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Cannibal ballads: not just a question of taste ...

William Makepeace Thackeray's poem 'Little Billee' was a literary parody of a traditional French song about survival cannibalism at sea. It entered oral tradition not only among its target audience in the song and supper clubs, but also among sailors. This reflects not only its closeness to its source material, but also its relation to the subject matter. This article relates the song to its sources, and to other songs about cannibalism. It also sets it in the context of the changing experience of survival cannibalism.


The entry of a song into oral tradition, and its survival, depend on several factors. There is a complex relationship between a singer's personal taste and the subject of a song. Songs dealing directly with social phenomena and experiences will find singers not just because they have good tunes; they must to some extent accord with singers' understanding of the phenomena they describe. As those phenomena change, it is likely that songs about them will also change.

I would argue that William Makepeace Thackeray's 'Little Billee' (Roud 905), which was recorded in oral tradition well into the twentieth century, illustrates this process. In the case of songs about survival cannibalism at sea, a substantial part of the repertoire reflects, more or less accurately, an accepted maritime custom during the period of sail. Through the second half of the nineteenth century, changes in maritime life, often enforced legally, altered the cultural landscape. 'Little Billee' was based sufficiently closely on traditional material to enter tradition itself, just before the circumstances it described with affectionate parody disappeared from the cultural horizon.

Thackeray wrote 'Little Billee', a literary parody of a French traditional song about maritime survival cannibalism, in 1845 (see Appendix A). (1) The poem acquired some oral existence in smoking clubs soon after publication. For all that it was a literary parody, aimed at middle- and upper-class audiences, it later also achieved an oral circulation among sailors. It was hardly widespread in oral tradition, but there exists evidence suggestive of its circulation among singers beyond its original audience. It became sufficiently well known, too, to become popular again in the revival folk clubs of the 1960s, thanks in part to the availability of several commercial recordings of traditional singer Bob Roberts, made between 1953 and 1977 (see Appendix B). Roberts, a bargeman, accounts for four of the six sound recordings currently listed in the Roud Folksong Index (Figure l). (2)

Appendix A

William Makepeace Thackeray, 'Little Billee'

From The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, vol. 21: Ballads and The Rose and The Ring (London: Smith, Elder, 1885), pp. 127-28.

There were three sailors of Bristol city Who took a boat and went to sea. But first with beef and captain's biscuits And pickled pork they loaded she.

There was gorging Jack and guzzling Jimmy, And the youngest he was little Billee. Now when they got as far as the Equator They'd nothing left but one split pea.

Says gorging Jack to guzzling Jimmy, 'I am extremely hungaree.' To gorging Jack says guzzling Jimmy, 'We've nothing left, us must eat we.'

Says gorging Jack to guzzling Jimmy, 'With one another we shouldn't agree! There's little Bill, he's young and tender, We're old and tough, so let's eat he.

'Oh! Billy, we're going to kill and eat you, So undo the button of your chemie.' When Bill received this information He used his pocket-handkerchie.

'First let me say my catechism, Which my poor mammy taught to me.' 'Make haste, make haste,' says guzzling Jimmy, While Jack pulled out his snickersnee.

So Billy went up to the main-top gallant mast, And down he fell on his bended knee. He scarce had come to the twelfth commandment When up he jumps. 'There's land I see:

'Jerusalem and Madagascar, And North and South Amerikee: There's the British flag a-riding at anchor, With Admiral Napier, K.C.B.'

So when they got aboard of the Admiral's He hanged fat Jack and flogged Jimmee; But as for little Bill he made him The Captain of a Seventy-three.

Appendix B

'Little Boy Billie', from the singing of Bob Roberts

From Bob Roberts, Songs from the Sailing Barges, 12-inch LP (Topic LP 12TS361, 1978), side 2, track 9. Tune transcribed by Frances Wilkins.


There were three men of Bristol city They stole a ship and went to sea.

There was Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy And also Little Boy Billie.

They stole a box of captain's biscuits And one large bottle of whisky.

But when they reached the broad Atlantic They'd nothing left but one split pea.

Says Gorging Jack to Guzzling Jimmy 'We've nothing to eat, so I'm going to eat thee.'

Says Guzzling Jimmy, 'I'm old and toughest So let us eat Little Boy Billie.'

'Oh Little Boy Billie, we're going to kill and eat you, So undo the top button of your little chemie.'

'Oh may I say my catechism That my dear mother taught to me?'

So he went up to the main-top gallant And there he fell down on his knee.

But when he reached the eleventh commandment He cried, 'Yo-ho! For land I sea!

'I see Jerusalem and Madagascar And North and South Amerikee.

I see the British fleet at anchor And Admiral Nelson KCB.'

They hung Gorging Jack and Guzzling Jimmy But they made an Admiral out of Boy Billie.


The transmission and popularization of the song is interesting, but I was initially more intrigued as to how and why this literary parody had entered the repertoire of traditional singers, joining more serious songs about cannibalism at sea such as 'The Ship in Distress' (Roud 807). The subject of shipwrecked crews facing cannibalism was frequent enough in balladry and popular song in the nineteenth century. Broadsides documented actual incidents, while less historically specific tales survived in oral tradition in many languages. (3) Nor was the subject restricted to maritime audiences or the working-class audiences of the broadsides. Literary authors dealt with it seriously, and parodies also appeared.

This article will explore these questions by examining the relation of the song material to its audiences. In the case of literary authors parodying ballad material for different audiences, it is necessary to look both at the audiences and at the authors' attitudes to their source material. It is also necessary to examine how closely the ballad material reflects recorded practice and folkloric custom. Changes in historical practice over the later nineteenth century provide the context for understanding the spread of 'Little Boy Billee' in oral tradition, not just among Thackeray's original audience but also among sailors.

'Little Billee'

In Thackeray's poem, three sailors run out of food and decide to eat one of their number. After some dispute, they settle on the youngest, Little Billee. Billee asks for time to pray. This may be a stalling device, as 'He scarce had come to the twelfth commandment' when he spies rescue. His persecutors are punished, while Billee is rewarded with the captaincy of a vessel. It is a cheerful piece, with the threat of cannibalism averted in an amusingly overstated fashion: Billee sees Jerusalem, Madagascar, North and South 'Amerikee', and the British fleet at anchor.

