Captain James (The Captain's Apprentice)
DESCRIPTION: (Captain James) has a servant who commits a "trifling offense." James ties him to the mast, abuses him, starves him, and leaves him to die of thirst, torture, and exposure. Brought to trial, James thinks money will save him, but he is hanged
EARLIEST DATE: 1768 (Journal from the _Two Brothers_)
KEYWORDS: ship sailor death homicide crime punishment trial execution
FOUND IN: Britain(England(Lond)) US(MW,NE,So) Canada(Mar,Newf)
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Huntington-Whalemen, pp. 54-59, "Captain James" (3 texts, 1 tune)
Gardner/Chickering 132, "The Cabin Boy" (1 text)
High, p. 28, "The Sea Captain" (1 text)
Creighton-SNewBrunswick 88, "Captain James" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Roy Palmer, editor, The Oxford Book of Sea Songs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) #52 pp. 119-122, "Captain James" (1 text, 1 tune) (see note)
The Forget Me Not Songster, (New York: Nafis and Cornish, not earlier than 1842 (see note) ("Digitized by Intenet Archive")), pp. 93-95, "Captain James" ("Come all ye noble and bold commanders") (1 text)
Fred High, "Sea Captain", Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, Cat #0372 (MFH 586), accessed 26 February 2017 from http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=372. (1 text, 1 tune)
ST SWMS054 (Partial)
John Power, "The Little Apprentice" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
cf. "The Captain's Apprentice (II)" (theme of apprentice mistreated and finally murdered by his captain)
cf. "Andrew Rose" (II) (theme of sailor mistreated by his captain)
NOTES: Although the versions of this I've seen don't clearly state that the vessel in this story was a navy ship, the picture here fits the British navy. The captains, in this era, were almost entirely isolated from their crews, and they weren't really examined for fitness for promotion. Many were incompetent, and many were barbaric.
An extreme example of the latter was Hugh Pigot of H. M. S. Hermione, who killed at least two of his sailors with the cat, at least once ordered fourteen sailors flogged on the same day, and after giving an impossible order which resulted in injuries to two young sailors, had them thrown overboard. The result was a mutiny -- but while Pigot was killed, the admiralty officially stood by him.
A summary of Pigot's career is given in Guttridge in pp. 75-82. On pp. 75-76, he reports, "Hugh Pigot came from a family whose wealth and political influence (his father had been on the board of the British Admiralty) were possibly factors in his attainment of naval command at the age of twenty-two. It would be said in Pigot's defence that he was a skillful if ill-tempered officer who demanded proficiency from inferiors and too readily believed he could flog it out of them."
Guttridge,p. 76, speculates that his assignment to the remoteness of the tropics may have affected his mind: "[H]is average of two floggings a week on HMS Success, a punishment rate not really excessive, was to worsen rapidly after he transferred his command to the 32-gun frigate Hermione early in 1797."
In the autumn of 1797, during a storm, Pigot ordered some canvas taken in, and decided the men were working too slowly. "He threatened to flog the last man down. In the scrambling descent three mizzentopmen missed their footing and plunged to their deaths. Pigot ordered the bodies thrown overboard and blamed a dozen men for clumsiness aloft and had them all flogged" (Guttridge, p.77). Since the ship had a crew of about 170, that means he in one day injured or killed almost 10% of his men -- a patently unsustainable rate. And, indeed, the crew mutinied that night and killed him; Guttridge says "the intruders practically fought each other to get at him." Repeatedly stabbed, he was then thrown overboard, perhaps still alive (since some men reportedly heard his cries; Guttridge, p. 78). I'd consider it a measure of his inhumanity that he actually thought he might be worth rescuing.
Unfortunately, Pigot's insanity had infected the crew, and three more officers were killed before the bloody spree ended. When things calmed down a little, a series of mock-trials were held, and most of the remaining officers executed (Guttridge, p. 79). Apparently one of the mutineers also raped the wife of the boatswain, who was one of those murdered (Cordingly, pp. 99-101).
The crew, realizing they had no hope of mercy, headed for Venezuela, where they begged asylum (claiming falsely to have set their officers adrift). One suspects they got it because their ship was valuable, not because anyone believed them.
