Sea shantys sound romantic, but are accounts of life on the waves

The Exmouth Shanty Men

The Exmouth Shanty Men - Credit: Exmouth Shanty Men

Exmouth town crier Roger Bourgein write for the Journal.

Sea shanties, those evocative tales of stormy seas, cruel captains and young men dying. No exaggeration for those two centuries of dominance by the big square riggers were akin to a gold rush, wild, lawless, the strong dominating the weak.

Attracted by the promise of riches beyond dreams youth signed on board in droves.

The reality of daily physical effort, harsh cruel punishment for the slightest of infringement, constantly interrupted sleep in wet clothes in damp
overcrowded quarters.

Forced to follow a ‘watch’ system of two hours on two hours off, round the clock, day in day out, week after week. Wooden boats are sieves, they leak.

The continuous pumping of liquid from down in the bowels, low headroom, no ventilation and the suffocating stench of urine and faeces - men died there, dragged to one side as another took their place.

Punishments of being bound to a frame then flogged by the bosun wielding that cat o’nine tails, a nine tailed leather whip with lead pieces in each strand, lacerations, sepsis and death often followed.

Keel hauling where a rope threaded a’thwartship and tied round the waist of the unfortunate who was thrown overboard and hauled underwater, down the broad waist of the ship until he hit the keel, where it was good luck if the hapless crewman dragged across and was still alive by the time his limp body broke surface the opposite side.

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Sea shanties may sound a romantic account of those days, but they recount every mood, the fear, sadness, terror, humour, love, hate, often in stark detail.

These were the swiftest way of shipping valuable cargoes, the beginnings of globalisation but what a price.

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