Bob Roberts's 1977 singing of 'Little Boy Billee' remains close to Thackeray's 1845 publication. There is some simplification of Thackeray's constructions and unfamiliar words: 'With one another we shouldn't agree' is lost, for example, as is the distinctive 'snickersnee' (although 'chemie' remains). Perhaps the most interesting change is in the identity of the rescuing admiral. Admiral Napier (1786-1860) was a well-known figure in Thackeray's day. Elected a Liberal MP in 1841, he was still heavily involved in naval affairs in 1845, taking an active role in new battleship designs and making parliamentary speeches on pay and conditions at sea. On losing his seat in 1846 he resumed his naval command. A vital contemporary reference for Thackeray, his name has lost some significance compared with the more enduringly famous Horatio Nelson. A printed text of the song from the 1960s--70s folk revival restores Napier, perhaps through some antiquarian bias of that movement, or through a more conscious return to Thackeray's text. (4)

A further development is that the men 'stole' rather than just 'took' the ship, and that they were provided with a 'large bottle of whisky'. They are reduced to desperate straits through theft and drunken incompetence, rather than this being a possible outcome of an ordinary journey. The importance of this will be seen when we look at the historical changes taking place in seafaring over the period between the publication of Thackeray's poem and its entry into maritime oral tradition.

Anne Geddes Gilchrist noted a version in 1906 that also illustrates several of these changes in process. (5) Here the 'chemie' has become a 'little jersee', and Nelson is the admiral. This version, from Mrs Ludlow of Beech Green, Highfields, Sussex, contains much of Thackeray's poem at its core (although the characters are now 'great tall Jacky and little fat Jimmy'). The crew are not adrift through laziness or crime, but because of natural causes. In some new stanzas, the vessel is built and fitted out 'for Philadelphee', and overcome by a 'jolly big storm' in the middle of the Atlantic. In a realistic development, the captain and the rest of the crew are drowned. Jacky and Jimmy are hanged after Billee boards the admiral's vessel and tells him his story.

The most important change in Bob Roberts's version is structural. Thackeray's four-line stanzas are broken into two, with both lines repeated. This pattern seems to have been adopted from the earliest publication of the piece for singing. Cole's Funniest Song Book in the World (c.1890?), the earliest published source currently listed in the Roud Folksong Index, gives it in this form. (6) Harold Scott's English Song Book (1925) gives a repeated second line, but an examination of the tune suggests that the first must also be repeated. (7) When Mrs Ludlow wrote out the words for Anne Gilchrist, she gave the stanzas as quatrains, but the tune was divided into couplets.

Thackeray's poem was a parody of a well-known French song, 'La Courte Paille' (see Appendix C). He specified that it be sung to the tune of Il y avait un petit navire'; and this, or some similar variant of the first line, is the most frequently used title for the French song. It is nowadays known particularly as a children's song. Il y avait un petit navire' also has the repeated two-line stanza form, suggesting that the structural changes towards Bob Roberts's version brought the parody back into line with its sources.

Appendix C

'La Courte Paille' ('II etait un petit navire'), a text from Guernsey

From Guernsey Songs and Dances, ed. by Doris O. Heaume ([St Peter Port?]: L'Assembllai'e d'Guernesiais, 1970), pp. 14-15 (reproduced by kind permission of L'Assemblaie d'Guernesiais).

7 Il Etait un Petit Navire


Il etait un petit navire Qui n' avait ja-ja-jamais navigue.

Il entreprit un long voyage, Le long des co-co-cotes de Guinee.

Au bout de cinq a six semaines, Les vivres vin-vin-vinrent a manquer.

On tira a la courte paille, Pour savoir qui, qui, qui, serait mange.

Le sort tomba sur le plus jeune, Qui n' avait ja-ja-jamais navigue.

Il monta a la grande hune, Et puis il se, se, se mit a prier.

On le mangea a la sauc' blanche, Avec des sal-sal-salsifis pas cuits.

Ils eurent la delicatesse, De metre sa, sa, sa part de cote.

Si cette histoire vous amuse, Nous allons la, la, la recommencer.

[There was a little ship That had never sailed.

It undertook a long voyage Along the coasts of Guinea.

After five or six weeks The provisions ran out.

They drew the short straw To see who would be eaten.

The lot fell to the youngest Who had never sailed.

He climbed to the maintop And then he began to pray.

They ate him with white sauce And uncooked salsify.

They had the discretion To put his share aside.

If this story entertains you We will start it again.]

Thackeray's work generally shows a keen awareness of traditional and contemporary popular songs. He used and adapted much traditional material for his own purposes, but shows some ambivalence towards performances of traditional songs. An example is The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman, illustrated by George Cruikshank. (8) Thackeray was apparently responsible for the text, while Dickens contributed the specious notes. The text is largely rendered in a parody of untrained singing styles and lower-class accents, consistent with the emergence of cockney music hall patter around this time as described by Laurence Senelick. (9) The introductory 'Warning to the Public' speaks of the melancholic effect achieved by 'the long and mournful drawl on the last two or three words of each verse'. In the text we find 'pris-in' for 'prison', the inversion of V and 'w' sounds for comic effect, and non-standard verb forms. The fifth stanza gives a good flavour of the piece:
O she took him to her father's cellar,
And guv to him the best of wine;
And ev'ry holth she dronk unto him,
Vos, 'I vish Lord Bateman as you vos mine!'

Comic effect comes through performance, but the underlying text remains unaffected. Senelick traces a similar tendency in, for example, Charles Rice's early Victorian performance of 'Billy [William] Taylor' (Roud 158). (10) Largely the same text of 'Lord Bateman', but without the stylistic effects, was collected by Cecil Sharp, as sung by Henry Larcombe at Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset, on 26 December 1905. (11) Nearly twenty years after The Loving Ballad, Robert Bell pointed to that text as 'a ludicrously corrupt abridgement of the ballad of "Lord Beichan'", but called it 'the only ancient form in which the ballad has existed in print'. (12) He also noted that the melody given in the Cruikshank edition was commonly sung in the south of England. The meaning of the parody, as Ian Russell has pointed out in another context, 'has changed from a denotative to a connotative expression'. (13)

The Loving Ballad represents an attempt to bring traditional material to a new audience, with some changes to smooth the transition between the milieux. This matches with what else we know about Thackeray's relationship with popular song. He wrote election ballads for singing in Liskeard in 1832, and against the Duke of Marlborough's campaign on behalf of his son at Woodstock in 1844. He wrote them to existing popular tunes. For the Woodstock campaign he wrote A Rare New Ballad of Malbrook', a parody of 'The Fine Old English Gentleman', according to Jackson-Houlston. (14) That traditional song was much used throughout the nineteenth century as the basis for political satires like "The Fine Old English Labourer', (15) but it is also worth noting the popular French children's song 'Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre' as another possible influence. (16) This was one year before Thackeray drew on 'La Courte Paille', another French source, for 'Little Billee'.

