Monday, April 18, 2016

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum

An analysis of The Derelict - the most famous pirate poem of all time. 

The words “you ho ho and a bottle of rum” may be the most piratical, and the most famous, in all of literature. Many people. Including some folks who perform the song regularly, believe that it’s a real pirate song, sung by real pirates 300 years ago.

Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest

This isn’t quite true. But the song and its origins IS tied up with the legends of piracy.

The words “Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” appear first in Robert Lewis Stevenson’s 1883 novel, Treasure Island. In this famous tome, the words are the refrain of an old drinking song sung by members of Flint’s crew on his ship, the Walrus.

The words supply some early atmosphere, as the renegade pirate Billy Bones sings them to himself while he wanders the shore, keeping a wary lookout for this former shipmates, bound on revenge.

Later, it reveals the bond between Billy and his former shipmates. The words themselves are ominous, touching on death, treasure, the brotherhood of pirates (now breached by Billy) and the pirate’s favorite source of celebration and mayhem, rum.

Stevenson never wrote more than these few tantalizing tidbits. It fell to a newspaper man and sometime songwriter to Young Ewing Allison to complete the work. He wrote the entire lyric, and it was performed in the play Treasure Island, which debuted in 1901.

Young Ewing Allison

The Derelict

Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest—
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
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!

The song describes a bloody scene on a derelict ship. In the first verse, we see that the first mate has been murdered by the bosun, using one of the bosun’s classic tool. In turn, the bosun has been killed by one of his own subordinates.  We know this, once again, from the tool used for the murder. It is a marlin-spike, the tool of the sailors who work under supervision of the bosun, maintaining the ropes and sails. The ship’s cook has been strangled. Dead men lay all over, like partiers after a long night of drinking, a macabre comparison with these corpses.  

In the second verse, we note that anyone besides the corpses has fled the scene. “whist” being a turn-of-the-century contraction for “I know not where” The carnage has killed the captain – the most powerful man on the ship – and also the scullion, a position of unskilled kitchen help, probably the lowest person on board.

Once again, the observer describes the mayhem – death by strike of a cutlass (sword) or an ounce of lead (the bullet from a pistol of the time.) The scuppers – devices that drain water from the surface of the deck, are clogged with rotting blood. The dead lay with their eyes open, staring into a raining sky, as if looking toward heaven. But the observer know that anyone who has done these deeds will certainly go the other way.

Blind Pew

A quick remark to the pirate Pew, a character in Treasure Island. But what did the men fight over? Chests full of Spanish gold, and a ton of plate – from the Spanish word plata meaning sliver. When pirates refer to “plate” they mean bars of cast silver. The “stuff” referred to would be cloth – probably bolts of silk. The men who captured all this treasure (the plum) are dead, but the observer and his friends are happy to share it among themselves.

One more source of conflict can be found – a woman was in the stern cabin, usually the home of a ship’s captain. Her remains show her death, a stab wound through the breast of her nightgown. Was she a prostitute? Or a terrified virgin? The speaker does not know, but admits that she must have died with courage (pluck.)

The observer and his friends wrap the corpses in sailcloth, tie them with sturdy rope (the hawser) and give them the traditional burial at sea. The dead are going to hell, and the living may follow. But for now our observer and his friends have a huge amount of treasure, and probably plan on celebrating.

As an addition to the story of Treasure Island the song suggests how Flint and company may have found their enormous treasure. The story of murder, gold, and drink sets a perfect tone. But I’d like to add another note.

I believe that the scene described tells the story of a privateer’s crew, not a pirate vessel. Privateers divided their treasure unequally, with the captain and officers getting a much larger share. A privateer would also be much more likely to supply the captain with a private cabin (pirates did not allow the captain private use of the large stern cabin) A privateer captain was also more likely to keep a mistress on board.

This concept lends one more element of grim humor to the scene. If the original holders of the treasure were “honest” privateers, who broke out in rebellion over the uneven distribution of such a huge treasure, they had broken their own laws, died by murder and damned their souls to hell.

In the meantime, the pirates – honest thieves – divided the treasure evenly and sail away happy.

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