Spanish Ladies is a traditional English sea shanty, describing a voyage from Spain to the Downs.
It is featured in The Oxford Book of Sea Songs, edited by Roy Palmer in 1986, which states that the earliest known reference to it is in the logbook of the Nellie of 1796 (though a ballad by the same name, registered in England December 14, 1624 with the Stationers' Company, may also be related to it).
The song's namesake, "Spanish Ladies," can most likely be traced to the period between 1793 and 1796 in which British ships would often dock in Spanish harbours while Spain and Britain were still allies in First Coalition against Revolutionary France. While this may help to contextualize the song's mention of Spain, no truly definitive dating has surfaced as of yet.
Its story is that of ships in fog (and therefore unable to determine their latitude by sighting) trying to find the entrance to the English Channel, between the dangers of Ushant to the south and the Isles of Scilly to the north. The sandy bottom is a good sign - and there is always the added reassurance of the width of the entrance, thirty-five leagues. A discussion in Arthur Ransome's novel Peter Duck notes that the succession of headlands on the English shore suggests a ship tacking up-channel, identifying a new landmark on each tack.
The song is held by most to be a capstan shanty (i.e. a shanty sung to keep time in turning the capstan to raise the anchor and leave port). However, at least one early commentator on the song described it at not being a work song at all, instead calling it a "sea song" used primarily for recreational singing.
Several variants exist that utilize the same melody but substitute different lyrics. "Brisbane Ladies" is an Australian variant about drovers instead of sailors. Other variants are called "Yankee Whalermen", "Rant and Roar", and a significantly modified version called "The Ryans and the Pittmans", which are all American variants, although the title "Spanish Ladies" is also sometimes still retained with appropriate locations changed. Lastly, a version was created especially for the Bluenose, a famed Canadian ship based in Nova Scotia.
- Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies,
- Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
- For we've received orders for to sail for old England,
- But we hope in a short time to see you again.
- We will rant and we'll roar like true British sailors,
- We'll rant and we'll roar all on the salt sea.
- Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
- From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.
- We hove our ship to with the wind from sou'west, boys
- We hove our ship to, deep sounding s to take;
- 'Twas forty-five fathoms , with a white sandy bottom,
- So we squared our main yard and up channel did make.
- The first land we sighted was called the Dodman,
- Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight;
- We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover,
- And then we bore up for the South Foreland light.
- Then the signal was made for the grand fleet to anchor,
- And all in the Downs that night for to lie;
- Let go your shank painter, let go your cat stopper!
- Haul up your clewgarnets, let tacks and sheets fly!
- Now let ev'ry man drink off his full bumper,
- And let ev'ry man drink off his full glass;
- We'll drink and be jolly and drown melancholy,
- And here's to the health of each true-hearted lass.
In literature and film
The song is quoted in full in the 1840 novel Poor Jack, and is briefly sung in Chapter 40 of Moby-Dick and also appears in the 1975 film Jaws (an Americanized version using 'Boston' instead of 'England', and the last line changed to "And so never more shall we see you again."), the 1993 episode "Ghost of a Chance" of the television series Homicide: Life on the Street and the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World which is based on two of the books in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin Series. In another of O'Brian's books, Treason's Harbour, at the end of Chapter 4 it is sung after dinner by the captain of the Dromedary and his mate (here, the last line of the first verse is the less romantic but undoubtedly more realistic "And perhaps we shall never more see you again"). It is also sung in the 2003 television series Horatio Hornblower in the episode "Retribution." by David Warner
"Spanish Ladies" also appears in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. The song is also regularly sung by the character Daniel Hagman in the television series of Sharpe. A portion of it is also sung by Ed Westwick's character "Chuck Bass" in episode 2.14 of the television show Gossip Girl, and by Patrick Jane in episode 1.4 of the television show "The Mentalist". The song is also mentioned in Wilbur Smith's book, "Monsoon" and "Blue Horizon."
The chorus of the song is also sung repetitively with an ominous gallows' humour tone by Robert Shaw's character Sam Quint in Steven Spielberg's (dir.) Jaws (1975) while on their shark hunt.
The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius utilizes its own version of the song in the episode "Monster Hunt", with the lyrics "Farewell and adieu, all ye cankered young ladies; Farewell and adieu, though my song is quite lame; For we received orders to sail to Pacoima; And then nevermore will we eat cheese again."
In print and recordings
The song forms part of Sir Henry J. Wood's composition Fantasia on British Sea Songs. It has been recorded numerous times, including the 2006 album Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys.
- ^ Songs of Sea Labour by Frank Bullen. Orpheus Music Publishing Company, London. 1914.
- ^ Variously given in different collections as 34, 35 and 45 leagues.
- ^ Varying from 55 to 45 fathoms by version.
- ^ I.e. drop the anchor.
- ^ I.e. roll up the sails.
- ^ Poor Jack, by Captain Frederick Marryat, page 117 (scan available from archive.org)