Sea: Transporting England

by Laura Miller (2007)

Of Pepys’s ballad categories, the “Sea” category is the only one defined by an occupation—that of the sailor. This essay explores some of the reasons sailors and sea ballads were distinctive enough to warrant their own category and outlines some important characteristics of sea ballads.

One reason behind the popularity of sea ballads is that large numbers of people—from merchants to wage laborers—had a vested interest in the sea trade.1 The sea was also of particular interest to Pepys, who worked for nearly thirty years as a high-ranking official in the Royal Navy under Charles II and James II. Not surprisingly, then, the fourth volume of Pepys’s collection contains sixty-nine pages of sea ballads. Those in other professions also collected ballads about sailors and the sea, such as John Selden, whose ballad collection Pepys purchased. Christopher Marsh writes that early modern “ballads flew around in crowded space, jostling for the attention of people whose attitudes to any given theme were varied.”2 As it turns out, the reasons for an interest in sea ballads are as diverse as this varied audience.

Because travel opportunities abroad were unavailable to most people in England, Englishmen at home could see the world, do battle vicariously, and fantasize about financial gain through hearing or singing a sea ballad. Even though life at sea was rough, sailors’ mobility seemed exciting and full of adventure. “The Caesar’s Victory” (4.198, EBBA 21860) recounts a battle between a British ship bound for the East Indies and a ship of pirates who attempt to overtake her. Modern critics Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker describe sea life as a combination of “the organization of the maritime state from above, and the self-organization of sailors from below.”3 “The Caesar’s Victory” offers a rare glimpse of this self-organization. The ballad focuses on the actions of the captain and other high-ranking officers, but does so from the perspective of the lower-order crew members, referred to as “us” (4.198). The crew members’ physical preparations for the fight provide the ballad’s most vivid details: “Our Bread into the sea we threw, / To make Room for the whole ships Crew, / To fight and keep Foes under:” The crew members of the ship not only participate in an exciting fight with few casualties, but they also receive financial gain: after having saved a cargo worth two hundred thousand pounds total, each sailor would have received a portion as payment upon his return. Few occupations available to poor men had such opportunities for financial riches. It was not even necessary to battle pirates: “The Golden Voyage” (4.199, EBBA 21861) tells the story of a ship that “searched the Ocean for Treasure” and found “Two Hundred Thousand Pounds in Gold and Silver” (4.199). The fact that “The Golden Voyage” is sung to the tune “Ladies of London” implies that these newly rich sailors were themselves attractive to women of the lower orders.

Connections between sailors and sexuality also contributed to the popularity of sea ballads. The geographic mobility that life at sea afforded meant that sailors had more opportunity for sexual adventure than did others on land. Regardless of whether the actual sailors took advantage of this freedom, sailors in broadside ballads frequently seduce young women on shore. Ballads like “The Laundry-Maids Lamentation for the loss of her Seaman” (4.164, EBBA 21826) and “A Ship-load of Waggery” (4.177, EBBA 21839) approach sailors’ sexuality in contradictory ways. In the former, a sailor who has abandoned a young woman dies in a shipwreck. She chooses to drown herself in despair once she discovers she has no hope of marrying the father of her child. This ballad warns poor young women who may be seduced by sailors bringing “presents from the Golden shore”: sailors’ sexual freedom may mean abandonment and disgrace to the women they seduce, who do not share their freedom (4.164). “A Ship-load of Waggery,” by contrast, has a lighthearted view of sexual freedom, and argues that a sailor is meant to please women sexually as much as he is meant to take care of his ship. Fill-in-the-blank rhymes such as “A Ship must have a Buntlin / to hawl up her Bunt, / as a maid must have a youngman / to tickle her ----” lead off each stanza. Each stanza then concludes by encouraging the sailors to make the young ladies happy in bed, because “Maids, if they be not pleased, / They’l frown and look grimly” (4.177). This pleasure was most likely fleeting. Unlike the ships this ballad compares them to, early modern women were literally impregnable, and a woman’s life could be harmed drastically by an unplanned pregnancy, especially if the man had disappeared. Years later, during the eighteenth century, sailors’ morality was still at risk. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge not only donated cheap bibles to “convicts embarking for Botany Bay” but also to sailors whose ships were ready to sail.4

In keeping with the diverse reasons that would interest people in sea ballads, many ballads argue the exact opposite moral claim, arguing that sailors are gallant, faithful lovers who remain true and constant even when circumstances are unpredictable.5 One of the earliest known love songs, the Song of Solomon, uses the metaphor of water with regard to the strength of true love: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”6 The popularity of love songs that involve sailors supports the continuing resonance of this theme: the importance of fidelity in spite of the sea’s unpredictability. “A Pleasant New song betwixt a Saylor and his Love” (4.160, EBBA 21822), a popular ballad of which there are three copies in the Pepys collection (1.422-423, EBBA 20198; 4.156, EBBA 21818; and 4.160, EBBA 21822), addresses the anxieties about fidelity faced by one loyal sailor. Much like any person who has left home for a long time, he wonders whether he will be welcomed with love on his return. The refrain “kiss and bid me welcome home” (4.160) reflects the wish to maintain romantic desire over a long absence as well as the need to be embraced in spite of pursuing an independent, far-ranging career. The form of the ballad echoes its theme: it is not presented as a call and response—the term “betwixt” is misleading—but as a pair of monologues, first the sailor’s and then his love’s. The form mimics the interior monologue of the sailor who has been contemplating this issue independently while at sea, while the audience is kept in suspense about whether his love will surrender her lips on his return. She does—which makes for the “pleasant” ending the song’s title has promised (4.160). Other ballads, such as “Voyage to Virginia” (4.159, EBBA 21821) and “A dainty new Ditty of a Saylor and his Love” (4.157, EBBA 21819), are set before the sailor departs from his love, and address similar themes.