Thackeray, then, was familiar with oral and popular traditions, adapting them to the musical traditions of his own audiences. This was not a passive process. He visited, and participated at, the song and supper clubs that Senelick places at the 'up-market end' of the pre-music hall entertainment spectrum. (17) Francis James Child tells us that Thackeray himself sang 'Little Billee'. (18) According to Jackson-Houlston, it 'gained wide, even oral, popularity'. (19) Anne Gilchrist seems to be indicating a similar milieu when she notes that one of her informants, a Mr Wells, had 'heard Mr G. du Maurier's brother sing this song ['Little Billee'] long ago in his [(]Mr W's[)] father's house in Glasgow'. (20) The Mr Wells in question is quite likely to have been the artist William Page Atkinson Wells, who knew the Gilchrist family from Sunderland Point. (21) It is not entirely clear whether he might have been referring to Eugene du Maurier, younger brother of Punch artist, and Thackeray illustrator, George du Maurier.

This 'wide, even oral, popularity', however, did not constitute transmission among the traditional singers from whom material had been appropriated (although 'Little Billee' did later return to that milieu). This was an oral tradition among a different audience: Thackeray's middle- and upper-class urban readers and listeners. Some idea of this 'oral' spread of 'Little Billee' can be gleaned from a prefatory note in a posthumous collected edition of Thackeray's works: 'As different versions of this popular song have been set to music and sung, no apology is needed for the insertion in these pages of what is considered to be the correct version [emphasis added]. (22) This would indicate that the poem had already developed a life of its own around the song and supper club circuit, an assumption that is supported by Jackson-Houlston's references to contemporary memoirs and songbooks. (23)

The earliest two references to 'Little Billee' currently to be found in the Roud Folksong Index, although separated from each other by some thirty-five years, are also to published versions. Coupled with the foregoing editorial note, this would suggest that a number of variant texts were already in circulation. The editorial note certainly hints that the transmission of the song had developed in ways not perhaps anticipated or intended, suggesting that the literary parody, even where it was intended to have been sung, was being conceived of conservatively. This evident popularity, apparently transcending the limits of its initial intended audience, meant that the song was liable to be picked up by other groups of singers. In the case of 'Little Billee', this happened with sailors; but the question remains, why should a literary parody have found a response among people who were still singing traditional songs on the same subject?

'La Courte Paille'

One reason for the song's enduring popularity is its jaunty and accessible tune. Thackeray's French model, 'La Courte Paille' or 'Il etait un petit navire', has retained a remarkably stable tune tradition (see Appendix C). It continues to be hugely popular as a children's song in France and francophone Canada. (24) The tune by which the English song is best known today, that recorded from Bob Roberts (see Appendix B), has much in common with that given in Harold Scott's English Song Book in 1925. The simplification of the stanza structure has gone hand in hand with the provision of a similarly memorable tune.

A comparison of Thackeray's parody with French texts of 'La Courte Paille' shows how closely he followed his source. The ship undertakes its long journey, but runs out of supplies. The crew draw lots (the courte paille or 'short straw' of the title), and it falls to the youngest to die. Thackeray reduces this to an argument about who will be most edible, which also has historical resonance. The youngster climbs to the maintop to pray. Some versions end there. Laura Smith, commenting on one such, writes, 'The prayer must have been granted.' (25) In many recent versions, however, the lad is eaten. The Guernsey version given in Appendix C even ends with a serving suggestion.

'La Courte Paille' may be one of the best-known examples of a song about cannibalism at sea, but it is not the only one. In the English tradition, "The Ship in Distress' is probably the best known of such songs. Documented extensively in oral tradition across the English south coast, it was published frequently on nineteenth-century broadsides. Perhaps because of its inclusion in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, it also became a staple of the folk revival (see Appendix D). (26)

Appendix D

'The Ship in Distress', composite text from James Bishop, Priddy, Somerset, and a broadside; tune from Mr Harwood, Watersfield, Sussex

From The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, ed. by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A. L. Lloyd (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959), p. 96.


You seamen bold who plough the ocean See dangers landsmen never know. It's not for honour and promotion; No tongue can tell what they undergo. In the blusterous wind and the great dark water Our ship went drifting on the sea, Her headgear gone, and her rudder broken, Which brought us to extremity.

For fourteen days, heartsore and hungry, Seeing but wild water and bitter sky, Poor fellows, they stood in a totter, A-casting lots as to which should die. The lot it fell on Robert Jackson, Whose family was so very great. 'I'm free to die, but oh, my comrades, Let me keep look-out till the break of day.'

A full-dressed ship like the sun a-glittering Came bearing down to their relief. As soon as this glad news was shouted, It banished all their care and grief. The ship brought to, no longer drifting, Safe in Saint Vincent, Cape Verde, she gained. You seamen all, who hear my story, Pray you'll never suffer the like again.

The relationship of these songs is somewhat contentious. Some scholars have seen similarities between them, without adequately drawing out the differences. A. L. Lloyd in the notes to The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs thought it 'likely' that 'the French ballad ["La Courte Paille"] gave rise to "The Ship in Distress'"; (27) and he repeated this view in his sleeve notes to Bob Roberts's recording of 'Little Boy Billee'. (28) Yet, although dealing with similar practices, the songs are somewhat different. In 'The Ship in Distress', for example, the vessel drifts for fourteen days before the decision is taken to draw lots. The victim agrees to die, but asks for an extra night to keep watch. In the nick of time he spies 'a full-dressed ship, like the sun a-glittering'. Nobody is eaten, unlike in some versions of 'La Courte Paille'.

Lloyd also drew attention to the Portuguese 'A Nau Caterineta', stating that this song 'tell[s] much the same story'. A Brazilian version of this song published by Lloyd features the same delaying tactics, resulting in the sighting of land in time to avert the act of cannibalism. (29) However, like some versions of 'La Courte Paille', certain older ballads do end with the cabin boy being eaten. Svend Grundtvig, for example, described a seventeenth-century Danish ballad, 'En Markelig Vise Om de Sofarne Mand', in which a king's sons undertake various sea journeys; when one of the ships is becalmed, the mate offers to die in order to provide the crew with food, and he is killed 'as another beast' and eaten. (30) In that particular case, however, the 'young king' refuses to touch the flesh, resulting in divine intervention which spares the whole crew.

W. J. Entwistle considered 'La Courte Paille' as representative of the source for this group of songs, but did not connect it with "The Ship in Distress'. (31) In his speculative transmission schema--which he based on 'no reason other than geographical probability', but which seems to have influenced Lloyd in particular--the song 'radiates outwards' from Brittany or Normandy to Provence, Portugal, Catalonia, Scandinavia, and England. This final arrival, though, he dates to the ballad's 'period of decadence' and Thackeray's adaptation. In other words, he draws no parallel with "The Ship in Distress'. Porter's observation that Entwistle could not even bring himself to mention the subject of the ballad should be borne in mind here. (32) Grundtvig, similarly, thought that 'En Markelig Vise' was the same as 'La Courte Paille', but claimed it had 'not been found in [...] England'. (33) Not only did he not connect it with 'The Ship in Distress', but, writing in 1880, did not notice Thackeray's adaptation as significant.

