The Ship in Distress


This lamentation, which recalls the narrowly-averted cannibalism of shipwrecked sailors, is but one of a great naval tradition of shipwreck songs. According to A. L. Lloyd, this version stems from the French ‘La Corte Paille’ (The Short Straw), and is part of a general lineage of songs that goes back to the Portuguese golden age of sailing, and the song La Nau Catarineta’ .

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.’

The dating of this song is uncertain, but certainly dates from before the 1900s, by which time it was widely published.

You seamen bold who plough the ocean
See dangers landsmen never know.
The sun goes down, with an equal motion;
And no tongue can tell what they undergo.
In the blusterous wind and the great dark water
Our ship went drifting on the sea,
Her headgear gone, and her rudder broken,
Which brought us to extremity.

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 who should die.
The lot did fell on Robert Jackson,
Whose family was so very great.
‘I’m free to die, but oh, my shipmates,
Let me keep look-out till the break of day.’

A full-dressed ship like the sun a-glittering
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.


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