Monday, September 17, 2007

15 Men on a Dead Man's Chest

I was listening to last year's Talk Like a Pirate Day podcast and I was intrigued by one song near the end. It was the long version of "15 men on a dead man's chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum." I decided to look up the words.

It is actually called the Derelict:
Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
The mate was fixed by the bos'n's pike,
The bos'n brained with a marlin spike,
And Cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped
By fingers ten;
And there they lay,
All good dead men
Like break-o'-day in a boozing-ken—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of the whole ship's list—
Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!—
The skipper lay with his nob in gore
Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore—
And the scullion he was stabbed times four.
And there they lay,
And the soggy skies
Dripped all day long
In upstaring eyes—
In murk sunset and at foul sunrise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark—
Ten of the crew had the Murder mark—
'Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead,
Or a yawing hole in a battered head—
And the scuppers glut with a rotting red
And there they lay—
Aye, damn my eyes—
All lookouts clapped
On paradise—
All souls bound just contrariwise—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

Fifteen men of 'em good and true—
Every man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew—
There was chest on chest full of Spanish gold,
With a ton of plate in the middle hold,
And the cabins riot of stuff untold,
And they lay there,
That had took the plum,
With sightless glare
And their lips struck dumb,
While we shared all by the rule of thumb—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

More was seen through the stern light screen—
Chartings no doubt where a woman had been!—
A flimsy shift on a bunker cot,
With a thin dirk slot through the bosom spot
And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot.
Oh was she wench…
Or some shuddering maid…?
That dared the knife—
And took the blade!
By God! she was stuff for a plucky jade—
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest—
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight
With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight
And we heaved 'em over and out of sight—
With a Yo-Heave-Ho!
And a fare-you-well!
And a sullen plunge
In the sullen swell,
Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell!
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!


While I was looking, I found numerous pages on Google that insisted that the song was based on real events. According to this, there is a small island called "Dead Man's Chest" and Blackbeard marooned several mutinous pirates on it. They had nothing but a dagger and a bottle of rum each. He expected them to kill each other but when he returned to check on them, fifteen were still alive.

One motto that I live by is that any story that is too good to be true is probably false. Especially if it involves pirates.

Sure enough. Wikipedia and Everything 2 have the real story.

The first four lines are from the second paragraph in Treasure Island.

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow--a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-- Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"

Robert Lewis Stevenson was inspired by a book by Charles Kingsley which listed old, romantic island names that are no longer used. "Dead Man's Chest" is one of them. That's as far as it goes. No reference is made to Blackbeard or anyone else marooning anyone.

The rest of the song was written as a poem by Young E. Allison nine years after Treasure Island was published. The poem was popular and in 1901, a Broadway version of Treasure Island included the longer version and set it to music.

Here's the playbill with the words.



Everything2 also points out:

... Yo heave ho is a seaman's chant is that was commonly employed to synchronize oar work or hauling activities of the gang crew with everyone working together on the word heave Stevenson liked the rhythmical phrase so much that he turned it into the now familiar Yo ho ho colloquialism.

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