A ballad by the name "Spanish Ladies" was registered in the English Stationer's Company on December 14, 1624. The oldest mention of the present song does not appear until the 1796 logbook of HMS Nellie,[verification needed] however, making it more likely a Napoleonic era invention. The timing of the mention in the Nellie's logbook suggests that the song was created during the First Coalition (1793–96), when the British navy carried supplies to Spain to aid its resistance to revolutionary France. It probably gained in popularity during the later Peninsular War when British soldiers were transported throughout the Iberian peninsula to assist rebels fighting against their French occupation. After their defeat of the Grande Armée, these soldiers were returned to Britain but forbidden to bring their Spanish wives, lovers, and children with them.
The song predates the proper emergence of the sea shanty. Shanties were the work songs of merchant sailors, rather than naval ones. However, in his 1840 Poor Jack, Captain Frederick Marryat reports that the song "Spanish Ladies"—though once very popular—was "now almost forgotten" and he included it in whole in order to "rescue it from oblivion". The emergence of shanties in the mid-19th century then revived its fortunes to the point where it is now sometimes included as a "borrowed song" within the genre.
"Spanish Ladies" is the story of British navy men sailing north from Spain and along the English Channel. There is apparently a fog, as the crew are unable to determine their latitude by sighting. Instead, they console themselves with the sandy bottom they've sounded and the width of the entrance between the rocks of Ushant to the south and the Scillys to the north. The succession of headlands on the English shore suggests a ship tacking up-channel away from the French coast, identifying a new landmark on each tack.
This is the version recorded in the 1840 Poor Jack. It is one of many. Notable variations are shown in parentheses after each line.
- Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies, (alt: "...fair Spanish ladies")
- Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;
- For we have received orders (alt: "...'re under orders")
- For to sail to old England,
- But we hope in a short time to see you again. (alt: "And we may ne'er see you fair ladies again.")
- We'll rant and we'll roar, like true British sailors,
- We'll rant and we'll roar across the salt seas; (alt: "We'll range and we'll roam all on the salt seas;")
- Until we strike soundings
- In the Channel of old England,
- From Ushant to Scilly 'tis thirty-five leagues. (alt: "34" or "45".)
- Then we hove our ship to, with the wind at the sou'west, my boys, (alt: "We hove our ship to, with the wind from sou'west, boys,")
- Then we hove our ship to, for to strike soundings clear; (alt: "...deep soundings to take;" "...for to make soundings clear;")
- And straight up the Channel of old England did steer. (alt: "And up channel did make." or "...did steer")
- So the first land we made, it is called the Deadman, (alt: "The first land we sighted was callèd the Dodman")
- Next Ram Head, off Plymouth, Start, Portland, and the Wight; (alt: "Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland, and Wight;")
- And then bore away for the South Foreland light. (alt: "Until we brought to for..." or "And then we bore up for...")
- Now the signal it was made for the grand fleet to anchor (alt: "Then the signal was made...")
- All in the Downs that night for to meet; (alt: "...that night for to lie;")
- Hawl all your clew garnets, stick out tacks and sheets. (alt: "Haul up your clewgarnets, let tack and sheets fly")
- Now let every man take off his full bumper, (alt: "Now let ev'ry man drink off his full bumper,")
- Let every man take off his full bowl; (alt: "And let ev'ry man drink off his full glass;")
- For we will be jolly (alt: "We'll drink and be jolly")
- And drown melancholy,
- With a health to each jovial and true hearted soul. (alt: "And here's to the health of each true-hearted lass.")
Several variants exist that utilize the same melody but substitute different lyrics. The one sung in Jaws reset the destination from England to Boston. "Brisbane Ladies" is an Australian tune about drovers instead of sailors; a significantly modified version called "The Ryans and the Pittmans", widely known as "We'll Rant and We'll Roar", is from Newfoundland; and there is an American variant called "Yankee Whalermen". A version was created especially for the Bluenose, a famed Canadian ship based in Nova Scotia.
As mentioned above, the song is quoted in full in the 1840 novel Poor Jack. It appears in part in the 40th chapter of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and in Treason's Harbour, the 9th book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. It also appears in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons and Wilbur Smith's works Monsoon and Blue Horizon.
Robert Shaw, the same actor who sang the tune in Jaws, also sang it years earlier in an 1956 episode of the television show The Buccaneers. It has also appeared in the series Homicide, Sharpe, Hornblower, Jimmy Neutron, The Mentalist, Gossip Girl, Monsuno, and Turn.
The video game Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag features "Spanish Ladies" as one of the collectible sea shanties that the sailors on the player's ship may begin singing while sailing between islands while out of combat.
- Palmer, Roy (ed.). The Oxford Book of Sea Songs. Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1986.
- Venning, Annabel. Following the Drum: The Lives of Army Wives and Daughters, Past and Present. Headline Book Publishing (London), 2004. ISBN 9780755312580.
- Marryat, Frederick. Poor Jack, pp. 116 ff. Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans (London), 1840.
- Chappell, William. Popular Music of the Olden Time. (London) 1855.
- Hugill, Stan. Shanties from the Seven Seas: Shipboard Work-Songs from the Great Days of Sail. (London) 1961.
- Ransome, Arthur. Peter Duck.
- United States Hydrographic Office. British Islands Pilot, Vol. 1: The south coast of England from the Scilly Isles to the Thames, pp. 37 ff. United States Department of the Navy, 1920.
- In fact, the distance from Point Cadoran off Ushant to Wingletang in the Scillies is less than 112 miles (180 km), an equivalent of 32½ leagues, a distance made still smaller by the notoriously treacherous waters around both extremes.
- Steve Roud & Julia Bishop, eds. The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Penguin Classics, 2002. ISBN 978-0-141-19461-5. p.391.
- Cecil Sharp, Folk songs from Somerset (1909), 5:90
- Sapphire Films. The Buccaneers. "The Ladies". ABC (UK) and CBS (US), 1956.
- Baltimore Pictures & al. Homicide: Life on the Street. "Ghost of a Chance". NBC, 1993.
- Celtic Films and Picture Palace Films. Sharpe. "Sharpe's Enemy". ITV, 1994, and PBS (US), 1995.
- Meridian Television. Hornblower. "Retribution". ITV (UK), 2002, and A&E (US), 2003.
- O Entertainment & al. The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. "Monster Hunt". Nickelodeon, 2003. The song appeared as 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.
- Primrose Hill Productions & al. The Mentalist. "Ladies in Red". CBS, 2008.
- Warner Bros. Television & al. Gossip Girl. "In the Realm of the Basses". The CW, 2009.
- Jakks Pacific & al. Monsuno: Combat Chaos. "Six". TV Tokyo (Japan) and Nicktoons (US), 2013.
- AMC Studios. Turn. "Of Cabbages and Kings". AMC, 2014.