“The Hornet and the Peacock”


"King George says [to the Peacock] 'To America go / The Hornet, the Wasp is the British king's foe.'" However, the Hornet defeats the Peacock: "The Peacock now mortally under her wing / Did feel the full force of the Hornet's sharp sting/"


What seems to be the most widely distributed text of this ballad runs, "The peacock that lived in the land of King George / His feathers were fine and his tail very large / He spread out his wings like a ship in full sail / And prided himself on the size of his tail... The hornet doth tickle the British bird's tail." _Hornet_ and _Wasp_ were American ships.

The battle between U.S.S. _Hornet_ and H.M.S. _Peacock_ was strange. The _Hornet_ was commanded by James Lawrence, a brash young officer barely in his thirties. On February 24, 1812, cruising off Brazil, the 18-gun _Hornet_ spotted H.M.S. _Espiegle_, another 18-gun ship, off Brazil (see Walter R. Borneman, _1812, The War That Forged a Nation_, p. 112).

Before the two ships could engage, another 18-gun brig, H.M.S. _Peacock_, showed up. _Peacock_, unlike _Espiegle_, wanted to fight. It was a bad decision; she had to strike her colors after only a quarter of an hour. And she was so badly damaged that Lawrence quickly abandoned the prize and took off _Peacock's_ crew. (According to Fletcher Pratt, _A Compact History of the United States Navy_, p. 82, the _Peacock_ sank even before the crew could get off. John K. Mahon, _The War of 1812_, p. 123, notes that the only three Americans who died in the battle were drowned on the _Peacock_ as she sank.)

Lawrence's reward was a promotion to full captain. That also meant was due command of a frigate. The frigate he received (Borneman, p. 113) was the ill-fated U.S.S. _Chesapeake_ (for its story, see the notes to "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20]). - RBW

Historical references

  • 1760-1820 - Reign of George III of Britain
  • 1812 - Battle between the U.S.S. Hornet and the H.M.S. Peacock off the coast of South America. The American ship won


  1. Eddy 107, "The Peacock that Lived in the Land of King George" (1 fragment, 1 tune)
  3. Roud #5339
  4. BI, E107


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1939 (Eddy)
Keywords: sea battle
Found in: US(MW)