Little Billee sea shanty

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A sea song with caustic humorism also entitled “Three Sailors from Bristol City” or “Little Boy Billee”, which deals with a disturbing subject for our civilization, but always around the corner: cannibalism!
The sea is a place of pitfalls and jokes of fate, a storm can take you off course, on a boat or raft, without food and water, it’s a subject also treated in great painting (Theodore Gericault, The raft of the Medusa see): human life poised between hope and despair.

The three sailors

The maritime songs can express the biggest fears with a good laugh! This song was born in 1863 with the title “The three sailors” written by William Makepeace Thackeray as a parody of “La Courte Paille” (= short straw) – that later became “Le Petit Navire” (The Little Corvette) as a nursery rhyme.(see first part): cases of cannibalism at sea as an extreme resource for survival were much debated by public opinion and the courts themselves were inclined to commute death sentences in detention.
The murder by necessity (or the sacrifice of one for the good of others) finds a justification in the terrible experience of death by starvation that pushes the human mind to despair and madness, but in 1884 the case of the sinking of Mignonette broke public opinion and the same home secretary Sir William Harcourt had to say “if these men are not condemned for the murder, we are giving carte blanche to the captain of any ship to eat the cabin boy every time the food is scarce “. (translated from here).
The ruling stands as a leading case and puts life as a supreme good by not admitting murder for necessity as self-defense

Little Billee
Bernard Partridge Cartoons

From notes of “Penguin Book” (1959):
The Portugese Ballad  A Nau Caterineta  and the French ballad  La Courte Paille  tell much the same story.  The ship has been long at sea, and food has given out.  Lots are drawn to see who shall be eaten, and the captain is left with the shortest straw.  The cabin boy offers to be sacrificed in his stead, but begs first to be allowed to keep lookout till the next day.  In the nick of time he sees land (“Je vois la tour de Babylone, Barbarie de l’autre côté”) and the men are saved.  Thackeray burlesqued this song in his  Little Billee.  It is likely that the French ballad gave rise to The Ship in Distress, which appeared on 19th. century broadsides.  George Butterworth obtained four versions in Sussex (FSJ vol.IV [issue 17] pp.320-2) and Sharp printed one from James Bishop of Priddy, Somerset (Folk Songs from Somerset, vol.III, p.64) with “in many respects the grandest air” which he had found in that county.  The text comes partly from Mr. Bishop’s version, and partly from a broadside.”  -R.V.W./A.L.L.

Ralph Steadman from “Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys, ANTI- 2006″.

There were three men of Bristol City;
They stole a ship and went to sea.
There was Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy
And also Little Boy Billee.
They stole a tin of captain’s biscuits
And one large bottle of whiskee.
But when they reached the broad Atlantic
They had nothing left but one split pea.
Said Gorging Jack to Guzzling Jimmy,
“We’ve nothing to eat so I’m going to eat thee.”
Said Guzzling Jimmy, “I’m old and toughest,
So let’s eat Little Boy Billee.”
“O Little Boy Billy, we’re going to kill and eat you,
So undo the top button of your little chemie.(1)”

“O may I say my catechism
That my dear mother taught to me?”
He climbed up to the main topgallant(2)
And there he fell upon his knee.
But when he reached the Eleventh(3) Commandment,
He cried “Yo Ho! for land I see.”
“I see Jerusalem and Madagascaar
And North and South Amerikee.”
“I see the British fleet at anchor
And Admiral Nelson, K.C.B. (4)”
They hung Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy
But they made an admiral of Little Boy Billee.

Thackeray lyrics here
1) from french chemise
2) or top fore-gallant
2) his companions did not have to be very attached to the Bible (and probably Billy would have invented new ones to save time!)
4)  “Knight Commander of the Bath”, the chivalrous military order founded by George I in 1725


According to Stan Hugill “Little Billee” was a sea shanty for pump work, a boring and monotonous job that could certainly be “cheered up” by this little song! Hugill only reports the text saying that the melody is like the French “The était a Petit Navire”, so the adaptation of Hulton Clint  has the performance of a lullaby.

