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 yet.
There is also a possibility that the song traces its origins to the Peninsular War (the Spanish and Portuguese theater in the Napoleonic Wars) when, after defeating the French army, the British soldiers were shipped off to England, and forbidden to bring the Spanish women they married (in varying degrees of legitimacy), as well as their children, with them.
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, while believed by some to typify a shanty, predates the emergence of that genre in the mid-19th century. Further, shanties were the work songs of merchant sailors, while "Spanish Ladies", belonging to the 18th century, was a navy song. However, the popularity of "Spanish Ladies" remained such throughout the 19th century that it was sung by merchant sailors, too, for off-duty entertainment. All of the writers on shanties throughout the 19th century and up through the early 20th are clear that it was not a shanty, and only one, Stan Hugill in 1961 makes a claim that it, like other borrowed songs from outside the genre, might be used as such.
Several variants exist that utilize the same melody but substitute different lyrics. "Brisbane Ladies" is an Australian variant 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". In other variants the title "Spanish Ladies" is sometimes retained with the appropriate locations changed. Lastly, a version was created especially for the Bluenose, a famed Canadian ship based in Nova Scotia.
The melody is also used for the later dated "Streets of Laredo", a 19th-century American west ballad.
This is one of many versions; notable variations are shown in brackets after each line.
- 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, (or "...under orders...")
- But we hope in a short time to see you again. (or "And we may never see you fair ladies again")
- We hove our ship to with the wind from sou'west, boys
- We hove our ship to, deep soundings to take; (or "...for to make soundings clear")
- 'Twas forty-five fathoms, with a white sandy bottom,
- So we squared our main yard and up channel did make. (or "...did steer")
- The first land we sighted was call-ed the Dodman,
- Next Rame Head off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight;
- We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover, (or "Dungeness")
- And then we bore up for the South Foreland light. (or "until we brought to by the..."")
- 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 (that is, drop the anchor)
- Haul up your clewgarnets, let tacks and sheets fly! (that is, roll up the sails)
- Now let ev'ry man drink off his full bumper,
- And let ev'ry man drink off his full glass; (or "bowl")
- We'll drink and be jolly and drown melancholy, (or "...be merry...")
- And here's to the health of each true-hearted lass. (or "soul")
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 1993 episode "Ghost of a Chance" of the television series Homicide: Life on the Street.
The song is sung in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which is based on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. In Treason's Harbour, the ninth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series, 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, and also by the 95th Rifles during a march in Portugal in the episode "Sharpe's Enemy". 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 books, Monsoon and Blue Horizon.
The opening verse of the song is also sung repetitively with an ominous gallows' humor tone by Robert Shaw's character Quint in Steven Spielberg's (dir.) Jaws (1975) while on their shark hunt. (As the character Quint is a New Englander, however, he sings the lyric as "sail back to Boston" instead of England.) Shaw also sings a variant of the same verse in the television show The Buccaneers in the episode "The Ladies" (1956).
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."
Monsuno: Combat Chaos had the opening verse sung in the episode "Six" with the lyrics, "Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies; Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain; For we're under orders for to sail for old England; And we may never see you fair ladies again."
- Venning, Annabel (2004). Following the Drum: The Lives of Army Wives and Daughters, Past and Present. London: Headline Book Publishing. ISBN 9780755312580. OCLC 57691755.
- Marryat, Capt. Frederick. Poor Jack. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 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.
- Varying from 55 to 45 fathoms by version.
- 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
- Poor Jack, by Captain Frederick Marryat, page 117 (scan available from archive.org)