Lloyd does connect the songs. He cites a version of 'La Courte Paille' where the boy is rescued by seeing Babylon 'Je vois la tour de Babylone'--but gives no reference. (34) This would, however, appear to be a version collated by Georges Doncieux and published by Henri Davenson. (35) In 'En Markelig Vise' (where the seaman is eaten) the ship belongs to the king of Babylon.

There is some evidence that sailors themselves identified these songs by subject matter. Stan Hugill, writing about "Three Sailors of Bristol City', offers the footnote that 'this song is a slightly altered form of Thackeray's "Little Billie", which may have been based on a French song very similar to "The Ship in Distress"'. (36) He appends this note to the main text, where he writes that the song is 'obviously a humorous interpretation of attempted cannibalism often found in the annals of maritime history. A not-so-humorous version is [...] "The Ship in Distress".' This is the most suggestive comment I have seen for establishing a set of native criteria amongst sailors for the understanding of cannibal ballads. The songs are recognized as being related by subject matter, but there are gradations based on their content.

Models of cannibalism

As some of the earlier copies of 'La Courte Paille' do not feature the eating of the cabin boy, might the eating motif be a product of Entwistle's 'period of decadence'? The pattern is by no means clear-cut. In the fullest versions of Roud 552 (Laws N 10), 'The Silk Merchant's Daughter', "The Miser's Daughter', etc., the heroine disguises herself as a sailor in order to follow her lover across the sea; when the ship is wrecked and the crew are cast adrift with dwindling supplies, after lots have been drawn, she finds herself facing death at her lover's hand. (37) The cannibalism motif can be found as early as the eighteenth century. (38) It has survived, too, in some more recently collected examples, such as Tom Lenihan's 'Fair London Town', (39) and the versions in the Greig--Duncan collection. (40) However, it has dropped out of others altogether, such the Norfolk Gypsy version noted by L. Rider Haggard. (41)

As should be clear, these songs (and this article) do not deal with the construction of cannibalism as a model of 'otherness'. Many writers have drawn attention to this use of cannibalism to signify savagery, often to justify colonialist activity. One quote, from a correspondent to The Times in 1841, should suffice to show cannibalism as what Porter calls 'the representative barbarism'. Writing about cannibalism among survivors of an American shipwreck, the correspondent expressed satisfaction that this 'has never been heard of, and I trust never will, on board an English ship', because it was more consistent with 'the savage and heathen inhabitants of the South Seas'. (42)

This model of cannibalism did feature in some popular songs with which Thackeray may have been familiar. In particular, the impact of the comic stage song "The King of the Cannibal Islands', published in 1830, should be recognized. The song, by A. W. Humphreys, is a piece of exotic savage stereotyping. Its tune, known previously as 'Vulcan's Cave', came to be known as 'King of the Cannibal Islands'. Its frequency as the named tune on ballad sheets across the century clearly indicates a widespread influence on popular music-making. (43) Similarly, references to this model of cannibalism were also to be found in the increasingly popular blackface minstrel songs which had a profound impact on singing traditions. (44)

This construction of barbarism hinges on cannibalism being presented as a routine practice, whether it ever actually happened or not. (45) It is one that retains its ideological force even today. (46) 'Survival cannibalism', in contrast, serves to reinforce the 'civilization' of those reduced to it by exigency. John Rae, for example, who first disclosed the fate of the Franklin expedition, was vilified for taking the word of the local Inuit that the sailors had been driven to cannibalism. (47) Survival cannibalism is perceived as a last resort in desperate circumstances, and there seems to have been--and to continue to be--considerable sympathy for those who found themselves reduced to it. Brian Simpson, historian of the case of the Mignonette, which sank in 1884, highlighting the practice of survival cannibalism, records widespread surprise at the decision to prosecute the wreck's survivors. (48)

Shipwrecks were a regular occurrence in the nineteenth century. Simpson quotes a Times index entry: 'Disasters at Sea, see each day's paper.' The British government only introduced a statutory requirement for wreck investigations for steamships in 1846, extending it to sailing vessels four years later. Conditions at sea were highly dangerous, and ships sailed with insufficient lifeboats. In the event of a wreck, therefore, the odds were already poor. Rather than 'women and children first', the standard practice appears to have been to get the crew into the lifeboats first. Such small, unstable craft required skilled sailors if they were to stand any chance of remaining afloat, and able navigators if they were to stand any chance of reaching safety. (49) If the surviving crew could keep the lifeboat afloat, they would be unlikely to have sufficient provisions, even if they had had time to salvage some. Nor was there any legal requirement for passing vessels to rescue survivors; since rescuing vessels had to foot the bill for the additional provisions consumed by survivors, there was in fact some incentive not to rescue them.

What happened next seems to have been regulated by the 'custom of the sea'. This is best illustrated from actual incidents. The 'strangest and best documented' case was that of the Francis Spaight, an emigrant ship returning to Limerick, which sank in 1835. (50) An hour after capsizing in heavy seas, the ship was righted by cutting away her masts. By this time, all provisions had been lost. Fifteen survivors remained in the waterlogged hull. Sixteen days after the accident, the captain proposed drawing lots among the four cabin boys, 'as they had no families, and could not be considered so great a loss to their friends, as those who had wives and children depending on them'. Lots were drawn among the boys: one boy, Patrick O'Brien, was blindfolded and called out each name as a stick was drawn. The short stick fell to O'Brien himself, prompting suggestions that his selection was rigged. His throat was slit, and his blood collected for the crew to drink.

This seems to have been the standard procedure for killing the victim. In 1884, the survivors in the dinghy of the Mignonette, which was to provide the test-case condemning the practice in English law, drank the blood before it congealed, then removed the internal organs which they ate immediately. 'En Markelig Vise' refers to the survivors cutting out the liver and lungs, which were then offered to the young king. (51) The corpse was dismembered and kept for subsequent eating; there is evidence of extremities being removed and discarded. The head may have been too personal a reminder of what had just transpired. (52) The survivors of the Francis Spaight waved O'Brien's dismembered hands and feet to attract the attention of passing vessels. (53)

Literary evidence supports this pattern. Earlier in the nineteenth century Byron had portrayed similar events in Don Juan. (54) After lots are drawn, Pedrillo's blood is drunk, and his entrails and brains thrown overboard. Only then do the crew start on his flesh. For all the Byronic humour, the poem conforms closely to documented practice. It also echoes other popular beliefs: those who eat the flesh most ravenously are driven mad by the frenzy, drink seawater, and die. It was argued that Richard Parker, the Mignonettes cabin boy, had been doomed in any case because he had been drinking seawater.

