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The Bold Princess Royal

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Ahar, me hearties!” or a narration of the legendary naval pursuit between an british merchant ship and a pirate ship. A popular sea song in the British Isles, America and Canada, which tells of an attempt at pirate attack against the “Princess Royal”; some witnesses claimed it was an event that actually happened, but the dates changed, as did the place of departure and arrival of the vessel. In fact, the name “Princess Royal” was widespread at the time of the great sailing ships and so James Laurenson in the archives of Tobar an Dualchais asserts “This song was written in honour of a Shetland captain, Houston of Otterswick in Yell, who outsailed a pirate in his ship Princess Royal around 1840, and became famous on this account” (from here)
Yet already in 1905 George Gardiner had brought back a testimony of the attack between the “Princess Royal” and the French corsair ship “The Adventure” which occurred in 1789 which it was then widely disseminated in numerous boadside between the mid and late 1800s.
At daybreak on 21 June 1789, HM packet Princess Royal, nine days out from Falmouth on her way to New York (other accounts say Halifax) carrying mail, was accosted and pursued by a brig which was later identified as the French privateer Aventurier. At 7 pm the Aventurier hoisted English colours and fired a shot, which the Princess Royal returned. After a further shot, the brig continued the pursuit. It was not until 3.30 am on 22 June that the Aventurier resumed its attack, this time with a broadside and musket fire. The Princess Royal was outmanned, with a crew of thirty-two men and boys with seventeen passengers as opposed to the Aventurier’s 85 men and boys; and out-gunned too, with six cannons against the brig’s sixteen. Nevertheless, the English ship gave a good account of herself, holding the privateer off for two hours; at the end of which time the Aventurier moved away, sustaining further damage to her stern. The French ship was obliged to return to Bordeaux for refitting, while the Princess Royal resumed her course, eventually arriving home on 31 October. (from here)
Combined with different melodies, the standard version of “The Bold Princess Royal” follows a melody collected in South East England by Vaughan Williams that he reported in his “Folk Songs from the Eastern Counties” (1908)
Luke Kelly

Mary Black from General Humbert, 1976  (text here)

Chris Foster from Traces, 1999 (who learned it from the version recorded in 1938 by Velvet Brightwell, a traditional Suffolk singer, born in 1865)

Luke Kelly version
On the fifthteenth of February
we sailed from the land
On the bold Princess Royal
bound for Newfoundland.
We had fifhty brave seamen
for ship’s company
as boldly (bound) from the eastward
to the westward sailed we.
We had not been sailing
scarce days two or three,
When the man from our masthead
a strange sails he did see.
She came bearing down on us
for to see what we were
And under her mizzen black colours she wore.
“Oh Lord!” cries our captain,
“What shall we do now? (1)
Here comes a bold pirate
to rob us, I know.”
“Oh no!” cries the chief mate,
“That never shall be so.
We’ll let out our reef 2), boys,
and from him we’ll go”
Well this so bold pirate,
he hove alongside,
With a loud-speaking trumpet (3),
“Whence come you?” he cried,
Our captain being up, my boys,
he answered him so:
“We come from fair London;
and we’re bound for Peru(4).”
“Come, heave up your courses
and bring your ship to (5)
I have a long letter
to send home by you.”
“Oh, I will not heave up my courses
nor bring my ship to
That will be in some harbour,
not alongside of you.”
And he chased us to the windward
to all that long day.
He fired shots after us
but they could not make way.
He fired shots after us
but none could prevail
And the bold Princess Royal
soon show them her tail.
“Oh Lord!” cries our captain,
“Now the pirate is gone,
Go you down to your grog (6), my boys, go down, everyone.
go you down to your grog, my boys,
and be of good cheer,
While the Princess has sea-room,
brave boys, never fear.”

1) a sentence typicall from the commedia dell’arte
2) the first rule at sea: if you see a pirate ship, run away quickly. In fact it was the diversionary maneuvers performed by the few sailors on board to save their ship from the boarding! Fear of pirates cruelity played in their favor, many crews preferred to surrender without fighting, hoping to obtain clemency.
3) In the third volume of the series of Monaldi & Sorti entitled “Mysterium” they describes a boarding at the end of 600 by barbarian pirates: the blare of trumpets was a customary signal of the Dutch to greet the other ships at sea. The strange thing in this ballad is that the pirate ship already beat the black flag: it would have been more logical that at first they showed a “camouflage” flag to make sure that the other ship was approached without suspicion and only later replace the first flag with the pirate one.
4) Point of departure and arrival of the vessel changes according to the versions, Mary Black says Callao, Chris Foster says Kero, Luis Killen Peru. But also St. John pheraps Saint John’s, known in Italian as San Giovanni di Terranova, although there is a Caribbean St. John
5) inexistent request to join the ship is a clumsy attempt to approach the ship without resorting to the fire of guns.
6) Grog is a drink introduced in the Royal Navy in 1740: rum after the British conquest of Jamaica had become the favorite drink of sailors, but to avoid problems during navigation, the daily ration of rum was diluted with water. (see more)

Princess Royal tune

Princess Royal is also the title of a melody attributed by collector Edward Bunting to the irish harper O’Carolan, (in The Ancient Music of Ireland, 1840), with the note “composed by Carolan for the daughter of MacDermott Roe, the representative of the old princes of Coolavin.”), the air has become a popular Morris dance

Elisabeth Brogeby


Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

Amministratore e folklorista di Terre Celtiche Blog

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