Santiana: what the song means

Santiana is a well-known shanty – sometimes known as ‘Plains of Mexico’ due to the line being used repeatedly throughout. But few people actually know what the lyrics mean. We’re going to change that. Get ready to learn all about Santiana.

We’ll dig into the history of the song, break down the lyrics, and share our favourite versions of the shanty. If you’re familiar with the tune and fancy singing it, check out our instrumental karaoke version of Santiana.

History of Santiana

Santiana is a shanty that shows just how much lyrics can change over time. The lyrics are not historically accurate. It loosely discusses historical events but many events have been reinterpreted to make the song better. 

There are several versions available and some of the lyrics are wildly different. This isn’t a surprise. Bored sailors travelling to different locations would get imaginative with the lyrics. Now, this evolution of the lyrics happens with every shanty. But it’s particularly noticeable with Santiana because we have proof of so many versions.

Depending on the version, it’s known by a variety of alternative names: Santy Anna, Santayana, Santiano, Santy Anno, etc. We prefer the lyrics from one of the early sources because it’s what we first heard and it’s stuck. 

So who or what is Santiana? It’s a person. The Mexican politician and General Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón. That’s a bit of a mouthful so he was commonly known as ‘Santa Anna’. His name has been contracted from ‘Santa Anna’ into ‘Santiana’. 

General Santa Anna
General Santa Anna © details on Wikipedia 

The lyrics discuss skirmishes between the armies of Mexico and the US. We’ve already introduced Santa Anna as the General of Mexico’s army. The US army was led by Zachary Taylor. Interestingly both of these men went on to become the president of their respective countries. We’ll discuss the particulars as they’re mentioned in the lyrics.

Santiana lyrics

Oh, Santiana gained the day

Away Santiana

General Taylor run away

Across the plains of Mexico


Well heave her up and away we’ll go

Away Santiana

Heave her up and away we’ll go

Across the plains of Mexico

Oh, Santiana fought for fame

Away Santiana

Oh, Santiana gained a name

Across the plains of Mexico


Oh, Santiana fought for gold

Away Santiana

What deeds he did have oft been told

Across the plains of Mexico


It was a fierce and bitter strife

Away Santiana

Hand to hand they fought for life

Across the plains of Mexico


‘Twas on the field of Molly-Del-Rey

Away Santiana

Santiana lost a leg that day

Across the plains of Mexico


Santiana now we mourn

Away Santiana

We left him buried off Cape Horn

Across the plains of Mexico

What the lyrics mean

“Well heave her up and away we’ll go”

“Heave her up” is a command telling the crew to lift the anchor so that they can get underway.

“Twas on the field of Molly-Del-Rey”

This refers to the Battle of Molino del Rey in 1847. It played an important part in the conflict over Mexico city. The Americans won this battle. However, some versions of the song paint it as a Mexican victory.

This is the first big inaccuracy of our lyrics. Neither of our Generals were at the location of this battle.

“Santiana lost a leg that day”

Next inaccuracy… Santa Anna didn’t lose his leg that day. He’d lost it several years prior during a failed retreat in the Pastry War.

“Santiana now we mourn”

This is our next big falsehood. The song suggests that Santa Anna was killed during the battle – this is false. Although it’s possible this refers to Santa Anna being exiled for 5 years.

As mentioned earlier, he survived and went on to become the president of Mexico.

“We left him buried off Cape Horn”

Cape Horn is the most southern point of South America. In case you thought this was added later as a reference to his actual death… it was not. He lived in Mexico City and died there at the ripe old age of 82.

Best versions of Santiana

We said there are several versions of this song and we meant it. You could listen to variations for days. We want to share a few of our favourite versions of Santiana.

The Longest Johns

This version is probably the most well-known. You’ll note that they’ve changed the lyrics significantly from the original. It’s a catchy wee number. Over time this will likely become the new ‘standard’ lyrics.

El Pony Pisador

This folk metal version also uses different lyrics. It looks like a lot of fun. The song takes on a totally different vibe due to the inclusion of Irish tunes and a large selection of instruments.

SKÁLD & The Longest Johns

An unexpected, but highly appreciated collaboration. This is a fantastic version combining both English and French lyrics. The lyrics are pulled from several sources to create a truly unique version. You’ve got to check it out for Justine Galmiche’s refrain of “Hissez haut! Santiano!” – it’s very powerful!

Final thoughts

You’ve learned that Santiana is about the exploits of General Santa Anna during the Mexican–American war. It’s important to remember this shanty is not historically accurate, although there are several references to historical events. We also shared some of our favourite versions – think we missed a great one? Let us know in the comments.

If you’d like to try singing it, why not give our acoustic karaoke version a go?

3 thoughts on “Santiana: what the song means”

  1. Thanks for sharing! The acapella group Home Free includes a great version of Santiana in their Sea Shanty Medley, if you’re interested.

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