Spanish Ladies is the sailors’ farewell and lament as they leave their Spanish sweethearts behind and head home. The song follows their passage up the English Channel and comments on the key nautical features. It’s an old shanty and is one of the most widely covered in folk music circles.
We’re going to look at the history, break down the lyrics, and share our favourite versions of the song. If you’re familiar with the tune and fancy singing it, check out our instrumental karaoke version of Spanish Ladies.
History of Spanish Ladies
This is thought to be one of the oldest shanties. It’s not considered a true shanty by some as it appears to have been sung by the Royal Navy originally. Whereas the shanty is more commonly associated with merchant and whaling ships – being used as a work song.
Continuing somewhat of a theme with these songs… we don’t know its exact origin. According to the Oxford Book of Sea Songs, there was a ballad by the same name registered in 1624. However, this is not the version we all know and love. The book claims the earliest known reference to the shanty version is in the “logbook of the Nellie of 1796”.
An educated guess suggests it’s based on the supply trips the Royal Navy did to Spain during the War of the First Coalition (1793–96). As you would expect during the stressful situation of war, the sailors formed romances and started new families with the women they met in Spain.
You need to remember they were the crew of a military ship. A military operation today would not allow civilian families to tag along except in the most serious of circumstances. It was the same then. This means their Spanish ladies – and possibly new families – were left behind. The song Spanish Ladies likely experienced jumps in popularity as new wars caused the situation to repeat itself.
Spanish Ladies lyrics
Farewell and adieu to you Spanish ladies
Farewell and adieu to you ladies of Spain
For we’ve received orders to sail for old England
But we hope in a short time to see you again
We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors
We’ll rant and we’ll roar all on the salt seas
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of Old England
From Ushant to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues
We hove our ship to with the wind at southwest boys
We hove our ship to, for to strike soundings clear
It’s forty-five fathoms with a white sandy bottom
We squared our main yard and up Channel did steer
Now the first land we sighted, it is called the Deadman
Next Ram Head off Plymouth, then Portland and Wight
We sailed on by Beachy, by Fairlee and Dungeness
Till we came abreast of the South Foreland Light
Then the signal was made for the grand fleet to anchor
All in the Downs that night for to lie
Then it’s stand by your stoppers, see clear your shank-painters
Haul all your clew garnets, let tacks and sheets fly
Now let every man toss off his full bumper
And let every man drink off his full glass
And we’ll drink and be merry and drown melancholy
Singing, here’s a good health to each true-hearted lass
What the lyrics mean
A lot of the words are documenting their progress up the channel.
“Farewell and adieu to you Spanish ladies”
‘Adieu’ is a French word meaning ‘goodbye’. This is the sailors wishing their lovers good wishes before they part.
“Until we strike soundings in the Channel of Old England”
The English Channel is large. It’s too big to reliably sight landmarks and navigate that way. Instead, the crew measure the depth of the water by throwing a long weighted line into the sea – this is the nautical meaning of sound. When they ‘strike soundings’ – hit the bottom – they know they’ve reached the entrance.
“From Ushant to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues”
Ushant is a small French island at the south-western entrance of the English Channel. The Isles of Scilly are a small jump from the most south-western point of Britain. Once they’ve completed that leg of the journey they’re on the home stretch.
A league is a unit of measurement that was supposed to approximate the distance someone could walk in an hour. When used at sea, a league is widely accepted to be 3 nautical miles or 1.8km. So the distance is almost 190km.
“We hove our ship to, for to strike soundings clear”
‘Hove’ is the past tense of ‘heave’. This is when the sails in use are changed to slow or completely stop the ship. ‘Strike soundings’ means they’ve hit the bottom. So they slow the ship to check they’ve reached the desired depth.