A more serious literary representation is in Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Poe's narrative of survival cannibalism is consistent with other accounts, and seems to have been inspired by events on the whale-ship Essex in 1820, described in the broadside 'The Shipwreck of the Essex'. (55) When it is proposed that 'one of us should die to preserve the existence of the others', the crew draw lots made from splinters. The short splinter falls to a sailor named, by bizarre coincidence, Richard Parker. Poe's Parker is stabbed in the back; although not documented elsewhere, this would circumvent the problem of confronting the victim. The broadside also mentions removing the head almost immediately after death. Poe's account closely matches other descriptions: the blood is drunk; the extremities and entrails are thrown overboard; the body is eaten piecemeal. (56)

The killings and dismemberments may have been standardized, but the key factor in the popular imagination, which finds its way into the song material, is the drawing of lots to decide on the victim. The version of Roud 552 (Laws N 10) in Ord's Bothy Songs & Ballads is even subtitled 'The Drawing of the Lots'--although, Porter states, this might say more about the collector's sensibilities than the singer's. (57) Historically, there are doubts as to whether lots were actually drawn, or if it was not simply felt that they should have been. A continuing popular tradition concerning the Mignonette is that the survivors were prosecuted only because lots were not properly drawn. (58) Any lots that were drawn may well have been rigged. There is some suspicion that they were rigged along racial lines, and there are several records of appeals to exclusion from the drawing of lots on the grounds of seniority. Given the wider construction of cannibalism as 'other', it is significant that several of the narratives feature the added quandary posed by the killing of a loved one and the potential 'gastronomic incest', to use Porter's formulation, that this would incur.

Regardless of doubts about the actual practice, though, the drawing of lots is one of the key factors in orally transmitted ballads on the subject.

Cannibalism in the songs

How do the songs tackle the cannibalism? Many historical incidents were the subject of broadsides (Simpson cites several). These broadsides seem to have emphasized the more lurid aspects of the stories, but they also featured the drawing of lots, which seems to have become the dominant motif. Arthur Beatty, discussing the literary origins of ballads, goes so far as to describe the drawing of lots as a belief or custom that was 'likely to be found in any quarter'. (59) Rather oddly, he compares it with motifs of transformation and return from the dead.

In the 'Shipwreck of the Essex' broadside, 'at eight different times lots amongst them were drawn'. Simpson argues that such broadsides may have served to legitimize this practice. (60) This is not quite convincing, however. Firstly, as Porter notes, not many such broadsides entered into oral circulation over the long term. (61) Secondly, a wide range of material internationally, from ballad and literary sources, refers to the drawing of lots. So a more likely interpretation is that ballad printers were producing responses to current events (Figure 2)--and this probably included the production of ballad sheets to raise funds for those who had suffered as a consequence of the shipwreck, as Simpson describes in relation to the wreck of the Mignonette. (62) (In light of this sort of immediacy, it seems possible that the broadsides may in fact have had some limited oral currency.) For the sheets to gain an audience, they would need to have offered an accurate reflection of existing practice, as it was popularly understood. Many of the broadsides are specific on details. The Essex ballad, for example, conforms to the pattern of dismemberment outlined above: 'his messmates they killed him and cut off his head, / And all the ship's crew from his body did feed'. (63)


There is an analogy here with the gallows ballads churned out by the broadside printers. Most disappeared as soon as the bodies were cut down, while one or two entered oral tradition. Porter suggests that many of the broadsides did not enter oral tradition because they describe the cannibalistic act. Rather, he argues, singers 'introduced an element of divine intervention; above all they privileged the values of common humanity and the rights of the disempowered'. (64) There is plenty of evidence for the oral transmission of non-historically specific songs in which the cannibalistic moment is prevented by the arrival of a rescuing vessel, as in the Roud 552 (Laws N 10) examples already mentioned. 'The Ship in Distress' is of this type, as is 'Little Billee'. Thus, unlike in many of the documented cases, the intended victim of 'The Ship in Distress' is allowed an extra night to keep watch, whereupon help arrives. In several historical cases, the survivors did claim to have given the victim an extra hour to look for a sail; and while this seems unlikely, it does suggest a unified narrative for such occurrences.

Porter's suggestion needs modification, however, as some songs in oral circulation do end with the victim being eaten. We have already seen the range of endings to 'La Courte Paille'. The Swedish 'Georg Sjoman' also ends unhappily for Georg Sjoman, who draws the short straw. Although lots have been drawn, he nonetheless reacts badly, and attempts to defend himself. There is horror when the captain shoots him, but the crew eat him anyway. The character's name translates simply as 'George Sailor', but tradition has it as a true story that took place on 28 January 1878. (65) The crew of 'En Markelig Vise' also eat the mate, but are spared by divine intervention after the young king refuses the meat.

Thus the aspiration not to be reduced to cannibalism may have been a more significant factor in the song traditions, because the danger of cannibalism was such a reality of life at sea.


That reality is not quite the point of Thackeray's parody, however. In an extraordinary essay on public execution five years earlier, Thackeray had expressed admiration at 'the vigorous, orderly good sense, and intelligence', of a crowd of 'all ranks and degrees' attending a public execution, and appealed to people's rationality to thwart any threat to the right order embodied in such events. (66) The same process is at work in 'Little Billee'. The parody removes the sting from the narrative (parody is most heightened in the sequence where Billee is rescued and promoted), but the subject of the narrative remains unaffected. Looking at the Guernsey version of 'La Courte Paille' given in Appendix C, it is possible that this process was already under way in the oral tradition, and Thackeray's contribution was part of that cumulative process. We will return to this, but it brings us to the key question of how the song entered oral tradition.

As we have already seen, 'Little Billee' first entered common currency among sections of its intended audience through smoking and supper clubs. After this, in the twentieth century, variants are recorded in oral tradition among sailors themselves. The text published by Stan Hugill in 1961 seems to be the oldest of these. He describes it as a 'rather comic song that was sung at the pumps and is mentioned by J. Sexton as having been sung aboard ship in his day'. (67) I have been unable to locate this 'J. Sexton' in his sources or bibliography, and so have had to estimate chronology by comparison with other sources. Textually it is close to Thackeray's original, still retaining Admiral Napier, for example. Hugill also mentions that he was unable to find the tune, suggesting that he (a deep-water sailor) had not heard it personally. However, the significance of its presence in his collection is that it had clearly moved away from its known literary antecedents and into oral currency. It is also important to note that the sailors did not equate it with literary parody, indicating that it was already fulfilling a social function at sea.

