“Captain James (The Captain's Apprentice)”


(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

Supplemental text

Captain James (The Captain's Apprentice)
  Partial text(s)

          *** A ***

From Helen Creighton, Folksongs from Southern New Brunswick,
#88, p. 185. Collected from William Ireland, Elgin, N. B.

Come all you bold and chief commanders
O'er the foaming billows cruise,
By my sad fate pray take a warning,
All poor seamen don't abuse.

Richard Perry was my servant,
A tall and handsome man was he,
His mother did him a prentice bind
With me to cross the raging sea.

(2 additional stanzas)


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 by Leonard F. Guttridge in _Mutiny: A History of Naval Insurrection_, United States Naval Institute, 1992 (I use the 2002 Berkley edition), 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 woul 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 thretened to flog the last man down. In the scrambling descent three missentopmen 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). 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 (see Lincoln P. Paine, _Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia_ Houghton Mifflin, 1997, 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 sources 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 Samuel Eliot Morison's biography (_John Paul Jones_, p. 17 of the Time-Life edition), 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. - RBW


  • Harry Cox, "Come All You Men Throughout This Nation" (on Voice12)


  1. Huntington-Whalemen, pp. 54-59, "Captain James" (3 texts, 1 tune)
  2. Gardner/Chickering 132, "The Cabin Boy" (1 text)
  3. Creighton-SNewBrunswick 88, "Captain James" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. ST SWMS054 (Partial)
  5. Roud #835
  6. BI, SWMS054


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1768 (Journal from the _Two Brothers_)
Found in: Britain(England(Lond)) US(MW) Canada(Mar)