“It’s forty-five fathoms with a white sandy bottom”
A fathom is another measurement unit. One fathom is 6ft or 1.8m. The average depth of the ocean is 2080 fathoms. So when the crew measure a depth of 45 fathoms they know they’ve reached shallower water. Assuming they aren’t wildly lost, they know they’ve reached the entrance to the English Channel.
“We squared our main yard and up Channel did steer”
The yard is the mast to which sails are attached. The main yard is a particular mast. The complete phrase means they’ve aligned their sails perpendicular to the ship. It’s done so the wind is pushing the ship directly from behind.
“Till we came abreast of the South Foreland Light”
One of the many locations referenced as they reach it in the song. This one refers to a lighthouse. There’s still a lighthouse there to this day. Although it’s worth pointing out that it’s been rebuilt and undergone significant modernisation.
“All in the Downs that night for to lie”
This is another location that isn’t perhaps obvious. It’s a sheltered area of sea where the English Channel meets the North Sea. Its favourable conditions made it a popular anchorage point. The lyrics are saying the ship went there to anchor for the night.
“Then it’s stand by your stoppers, see clear your shank-painters”
Both of these terms are slang for parts of a ship related to the anchor. It can get a bit technical so we’ll give you the simplified version.
The anchor is kept away from the main body of the ship by a protruding beam called the cathead – you don’t want a huge chunk of metal to damage your ship, right? It usually has a carved lion at the end – perhaps this is where the name comes from?
Bear with me… The ‘stoppers’ refer to a ‘cat-stopper’ which is a chain designed to support the anchor on the cathead. The ‘shank-painters’ are ropes or chains used to secure it in place. It’s named this because the primary vertical bar of an anchor is known as the ‘shank’. And ‘painters’ is the nautical term for fastening ropes.
In short, this line is saying to drop the anchor.
“Haul all your clew garnets, let tacks and sheets fly”
More nautical terminology. ‘Clew’ refers to the lower corner of a sail. ‘Clew garnets’ specifically refers to ropes used to furl – tidily roll – the sails.
‘Tacks’ refers to the “lower, windward corner of a sail” and the ‘sheets’ is used to refer to a rope or chain that lets you adjust a sail. ‘Let fly’ is to drop the sails so they are no longer catching the wind.
So this line is basically saying lower the sails and slow the ship.
“Now let every man toss off his full bumper”
A bumper is a glass that is filled to the brim – so full it’s almost overflowing. Often used in reference to drinks prepared for a toast. ‘Toss off’ means to drink it all.
Best versions of Spanish Ladies
We told you that this song has been around for a long time. As you’d expect it has many versions. There are a few we particularly like.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
This is an awesome take on the song. Instruments add to the impact of this version. Charlotte Cumberbirch has a voice that fits it perfectly. Anyone who’s played Assassins Creed will remember and love it.
As always, Coffin gives us a very authentic sounding version. This is what we imagine the traditional renditions would have sounded like. His voice has a quality that makes the song come alive.
The Longest Johns
A lively and engaging version. You can’t help but want to sing along with them. They have some fantastic harmonies.
Brisbane Ladies is one of the many adaptations of this song. It is a great example of how these songs change and evolve. People take the songs they enjoy and modify them to fit with their own lives. This version was sung by Australian cattle drovers – people who walk animals over long distances.
Very removed from the sea, but an enjoyable version nevertheless.
You’ve learned that Spanish Ladies follows a crew’s journey up the English Channel as they lament leaving their women behind. We discussed the vocabulary and listened to a few fantastic versions. Think we missed a great one? Let us know in the comments.
If you’d like to sing it, why not give our acoustic karaoke version a go?
2 thoughts on “Spanish Ladies: what the song means”
Who could forget the a capella version of this sung by Captain Quint in the film “Jaws”? He repeats the first two verses (and he says they’re sailing “back to Boston”), but it sounds ominous. He sings it whenever he thinks the others are about to do something stupid or possibly fatal. Then he laughs maniacally!
That sounds fab… and I need to go rewatch Jaws. Thank you!