Songs Of The Sea: Dead Man’s Chest

Sea shanties and songs have become synonymous with pirates, sailors and privateers, all looking to embrace the freedom of the ocean. Songs Of The Sea is a segment that analyses different shanties, where they came from and what they mean.

The Rum Ration is starting off with one of the most popular pirate ditties, ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ which might as well be the anthem of every swashbuckler who ever laced up their boots.

Fictional origins

Despite its place in popular culture, Dead Man’s Chest was never sung by real-life pirates. It was an invention of Robert Louis Stevenson in his 1883 novel Treasure Island. The first mention if the song comes in the famous chorus:

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!

Robert Louis Stevenson created Dead Man's Chest in his novel Treasure Island.

There are many theories on where Stevenson got the name from but it’s possible he was influenced by the work of the author Charles Kingsley, who wrote a book that featured a list of British Virgin Island names and Stevenson settled on Dead Chest Island off Peter Island. Stevenson is quoted as saying “Treasure Island came out of Kingsley’s At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies (1871); where I got the ‘Dead Man’s Chest’ – that was the seed.”

According to Long John Silver Trust, Dead Chest Island is meant to have been an infamous setting for an Edward Teach/Blackbeard excursion. Blackbeard was meant to have punished a mutinous crew by marooning them on the island. Each of them was given a cutlass and a bottle of rum and Teach expected them to kill each other. But when he returned after 30 days, 15 were still alive.

Entering the pirate lexicon

While Stevenson is credited with creating Dead Man’s Chest, the poet Young E. Allison arguably immortalised the song by turning it into a poem called Derelict. He published it in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1891 and extended it with the following verses:

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!

From that point on, Dead Man’s Chest took the world by storm and was used in various mediums such as theatre and film. It became so popular that it entered folklore, with some claiming that it was sung by sailors on the early 20th century.

Regardless of its origins, Dead Man’s Chest is a powerful sea shanty that distils the pirate life into catchy verses.

A pirate’s love or barrels full of rum was also an invention of Robert Louise Stevenson. Be sure to read the Edward Kenway edition of ‘A Pirate’s Life’ to see the kind of rum he loves to drink.

3 thoughts on “Songs Of The Sea: Dead Man’s Chest

  1. Pingback: Songs Of The Sea: Leave Her Johnny – The Rum Ration

  2. Pingback: Songs Of The Sea: Randy Dandy-O – The Rum Ration

  3. Pingback: A Pirate’s Life: Long John Silver – The Rum Ration

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