A. L. Lloyd, describing Bob Roberts's repertoire, suggested that the 'part burlesque' songs might be 'a sign of declining tradition'. (68) Similarly, Ian Russell writes of the performance of parodies as 'indicat[ing] the type of song (and style of singing) that can no longer be taken seriously'. (69) This may have been a factor in the increasing popularity of the song in the folk club scene, with attendant textual variations. We have already noted the restoration of Napier in a revival version. That same revival version also relocates the port from Bristol to Portsmouth. (70)

This might account for the song's latter-day popularity, but is it the whole story for its adoption into oral tradition? If it could no longer be taken seriously, why did more serious songs on the same subject also remain in circulation? One useful comparison might be made. W. S. Gilbert's 'Yarn of the Nancy Bell appeared in Fun in 1866, after Punch had apparently rejected it as 'too cannibalistic' for its readers (see Appendix E). (71) The 'Nancy Bell also parodies survival cannibalism. Again the survivors draw lots (repeatedly) before eating their shipmates. Like 'Little Billee' (but unlike 'Don Juan'), it is also in a ballad stanza form. It certainly appears to have acquired an oral life as a recitation piece, but it seems to have remained within the class parameters of its original audience. (72) The narrator distances himself from any identification with the subject ('it's little I know / Of the duties of men of the sea'). Sophisticated devices such as the internal rhyme scheme make it clear that this is as much a parody of the culture that produced cannibal ballads as of the genre itself. As we have seen, that background is in fact far from humorous. For all its song form, this is a literary production aping the language of one class for the amusement of another. It is closer, in this regard, to The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman than to 'Little Billee', though without the same connection to an oral source.

Appendix E

W. S. Gilbert, The Yarn of the Nancy Bell

'Twas on the shores that round our coast From Deal to Ramsgate span, That I found alone on a piece of stone An elderly naval man.

His hair was weedy, his beard was long, And weedy and long was he, And I heard this wight on the shore recite, In a singular minor key:

'Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold, And the mate of the Nancy brig, And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite, And the crew of the captain's gig.'

And he shook his fists and he tore his hair, Till I really felt afraid, For I couldn't help thinking the man had been drinking, And so I simply said:

'Oh, elderly man, it's little I know Of the duties of men of the sea, And I'll eat my hand if I understand However you can be

'At once a cook, and a captain bold, And the mate of the Nancy brig, And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite, And the crew of the captain's gig.'

Then he gave a hitch to his trousers, which Is a trick all seamen larn, And having got rid of a thumping quid, He spun this painful yarn:

'For I loved that cook as a brother, I did, And the cook he worshipped me; But we'd both be blowed if we'd either be stowed In the other chap's hold, you see.

'"I'll be eat if you dines off me," says Tom; "Yes, that," says I, "you'll be,--"I'm boiled if I die, my friend," quoth I; And "Exactly so," quoth he.

'Says he, "Dear James, to murder me Were a foolish thing to do, For don't you see that you can't cook me, While I can--and will--cook you!"

'So he boils the water, and takes the salt And the pepper in ortions true (Which he never forgot) and some chopped shallot, And some sage and parsley too.

"Twas in the good ship Nancy Bell That we sailed to the Indian Sea, And there on a reef we come to grief, Which has often occurred to me.

'And pretty nigh all the crew was drowned (There was seventy-seven o' soul), And only ten of the Nancy's men Said "Here!" to the muster-roll.

'There was me and the cook and the captain bold, And the mate of the Nancy brig, And the bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite, And the crew of the captain's gig.

'For a month we'd neither wittles nor drink, Till a-hungry we did feel, So we drawed a lot, and accordin' shot The captain for our meal.

'The next lot fell to the Nancy's mate, And a delicate dish he made; Then our appetite with the midshipmite We seven survivors stayed.

'And then we murdered the bo'sun tight, And he much resembled pig; Then we wittled free, did the cook and me, On the crew of the captain's gig.

'Then only the cook and me was left, And the delicate question, Which Of us two goes in the kettle?" arose, And we argued it out as sich.

'"Come here," says he, with a proper pride, Which his smiling features tell, "'Twill soothing be if I let you see How extremely nice you'll smell."

'And he stirred it round and round and round, And he sniffed at the foaming froth; When I ups with his heels, and smothers his squeals In the scum of the boiling broth.

And I eat that cook in a week or less, And--as I eating be The last of his chops, why, I almost drops, For a wessel in sight I see!

'And I never larf, and I never smile, And I never lark nor play, But sit and croak, and a single joke I have--which is to say:

'"Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold, And the mate of the Nancy brig, And a bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite, And the crew of the captain's gig!"'

Most of the ballad scholars who have studied 'Little Billee' have been struck by its affectionate closeness to its source material. Regardless of Thackeray's intentions, the parody is light when compared with the source material. As Evelyn Wells notes, it 'derives its fun from ridicule, not of form but of situation [...] The mock literary form is usually based on appreciation, rather than ridicule.' (73) Because of this closeness of the parody to the source, and also because it specified a tune in oral currency, 'Little Billee' was already singable. It may have been intended for smoking clubs, but it was not inconsistent with previous traditional material that had remained in oral circulation, and so it became a suitable candidate for being taken from above deck to below. Child described it as 'really [...] like the genuine popular ballads--corrupted by tradition'. (74) This is borne out by some of the textual changes considered above.

At the same time, it is significant that 'Little Billee' does not seem to have entered oral tradition among sailors until there was a change in the 'custom of the sea'. Huge technical developments in seafaring over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had drastically altered the culture of the sea. Improvements in navigation and shipbuilding were rendering the potential need for the 'custom of the sea' more remote, while legal measures were outlawing it culturally and increasing the probability of rescue. Thackeray's parody appeared in time to reflect a genuine occurrence just as it was becoming less immediate. This seems to be borne out by the almost parodic qualities of some of the versions of 'La Courte Paille' recorded in British waters, as they responded to the same changes. (75) It entered oral tradition because it reflected a reality for sailors, but it also reflected the altered way in which they were now coming to view that reality. It was close to its source, but safer.

Making broad historical assertions based on a song found only infrequently in oral tradition risks overstatement, but the version recorded in Anne Gilchrist's manuscripts offers the most suggestive evidence to support these claims. Noted in 1906, Mrs Ludlow's version stands midway between the two earliest printed sources currently listed in the Roud Folksong Index. It features some of the changes apparent in Bob Roberts's recordings (and subsequently rejected by revival versions of the song). In the documentation of the song, great attention is paid to Thackeray's original, noting its oral performance in a drawing-room setting. Most significantly, Mrs Ludlow's version over-elaborates the point that this is a possible eventuality of any ordinary ocean journey. Jacky and Jimmy are hanged because of the stanza in which Billee 'told his story'. When Tom Dudley, captain of the Mignonette, had told his story in 1884 it was with the expectation that this would excuse him.

