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In seventeen hundred and ninety-four,
On March the twentieth day;
We hoist our colours to the mast,
And for Greenland bore away, brave boys!
And for Greenland bore away.

We were twelve gallant men aboard
And to the North did steer.
Old England left we in our wake,
We sailors knew no fear, brave boys!
We sailors knew no fear.

Our boatswain to the mast-head went,
Wi' a spy glass in his hand,
He cries, A whale! A whale doth blow,
She blows at every span, brave boys!
She blows at every span.

Our captain on the master deck,
(A very good man was he),
Overhaul! Overhaul! and let the boat-tackle fall,
And launch your boat to sea, brave boys!
And launch your boat to sea.

Our boat being launched, and all hands in,
The whale was full in view,
Resolved was then each seaman bold
To steer where the whale-fish blew, brave boys!
To steer where the whale-fish blew.

The whale was struck, and the line paid out,
She gave a flash of her tail;
The boat capsized, and we lost four men,
And never caught the whale, brave boys!
And never caught the whale.

Bad news we to the Captain brought,
The loss of four men true.
A sorrowful man was our Captain then,
And the colours down he drew, brave boys!
And the colours down he drew.

The losing of this whale said he,
Doth grieve my heart full sore;
But the losing of four gallant men
Doth hurt me ten times more, brave boys!
Doth hurt me ten times more.

The winter star doth now appear,
So, boys, the anchor weigh;
'Tis time to leave the cold country,
And for England bear away, brave boys!
And for England bear away.

For Greenland is a barren place,
A land where grows no green;
But ice and snow, and the whale-fish blow,
And the daylight's seldom seen, brave boys!
And the daylight's seldom seen!

abc | midi | pdf
Source: Baring-Gould, 1895, A Garland of Country Song, London

This version appeared in Baring-Gould's A Garland of Country Song, 1895; the editor commented:

The Greenland Fishery is a very old song, and exists in several variants. It has been adapted to several captains with their unsuccessful fishings. The earliest Greenland Fishery is the black-letter ballad reprinted in A Collection of Old Ballads, 1725, vol. iii, p. 172, which is in a different metre, and was set to the tune of Hey to the Temple. It is not in ballad metre at all, nor are the incidents the same. Our Greenland Fishery appears as a Catnach ballad, and in The Mavis, Glasgow, circa 1820. It is still reprinted by Mr. Such among his broadsides. The number in his collection is 292. Sometimes the ballad begins:

We may no longer stay on shore,
Since deep we are in debt,
So off to Greenland let us steer,
Some money, boys, to get.

There are more verses than we give, thirteen or fourteen. In The Mavis only nine; in Catnach's broadside the year of the voyage is 1824, and there are twelve verses. So also Such's, which is a mere reproduction of Catnach's. In some versions taken down orally the names of the captain and vessel have been brought in, as:-

John Pagent was the Captain's name,
Our ship the Lion bold;
We weighed our anchor at the stern,
To face the storm and cold;

And the port from which she sails is also mentioned:-

Now when we lay at Liverpool,
Our good-like ship to man,
Then all our names were written down,
And we were bound for cold Greenlan'.

The misadventure of the men in the boat is also varied. The melody is not very original, but pleasant; and it is known throughout England, especially on the sea-coast, and wherever seamen are engaged on the Greenland fishery. The air is always the same.

We have taken down half-a-dozen variants, but the variations are very slight. It is singular that this well-known song should not have found a place in Mr. Kidson's collection from Yorkshire, nor in Mr. Stokoe's from Northumberland, as The Greenland Fishery is certainly well-known in the ports of Hull and Newcastle."

-A Garland of Country Song, 1895; reprinted Llanerch Press, 1998.

Copies of the Catnach broadside referred to can be seen at Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads: Whale Fishery

Editions by other printers:

Greenland [Whale] Fishery

Whale Fishing

In The Everlasting Circle (1960) James Reeves quotes a much longer text from Baring Gould's MS collection. It was noted from R. Gregory at Two Bridges, January 1890. Reeves notes:

In his Garland Baring Gould prints an emended and abridged text. At least two quite different songs with this title appeared on broadsides. No conclusions can be drawn from the date given in stanza 2, which appears to be entirely arbitrary. B-G's printed text, for example, gives "March 20, 1794". A version given by Sharp in Folk Songs from Somerset, III, 1906, gives "March 18, 1861"."

On the subject of date and location, Roy Palmer (Boxing the Compass, 2001, p.171) comments:

The song may well have existed before 1794 but the earliest extant versions begin:

It was in the year of 'ninety four
In March the twentieth day
Our gallant tars their anchor weighed
And for sea they bore away.

It was updated as it continued to be sung, and dates between 1801 and 1901 occur in later texts. Even though Greenland whaling was in steady decline after 1830, largely because of over-fishing, the song continued to be popular, both ashore and afloat... The mention of Liverpool is interesting, for although this was the most important whaling port on the west coast in the late eighteenth century, with twenty-one ships, it declined to only two by the early nineteenth."

See the discussion thread for more information on the dates in the song.

The song has been found quite widely in England, the USA, Canada and Scotland (where it is frequently sung to a different tune).

Roud: 347 (Search Roud index at VWML) Take Six
Laws: K21

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