag in versione sea shanty

The Shanty Crew


“Look ahead, look-astern
Look the weather in the lee!”
Blow high! Blow low!
And so sailed we.

“I see a wreck to windward,
And a lofty ship to lee!
A-sailing down along
The coast of High Barbary”

“O, are you a pirate
Or a man o’ war?” cried we.
“O no! I’m not a pirate
But a man-o-war,” cried he.

“Then back up our topsails
And heave your vessel to.
For we have got some letters
To be carried home by you”.

“We’ll back up our topsails
And heave our vessel to.
But only in some harbor
and along the side of you”

For broadside, for broadside
They fought all on the main;
Until at last the frigate
Shot the pirate’s mast away.
“For quarter, for quarter”,
the saucy pirates cried
But the quarter that we showed them
was to sink them in the tide

With cutlass and gun,
O we fought for hours three;
The ship it was their coffin
And their grave it was the sea

But O! ‘Twas a cruel sight,
and grieved us, full sore,
To see them all a drownin’
as they tried to swim to shore

1) to blow means both hitting and blowing; you would expect a “pull” or “haul” but the meaning remains that of “pull”
2) Pirates use deception for boarding
3) the cutlass is the typical sword of the sailors. With a short and wide blade slightly curved. Cutlass is a term in use in the Renaissance probably derived from the Italian coltellaccio. It is the weapon preferred by pirates because it is robust and suitable for close combat.

The Coasts of High Barbary: There were two lofty ships

The most widespread traditional version in the Folk Revival comes from East Anglia (the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk) where Bob Robert recorded the song to include it in the “Penguin Book of American Folk Songs” (1964): the British ships have become the Prince of Luther and the Prince of Wales. The battle is briefly described, and its only about the sinking of the pirate vessel. In the oldest version by Child the two British ships had separated while en route to Jaffa (Safee), so it was the Sweepstake that was attacked and sunk by the French pirates. The George Aloe goes in pursuit of the pirates and manages to cut down the main mast of the ship. The commander interrogates the prisoners to find out what happened to the other ship
“We laid them aboard on the starboard side,
And we threw them into the sea so wide. “

So reserve the same courtesy to the French!

Bob Robert

There were two lofty ships
From old England came
Blow high, blow low And so sail we
One was the Prince of Luther
The other Prince of Wales
All a-cruisin’ down the coast Of High Barbary

“Aloft there, aloft there”
Our jolly bosun cried
“Look ahead, look astern,
Look to weather an’ a-lee”

“There’s naught upon the stern, sir
There’s naught upon our lee
But there’s a lofty ship to wind’ard
An’ she’s sailin’ fast and free”

“Oh hail her, oh hail her”
Our gallant captain cried
“Are you a man-o-war
Or a privateer?” cried he

“Oh, I’m not a man-o-war
Nor privateer,” said he
“But I am salt sea pirate
All a-looking for me fee”

For Broadside, for broadside
A long time we lay
‘Til at last the Prince of Luther
Shot the pirate’s mast away

“Oh quarter, oh quarter”
Those pirates they did cry
But the quarter that we gave them
Was we sank ‘em in the sea

And oh, it was a cruel sight
and grieved us full sore,
To see ‘em all a-drowning
as they tried to swim ashore.

The Coasts of High Barbary: a forebitter

Stan Hugill in his bible “Shanties From The Seven Seas” shows two melodies: an older one in ternary time (in his opinion) when the song was a forebitter and a faster one (in binary time) as a capstan chantey.

Hulton Clint for “Shanties from the Seven Seas” project

Joseph Arthur in Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, ANTI- 2006


Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

folklorista delle Terre Celtiche

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