The historical changes mentioned above also altered the ways in which sailors made music for themselves. Bob Roberts described himself as 'the last of the sailing bargemen', while Stan Hugill spoke of being 'the last of the shantymen'. We should be sceptical about drawing 'end of folk song' conclusions from such statements. As Cyril Tawney emphasized, maritime singing traditions changed, rather than died out. (76) 'Little Billee' had just long enough to establish itself before the culture changed. The movement of such songs in and between oral traditions may help us better to understand those changes.


As ever, I have benefited greatly from the assistance and advice of staff at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Merl Storr and Frances Wilkins kindly supplied help beyond my technical ability. Alan Bell and Steve Roud were quick and generous in their replies to my queries. This article grew from a term paper for the 'Folklore and Literature' MA module at the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT) at the University of Sheffield. A version was subsequently presented at the Sound Effects: The Oral/Aural Dimensions of Literatures in English conference at the University of St Andrews in 2006. Comments on both proved invaluable. I am grateful above all to the Editor and Editorial Board of the Folk Music Journal for their constructsve and supportive comments and advice. None of the people who have sought to strengthen and improve my work can be held responsible for the shortcomings it still has.


(1) The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, vol. 21: Ballads and The Rose and The Ring (London: Smith, Elder, 1885), pp. 127-28.

(2) Roud Folksong Index <> [accessed 19 August 2008]. The other listed recordings were made by Helen Creighton in 1943 of Dr A. Stanley Walker in Nova Scotia. Bob Roberts can be heard on Sea Songs & Shanties: Traditional English Sea Songs & Shanties from the Last Days of Sail, CD (Saydisc CD-SDL 405, 1994).

(3) For a splendid introduction to the subject (with an enviably brilliant title) see Gerald Porter, 'The Tender Cabin Boy: Cannibalism and the Subject', Acta Ethnographica Hungarica, 47 (2002), 69-77; repr. in Folk Ballads, Ethics, Moral Issues, ed. Gabor Barna and Ildiko Kriza, Papers of the 31st International Ballad Conference, Budapest 21-23 April 2001, Szegedi Vallasi Neprajzi Konyvtar/Bibliotheca Religionis Popularis Szegediensis, 10 (Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 2002), pp. 69-77; and online, in a somewhat different form and with the additional subtitle 'Eaten with Merriment and Sport: Cannibalism and the Colonial Subject', at < > [accessed 21 March 2009].

(4) Folk Songs of Old Hampshire, ed. by John Paddy Browne (Horndean: Milestone, 1987), p. 94 (no tune is given).

(5) London, EFDSS Archives, Anne Geddes Gilchrist Collection, AGG/8/40 <> [accessed 22 October 2009]. This is listed as '1st version', the second being a copy of Thackeray's text (AGG/8/41).

(6) Cole's Funniest Song Book in the World, ed. by E. W. Cole (Melbourne: Cole's Book Arcade, [c.1890?]), p. 355. I am grateful to Steve Roud for providing me with a copy of this text.

(7) English Song Book, ed. by Harold Scott (London: Chapman & Hall, 1925), pp. 110-11.

(8) The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman, [an adaptation by W. M. Thackeray, with notes by Charles Dickens], illustrated by George Cruikshank (London: Charles Tilt, 1839). A facsimile copy can be found online at < xsOUFg8A&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0> [accessed 21 March 2009].

(9) Senelick provides a useful overview of the range of concert venues pre-dating the music hall proper, and the emergence of 'cockneyisms', in his introduction to Tavern Singing in Early Victorian London: The Diaries of Charles Rice for 1840 and 1850, ed. by Laurence Senelick (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1997), pp. xi-xv, xxv.

(10) Tavern Singing, p. xxv.

(11) The Crystal Spring: English Folk Songs Collected by Cecil Sharp, ed. by Maud Karpeles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 10-11. Sung by Henry Larcombe, 26 December 1905 at Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset.

(12) Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, taken down from oral recitation and transcribed from private manuscripts, rare broadsides and scarce publications, ed. by Robert Bell (London: John W. Parker, 1857), p. 68.

(13) Ian Russell, 'Parody and Performance', in Everyday Culture: Popular Song and the Vernacular Milieu, ed. by Michael Pickering and Tony Green (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987), pp. 70-104 (p. 97), where he also writes that 'the parody is in the style of performance suggested by and not explicit in the text'.

(14) C. M. Jackson-Houlston, Ballads, Songs and Snatches: The Appropriation of Folk Song and Popular Culture in British Nineteenth-Century Realist Prose (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), p. 117.

(15) See The Painful Plough: A Portrait of the Agricultural Labourer in the Nineteenth Century from Folk Songs and Ballads and Contemporary Accounts, ed. by Roy Palmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 44-46.

(16) See Giles Barber, '"Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre" or, How History Reaches the Nursery', in Children and their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie, ed. by Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 135-63.

(17) Tavern Singing, p. xii.

(18) Sigurd Bernhard Hustvedt, Ballad Books and Ballad Men: Raids and Rescues in Britain, America, and the Scandinavian North since 1800 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), p. 295.

(19) Jackson-Houlston, pp. 117.

(20) Gilchrist Collection, AGG/8/40.

(21) I am grateful to Alan Bell for this suggestion.

(22) Thackeray, Ballads, p. 127.

(23) Jackson-Houlston, p. 117 and note, mentioning W. P. Friths autobiography and The Red White and Blue Monster Songbook.

(24) See, for example, Le Livre des Chansons Francaises ([n.p.]: Jean-Paul Gisserot, [n.d.]); and Edith Fowke, 'Children's songs, traditional', in Encyclopedia of Music in Canada <> [accessed 21 March 2009].

(25) Laura Alexandrine Smith, The Music of the Waters: A Collection of the Sailors' Chanties, or Working Songs of the Sea, of All Maritime Nations, Boatmen's, Fishermen's, and Rowing Songs, and Water-Legends (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, 1888), pp. 150-51. The boy prays to the Virgin Mary, 'O Sainte Vierge, O ma patronne, Preservez-moi de ce danger.'

(26) The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, ed. by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A. L. Lloyd (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959), pp. 96, 123-24; repr. as Classic English Folk Songs, ed. by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A. L. Lloyd, rev, by Malcolm Douglas (London: English Folk Dance & Song Society in association with the South Riding Folk Network, 2003), pp. 64, 113-14.

(27) The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, p. 123.

(28) A. L. Lloyd, notes to Bob Roberts, Songs from the Sailing Barges, LP (Topic 12TS361, 1978), side 2, track 9.

(29) Folk Songs of the Americas, ed. by A. L. Lloyd, associate editor Isabel Aretz de Ramon y Rivera (London: Novello, for the International Folk Music Council, 1965), pp. 202-03.

(30) Svend Grundtvig, 'En Markelig Vise Om de Sofarne Mand: An Old Danish Ballad', Folk-Lore Record, 3 (1880), 253-57.