The themes of departing, homecoming, and fidelity after a long absence appear in “The Gallant Seamans return from the Indies” (4.161, EBBA 21823) and “The Algier Slaves Releasment” (4.188, EBBA 21850). Both ballads provide similar resolutions to the lovers’ absence. After lengthy travel and—in the case of the Algier Slave—enslavement, both men are welcomed home to faithful lovers, both of whom are named Betty. Ballads such as these provided opportunities for readers, singers, and listeners to imagine extraordinary adventures at sea and at the same time experience vicariously a love story between a gallant seaman and a beautiful girl-next-door.

One must recognize that many of these ballads offer idealized descriptions of the lives of sailors: most sailors were poor and lived in terrible conditions.7 Their lives could be lonely, and it is unlikely that their relationships were as all-transforming as some ballads imply. Would the sailor enslaved in Algeria have truly felt no pain at all as he thought of his dear Betty? Some ballads about sailors have more pessimistic ideas about the transformative power of love; these ballads address the lack of control over their personal lives that concerned average men who went to sea. “The Seamans Lamentation” (4.194, EBBA 21856) tells the story of “comely Bess,” a boatswain’s wife. Bess is seduced by her husband’s captain when he is away from home. The boatswain uses nautical terms to describe the way the captain seduces Bess: “He took the helm and steer’d a trick, / in mirth, and Wantonness” (4.194). Her husband frees Bess from blame, presumably because both of them are under the captain’s command, with limited powers of resistance. Regardless of Bess and the boatswain’s love, their inferior standing means that they do not belong to themselves, and therefore cannot belong to one another. Resigned, the narrator concludes that he is fated to wear the horns of a cuckold.

Anxiety about cuckoldry is also implied in “The Seamens Wives Frolick over a Bowl of Punch” (4.184, EBBA 21846). The ballad tells of sailors’ wives who have fun drinking punch in alehouses while their men are “sorry and sad” away at sea (4.184). The ballad implies that this punch-drinking leads to infidelity—the drunk women end up consorting with other men (4.184). This ballad was so incendiary that a reply, attributed to the sailors’ wives, was published, entitled “The Seamens Wives Vindication” (4.185, EBBA 21847). The wives deny the allegations that there is anything fun about being left alone, and argue that they cannot even sleep at night for fear for their husbands’ safety, much less “delight to be Courted” by others (4.185). Provocatively, the wives in “The Seamens Wives Vindication” attack the “Merchants in London [who] flourish” from their husbands’ labors while the sailors’ wives subsist on very little (4.185).

Indeed, no discussion of sea ballads would be complete without acknowledging the powerful economic force of the sea trade. “Saylors for my money” (1.420-421, EBBA 20197) is not only written “in the praise of Sailors” but also lauds “sea affaires” (1.420). Those who were not likely to burst into song in praise of sailors might be happier to endorse the value of commerce. The narrator/singer cheers the return of wealthy sailors from the Indies, “where [they] buy rich Marchandise / At very little prize” (1.421). Not only does connecting the mariner to commerce enhance sailors’ reputations but it also gives the average English citizen a vicarious sense of the life of a sailor. Since imported goods like tea and spices are present in the lives of many citizens, Englishmen who “live at home at ease” (1.420) are materially connected to those who risk their lives abroad.

Like “Saylors for my money” (1.420-421) “The praise of Sailors, heere set forth” (4.197, EBBA 21859) connects the experience of sailors on the seas to those of “Land-men.” Here, the citizens who live at ease in their beds at home become literally and figuratively transported to the sea as passengers in a sailing ship, where separate verses hail the pilot, the captain, the quarter-master, and even the mermaid. This salty cast of characters could—and perhaps did—bear a resemblance to the patrons of a port tavern, where such a ballad was likely to be sung. The mermaid who sits with her looking “Glasse in hand” (4.197) and the bar-maid who sits with her drinking-glass in hand may be one and the same. Both “Saylors for my money” (1.420-421) and “The praise of Sailors” (4.197) argue that not only should sailors be praised for their love and gallantry, but also they should be praised for paying their bar tabs. The “Saylors for my money” “call for liquor roundly / and pay before [they] goe” (1.421). “The praise of sailors” (4.197) also lauds sailors’ exemplary bar behavior. Unlike many working men, sailors frequently arrived in port with large quantities of money, which they could use for any number of entertaining pursuits, such as drinking, bear-baiting (5.376, EBBA 22199), and even purchasing ballads. Another way to reflect on the popularity of sea ballads is to consider the sailor as the ideal ballad customer: someone from the lower classes who has a little extra money to spend (at least for a time), little room to carry books, an interest in music, and a lot of time on his hands. A song of praise for England, a romantic melody, or even a bawdy rhyme, may have been just what sailors needed to sustain them as they prepared to return to the hardship of life at sea.

1 Patricia Fumerton. “The Ballad’s Seaman: A Constant Parting,” Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 131-152, 132.

2 Christopher Marsh, “The sound of print in early modern England: the broadside ballad as song,” The Uses of Script and Print, 1300-1700, ed. Julia Crick and Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 171-190, 175.

3 Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 144.

4 Scott Mandelbrote, “The English Bible and its Readers in the Eighteenth Century,” Books and their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays, ed. Isabel Rivers (London: Leicester University Press, 2001), 35-78, 49.

5 Fumerton, “The Ballad’s Seaman: A Constant Parting,” 135.

6 Song of Solomon, 8.7.

7 See Patricia Fumerton. “Poor Men at Sea: ‘Never to be worth one groat afore a beggar,’” Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 84-107.