History of the Drunken Sailor Sea Shanty
There is something about sailing the open seas that comes with the stereotype of being a rum-soaked scalawag.
One of the most popular sea shanties of all time is that which we’ve come to know as “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?”
The original music reportedly comes from an Irish tune called ‘Oró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile,’ which means “Óró, you are welcome home.”
The song’s lore dates back to the early 1800s, but references are scant. Its chorus, however, is referenced in some whaling ship records out of New London, Connecticut, in 1839, according to Financial Times.
It’s easy to understand why seafarers are so often associated with excessive spirit consumption. Before filtration and modern-day water storage aboard ships, it was much easier to keep alcohol as the main source of potable liquid.
The U.S. Navy indeed had a long history with drink on its vessels before its prohibition over 100 years ago.
On March 27, 1794, Congress enacted a daily drink ration, which included “one half-pint of distilled spirits” or “one quart of beer.”
After that, limits on alcohol increased until finally the U.S. Navy banned it on July 1, 1914, under General Order 99. The regulation stated, “The use or introduction for drinking purposes of alcoholic liquors on board any naval vessel, or within any navy yard or station, is strictly prohibited, and commanding officers will be held directly responsible for the enforcement of this order.”
However, American sailors have had dalliances with drunkenness since — typically at port.
For example, U.S. sailors stationed in Japan were also banned from drinking in the country, on- or off-base, after a sailor was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving on the island of Okinawa in 2016. Restrictions were eased shortly after, limiting drinking to on-base only.
In Iceland in 2018, a couple thousand U.S. sailors and Marines drank the entire beer supply of the capital city of Reykjavík while stationed there on a NATO mission.
So what do you do with a drunken sailor?
According to the song, there are several things you can do with a drunken sailor: Shave his belly with a rusty razor, put him in a long boat ‘til he’s sober, stick him in the scupper with a hosepipe on him, or put him in the bed with the captain’s daughter.
Whether or not the U.S. Navy has every utilized any of these methods of punishment is not known. However, any captain who found a drunken sailor in bed with his daughter is likely to turn to the bottle himself.
Originally published on Military Times, our sister publication.