(31) William J. Entwistle, European Balladry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), pp. 140, 183-84. See also Lloyd, notes to Songs from the Sailing Barges.

(32) Porter, 'Eaten with Merriment and Sport'.

(33) Grundtvig, p. 253.

(34) The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, p. 123.

(35) Henri Davenson, Le Livre des Chansons (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1946 [first published 1944]), p. 329.

(36) Stan Hugill, Shanties from the Seven Seas: Shipboard Work-Songs and Songs Used as Work-Songs from the Great Days of Sail (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), pp. 429-31.

(37) A good example is 'The Merchant's Daughter Turned Sailor; Or, The Drawing of Lots' in The Bothy Songs & Ballads of Aberdeen, Banff & Moray, Angus and the Mearns, ed. by John Ord (Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1930; repr. with a new Introduction by Alexander Fenton, Edinburgh: John Donald, [1990]), pp. 63-64.

(38) See, for example, A Sailor's Songbag: An American Rebel in an English Prison, 1777-1779, ed. by George G. Carey (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1976), pp. 69-71.

(39) The Mount Callan Garland: Songs from the Repertoire of Tom Lenihan of Knockbrack, Miltown Malbay, County Clare, ed. by Tom Munnelly (Dublin: Comhairle Bhealoideas Eireann, 1994), pp. 3-6; with additional material in Tom Munnelly, 'Tom Lenihan: Traditional Singer', Dal gCais, 4 (1978), 78-84, especially p. 83.

(40) The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, ed. by Patrick Shuldam-Shaw, Emily B. Lyle, et al., 8 vols (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press; Edinburgh: Mercat Press, for the University of Aberdeen in association with the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, 1981-2002), I, 473-74.

(41) I Walked by Night: Being the Life & History of the King of the Norfolk Poachers, ed. by Lilias Rider Haggard (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1935), p. 160. This text perhaps belongs more properly with Roud 601 (Laws N 6) rather than Roud 552 (Laws N 10).

(42) Quoted in A. W. Brian Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to which it Gave Rise ([Chicago?]: University of Chicago Press, 1984; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p. 171. Simpson's is the best introduction to the legal and cultural background to survival cannibalism.

(43) Anthony Bennett, 'Rivals Unravelled: A Broadside Song and Dance', Folk Music Journal, 6.4 (1993), 420-45.

(44)' Michael Pickering, Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 41-42, discusses the song 'Poor Little Liza', for example, which 'ends with a reference to the popular association of "black savages" with cannibalism'. Pickering-notes that this association still continues in cartoons about missionaries.

(45) W. Arens, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), assesses the evidence critically.

(46) Porter adduces recent examples of this 'otherness', but the headline 'Cannibal Eats OAP Alive', in the Sun, 5 July 2006, adequately conveys something of the moral panics involved.

(47) Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin (London: Bantam, 2002), pp. 213 ff.

(48) Simpson, pp. 128-35.

(49) Simpson, pp. 6, 96, 164.

(50) Simpson, pp. 128-35; The Mount Callan Garland, p. 6. The Francis Spaight case was later the subject of a short story by Jack London; and a song dealing with it, 'The Sorrowful Fate of O'Brien', is given in James N. Healy, Irish Songs of the Sea (Cork: Ossian, 1995), pp. 37-38.

(51) Grundtvig, p. 254: 'De skare ud hans lever og lunge [...]' (stanza 12).

(52) Even during rather more ordinary burials at sea, the shrouded body was often made to look less like a human form, reflecting a similar concern. See David J. Stewart, 'Burial at Sea: Separating and Placing the Dead during the Age of Sail', Mortality, 10.4 (2005), 276-85 (p. 280).

(53) Simpson, pp. 67-68, 132.

(54) Lord Byron, Poems, vol. 3, rev. edn (London: J. M. Dent, 1948), pp. 77 ff. Canto the Second was finished by early 1819; the relevant section is stanzas LXXII and following.

(55) Simpson gives a broadside text on pp. 316-17.

(56) Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and Related Tales, ed. by J. Gerald Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 82, 90, 94.

(57) Porter, 'The Tender Cabin Boy', p. 71 (and 'Eaten with Merriment and Sport').

(58) See, for example, the comment that Captain Tom Dudley was 'done for eating a cabin boy and cheated at drawing lots', in 'Cannibal Castaways', Psychics and Mediums Network <> [accessed 25 August 2008].

(59) Arthur Beatty, 'Ballad, Tale and Tradition: A Study in Popular Literary Origin', PMLA, 29(1914), 473-98 (p. 494).

(60) Simpson, pp. 125-26.

(61) Porter, 'The Tender Cabin Boy', p. 73 (and 'Eaten with Merriment and Sport').

(62) Simpson, pp. 84-86, 253-55.

(63) Simpson, p. 141.

(64) Porter, 'The Tender Cabin Boy', p. 77 (and 'Eaten with Merriment and Sport').

(65) Thore Andersson can be heard singing 'Och Georg Sjoman tar omt i famnen' on Sjomansvisor & Rallarvisor/Songs of Sailors and Navvies, Musica Sveciae/Folk Music in Sweden 15, CD (Caprice Records CAP21540, 1996). I am grateful to Merl Storr for translating the Swedish text.

(66) The quotations from Thackeray's essay 'Going to See a Man Hanged' are given in V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 297, 62, 66, respectively.

(67) Hugill, p. 429.

(68) Lloyd, notes to Songs from the Sailing Barges.

(69) Russell, p. 92.

(70) Folk Songs of Old Hampshire, p. 94.

(71) The Penguin Book of Ballads ed. by Geoffrey Grigson, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), pp. 322-24. First published in Fun in March 1866, it was subsequently printed in Gilbert's Bab Ballads.

(72) See, for example, The Wondering Minstrels, a (predominantly American) discussion board containing reminiscences of recitations at family gatherings and around campfires < minstrels/poems/16l.html> [accessed 22 March 2009].

(73) Evelyn Kendrick Wells, The Ballad Tree: A Study of British and American Ballads, their Folklore, Verse, and Music, together with Sixty Traditional Ballads and their Tunes (New York: Ronald Press, 1950), p. 320.

(74) Hustvedt, p. 295.

(75) Folksongs of Britain and Ireland: A Guidebook to the Living Tradition of Folksinging in the British Isles and Ireland, Containing 360 Folksongs from Field Recordings Sung in English, Lowland Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Channel Islands French, Romany and Tinkers' Cants, etc., ed. by Peter Kennedy (London: Cassell, 1975; repr. London: Oak, 1984), p. 288.

(76) Cyril Tawney, Grey Funnel Lines: Traditional Song and Verse of the Royal Navy, 1900-1970 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987).
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Date:Jan 1, 2010
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