The British eventually managed to recover and hang some two dozen of the mutineers (Guttridge, p. 81), though most were not ringleaders. Over a hundred managed to avoid recapture by the British (Guttridge, p. 87); many probably ended up in the United States. The Hermione itself, renamed Santa Cecilia by the Spanish, was eventually retaken by the British, though her career was over; returned to Portsmouth in 1802, she was soon paid off, and broken up in 1805 (Paine, p. 243).
Compare also the captain described in "The Flash Frigate (La Pique)."
It was largely the behavior of officers that eventually led to the Spithead mutiny (which resulted, among other things, in many officers being transferred or put ashore; for details on Spithead, see "Poor Parker"). Captain James may not have been real (none of the books I've read seem able to trace him), but he was true-to-life.
Incidentally, an incident almost parallel to this happened within a year of the recorded text from the Two Brothers -- involving none other than John Paul Jones! According to Morison's biography (p. 17), Jones (then known simply as John Paul) was in 1769 the commander of the John; he had aboard a carpenter named Mungo Maxwell. (Truly. Mungo Maxwell. That's what it says.) Jones became so upset with him that he had him flogged. Maxwell filed charges against Jones, and while they were dismissed, Maxwell died on a voyage soon after. Jones faced a murder charge in consequence, though he was acquitted.
In addition, I'm reading Paul Watson's new book on the Franklin Expedition, Ice Ghosts, and on pp. 110-111 is the account of one W. Parker Snow, who is known for having had a dream that located the Franklin Expedition in about the right place. Snow would go on one of the rescue expeditions, but accomplished nothing.
Snow had suffered a traumatic brain injury as a boy, and it seems to have affected him for the rest of his life -- and caused others to abuse him. "Snow was severely abused as a child apprentice under a vicious captain who regularly had the boy flogged and tied to the mast." He was forced to sit on high spars, constantly beaten, and sleep deprived. "'I was stripped, and sent forward to be tarred, then stand in a tub while water was called up, poured over me as a further punishment, and then, thus tarred, sent out to straddle the jibe, to represent, as he said, a new figurehead.'"
Snow survived, although he was very badly injured in both body and mind. But when I read of that, I couldn't help but think of "Captain James." Presumably the date of this is some time in the early decades of the 1800s. - RBW
Palmer notes the similar treatments of Andrew Rose and Captain James's apprentice. However, "Andrew Rose" has few phrases in common with the earlier ballads, "Captain James" and "The Captain's Apprentice (II)."
Palmer has his The Oxford Book of Sea Songs text from a Boston broadside "printed between 1810 and 1814."
The Forget Me Not Songster is undated. However, according to Sidney F. Huttner and Elizabeth Stege Hunter, A Register of Artists, Engravers, Booksellers, Bookbinders, Printers and Publishers in New York City, 1821-1842 (New York: The Bibliographical Society of America, 1993), p. 164, Nafis and Cornish are at 278 Pearl St., New York, only in 1842 for 1821-1842.
The three Huntington-Whalemen texts are from the logs of ships out of Massachusetts or Connecticut ports:
1. rig: ship, name: Cortes, home port: New Bedford, year voyage begins: 1847
2. rig: brig, name: Two Brothers, home port: Wethersfield, year voyage begins: 1768
3. rig: ship, name: Walter Scott, home port: Nantucket, year voyage begins: 1840 (pp. 324-325).
For what it's worth, all of the "Captain James" texts we have indexed so far are from North America. Further, while "The Captain's Apprentice (II)" texts mention Newgate, London or Bristol, the only mention of England in our "Captain James" texts is in the title of the 19c broadside printed by Palmer: "Captain James who was hung and gibbeted in England for starving to death his cabin boy." I don't give much weight to the historical accuracy of that title because it was printed more than forty years after the Huntington-Whalemen 1768 text from Two Brothers. - BS
Last updated in version 4.2
- Cordingly: David Cordingly, Women Sailors and Sailors' Women, Random House, 2001 (I use the undated, but later, paperback edition)
- Guttridge: Leonard F. Guttridge, Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection, Naval Institute Press, 1992 (I use the 2002 Berkley edition)
- Morison: Samuel Eliot Morison,John Paul Jones, 1959 (I use the 1981 Time-Life edition)
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2017 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.