There were three sailors of Bristol City;
They stole a boat and went to sea.
But first with beef and hardtack biscuits
And pickled pork they loaded she.
And pickled pork they loaded she
There was gorging Jack and guzzling Jimmy,
And likewise there was little Billee.
but when they got to the Equator
They’d only left but one split pea.
Then gorging Jack to guzzling Jimmy,
“I am confounded hungaree.”
Says guzzling Jimmy to gorging Jacky
“We’ve no wittles (1), so we must eat we.”
Said Gorging Jack to Guzzling Jimmy,
“Oh Guzzling Jim what a fool you be..
There’s little Billy, who’s young and tender,
We’re old and tough, so let’s eat he.”
“Make haste, make haste” then say Guzzling Jimmy
as he drew his snickher snee (2)
“O Billy, we’re going to kill and eat you,
undo the collar of your chemie.”
When William heard this information
he drope down on bended knee
“O let me say my catechism
which my dear mom taught to me”
So up he went to the maintop-gallant
and he drope down on his bended knee
and than he said  all his catechism
which his dear mamy once taught to he
He scarce had said his catechism
when up he jumps “There’s land I see
Jerusalem and Madagascaar
And North and South Amerikee.”
“Jerusalem and Madagascar,
And North and South Amerikee;
There’s the British fleet a-riding at anchor,
With Admiral Napier, K.C.B.”
When they bordered to Admiral’s vessel,
He hanged fat Jack (3) and flogged Jimmee;
as for little Bill they make him
The Captain of a Seventy-three (4).

1)  It’s a mispronunciation of “vittles,” which is a corrupted form of “victuals,” which means “food.”
2) a particularly lethal big knife used as a weapon
3)in some versions the degree of guilt between the two sailors is distinguished, so only one is hanged
4) 73 cannon war vessel

And for corollary here is the French version “Un Petit Navire”


The Ship in Distress sea ballad

Leggi in italiano

“You Seamen Bold” or “The Ship in Distress” is a sea song that tries to describe the horrors suffered on a ship adrift in the ocean and without more food on board. Probably the origin begins with a Portuguese ballad of the sixteenth century (in the golden age of the Portuguese vessels), taken from the French tradition with the title La Corte Paille.

This further version was very popular in the south of England
A. L. Lloyd writes ‘The story of the ship adrift, with its crew reduced to cannibalism but rescued in the nick of time, has a fascination for makers of sea legends. Cecil Sharp, who collected more than a thousand songs from Somerset, considered The Ship in Distress to be the grandest tune he had found in that country.’ (from here)
Louis Killen

Martin Carhty & Dave Swarbrick from But Two Came By 1968

Marc Almond from Son Of Rogues Gallery ‘Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys ANTI 2013

You seamen bold who plough the ocean
See dangers landsmen never know.
It’s not for honour and promotion;
No tongue can tell what they undergo.
In the blusterous wind and the great dark water
Our ship went drifting on the sea,
Her rigging (1) gone, and her rudder broken,
Which brought us to extremity (2).
For fourteen days, heartsore and hungry,
Seeing but wild water and bitter sky,
Poor fellows, they stood in a totter,
A-casting lots as to which should die.
The lot (3) it fell on Robert Jackson,
Whose family was so very great.
‘I’m free to die, but oh, my comrades,
Let me keep look-out till the break of day.’
A full-dressed ship like the sun a-glittering(4)
Came bearing down to their relief.
As soon as this glad news was shouted,
It banished all their care and grief.
The ship brought to, no longer drifting,
Safe in Saint Vincent, Cape Verde, she gained.
You seamen all, who hear my story,
Pray you’ll never suffer the like again (5).

