Cecil Sharp's Note 87 (1916)

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No. 87. Admiral Benbow

Chappell (Popular Music of the Olden Time, volume ii, pp. 642 and 678) gives two versions of this ballad. The first of these is entirely different from that given in the text; but the words of the second version, which are taken from Halliwell's Early Naval Ballads of England, are substantially the same, though set to a different air. The air "Marrinys yn Tiger," in Mr. Gill's Manx National Songs (p. 4), is a variant of our tune. Messrs. Kidson and Moffat publish a variant of the first of Chappell's versions in Minstrelsy of England (p. 25) with an instructive note. See also Ashton's Real Sailor Songs (p. 19).

John Benbow (1653–1702) was the son of a tanner at Shrewsbury. He was apprenticed to a butcher, from whose shop he ran away to sea. He entered the navy and rose rapidly to high command. The ballad is concerned with his engagement with the French fleet, under Du Casse, off the West Indies, August 19–24, 1702. The English force consisted of seven ships, of from fifty to seventy guns. Benbow's ship was the Breda. Captain Walton of the Ruby was the only one of his captains to stand by him; the rest shirked. The Ruby was disabled on August 23, and left for Port Royal. Shortly afterwards Benbow's right leg was shattered by a chain shot. After his wound was dressed, he insisted on being carried up to the quarter-deck, as narrated in the ballad. On the following day, his captains, headed by Captain Kirkby of the Defiance, came on board and urged him to discontinue the chase. This they compelled him to do, and he returned to Jamaica, where he at once ordered a court-martial. Captains Kirkby and Wade were sentenced to be shot; Vincent and Fogg were suspended; while Captain Hudson of the Pendennis died before the trial. Kirkby and Wade were executed on board the Bristol, in Plymouth Sound, on April 16, 1703. Admiral Benbow succumbed to his wounds November 4, 1702, at Port Royal, and was buried at Kingston. His portrait is, or was, in the Painted Hall, Greenwich, to which it was presented by George IV. Mr. Ashton states that there is a tradition “that his body was brought to England and buried in Deptford Church.”

It is a little difficult to account for the popularity Benbow excited. Personally brave he certainly was; but he has been described as “an honest rough seaman,” who, it is alleged, treated his inferiors with scant courtesy. Their failure to stand by him in the French fight was, of course, a disgraceful act of cowardice; but it may also be attributed, to some extent, to their want of personal regard for their chief.