1) Marc say  headgear
2) extremity: bring to the extremes to be intended also in a moral sense
3 )the one who pulled the shorter straw was the “winner”, and sacrificed himself for the benefit of the survivors, this practice was called  ”the custom of the sea”: to leave the choice of the sacrificial victim to fate, it excluded the murder by necessity from being a premeditated murder
4) the juxtaposition between the two verses with the man ready for the sacrifice and sighting at dawn of the ship that will rescue them, it wants to mitigate the harsh reality of cannibalism, a horrible practice to say but that is always lurking in the moments of desperation and as an extreme resource for survival. In reality we do not know if the ship was only dreamed of by the sacrificial victim.
5) surviving sailors rarely resume the sea after the cases of cannibalism (see for example the Essex whaling story). In 1884 an English court condemned two of the three sailors of the “Mignonette” yacht who had killed Richard Parker, the 17-year-old cabin boy (the third had immunity because he agreed to testify); the death sentence was commuted at a later time in six months in prison. A curious case is that Edgar Allan Poe in 1838 in “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket ” tells of four survivors forced into a lifeboat who decide to rely on the “law of the sea”, the cabin boy that pulled the shorter straw was called Richard Parker!

Little Boy Billy
The Banks of Newfoundland


Shipwreck on the Great Newfoundland Banks

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There are several sea songs entitled “the Banks of Newfoundland”, not to be properly considered variations on the same melody, even if they share a common theme, the dangers of fishing or navigation offshore of Newfoundland, on the Great Banks

Oh, you may bless your happy lots, all ye who dwell on shore

“Banks of Newfoundland” tells the tragic story of a ship tormented by the hurricane and unable to maneuver, stuck on the Great Banks, the only hope left: the sighting of another ship for rescue!
And after more than fifteen days without provisions it remains only the “law of the sea” to give extreme support to the remaining men.


Margaret Christl &d Ian Robb from The Barley Grain for Me, 1976 
comparing the variant collected in 1957 by Edith Fowke from the voice of O J Abbott of Ontario and published in The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs (1973) (see text)

Oh, you may bless your happy lots (1),
all ye who dwell on shore,
For it’s little you know of the hardships that we poor seamen bore.
Yes, it’s little you know of the hardships that we were forced to stand
For fourteen days and fifteen night on the Banks of Newfoundland.
Our ship, she sailed through frost and snow from the day we left Quebec,
And if we had not walked about we’d have frozen to the deck.
But we being true-born sailor men as ever ship had manned
Our Captain, he doubled our grog each day on the Banks of Newfoundland.
Well, there never was a ship, me boys, that sailed the western waves,
But the billowy seas came a-rolling in and bent them into staves.
Our ship being built of unseasoned wood, it could but little stand,
The hurricane, it met us there on the Banks of Newfoundland.
Well, we fasted for thirteen days and nights, our provisions giving out,
On the morning of the fourteenth day, we cast our lines about (2).
Well, the lot, it fell on the Captain’s son (3), and thinking relief at hand,
We spared him for another night on the Banks of Newfoundland.
On the morning of the fifteenth day, no vessel did appear.
We gave to him another hour to offer up a prayer.
Well, Providence to us proved kind; kept blood from every hand (4),
For an English vessel hove in sight on the Banks of Newfoundland.
We hoisted aloft our signal; they bore down on us straightaway.
When they saw our pitiful condition, they began to weep and pray.
Five hundred souls we had on board when first we left the land
There’s now alive but seventy-five on the Banks of Newfoundland.
They took us off that ship, me boys; we was more like ghosts than men.
They fed us and they clothed us and brought us back again.
They fed us and they clothed us, and brought us straight to land.
While the billowy waves roll o’er the graves on the Banks of Newfoundland.

1) luck
2) the one who pulled the shorter straw was the “winner”, and sacrificed himself for the good of the survivors, this practice was called “law of the sea”
3) a commonplace because in the ballads on cannibalism at sea it always touches to the young cabin boy
4) the juxtaposition between the two verses with the man ready for the sacrifice and sighting at dawn of the ship that will rescue them, wants to mitigate the harsh reality of cannibalism, a horrible practice to tell but that is always lurking in the moments of desperation and as an extreme resource for survival, see“The Ship in Distress

irish version:
Eddie Butcher
1968 from ITMA
Andy Irvine from Abocurragh, 2010  (text here)

american version:
Mabel Worcester
 1967 from the University of Maine digital archive

transportation song
working on a  fisher ship
the Eastern Light
captain’s death (american ballad)
shipwreck and rescue on the Banks (Canadian ballad)