This is actually a folk song and, like so many such songs, it has been tailored to suit the part of the country it is sung in. It is believed to have been written originally as a dialect song by Lancashire born Johnny Greenwood in 1870. Versions derived from this often bear little resemblance to the original; verbal transmission, i.e. the ‘folk process’, having taken effect.
It is a parody about the perils of life aboard a canal barge. Canal boaters/singers often altered the locations from the Rochdale Canal original and the story became increasingly more absurd. This version, set on the Teign, is no exception!
Where the name “Calabar” comes from is not clear but one potential source is the port in Nigeria. Calabar was named by the Spanish and during the era of the Atlantic slave trade it became a major port in the transportation of African slaves. By the 18th century, most slave ships that carried slaves from Calabar were English, with around 85% of these ships being owned by Bristol and Liverpool merchants.
Thanks to Ian Marshall for pointing me in the direction of this background information and for providing the soundclip of him singing the song with Cyril Tawney, from which I was able to transcribe the lyrics. I have added the last verse which appears in a number of other versions and seems to tie up the end of the story neatly.
For more information check out: Songs from Devon
The Cruise of The Calabar
Come all ye dry-land sailors bold and listen unto my song
There are but forty verses so it won’t detain you long.
It’s all about the history of this here British tar.
Who shipped as a man before the mast on board the Calabar.
The Calabar was a clipper flat, copper-fastened before and aft
Her rudder stuck away out behind, her wheel was a great big shaft
With a swelling gale to fill each sail she’d make two knots an hour
The smartest craft on the whole canal though only one horse power.
Her capn was a strapping lad, he stood about four foot two
His eyes were black, his nose was red and his cheeks were Prussian blue
He wore a leather medal that he’d won in the Crimea war
And his wife was pilot and passenger’s cook on board the Calabar.
Our vessel ploughed the waters of the Teignmouth to Newton canal
All under close three topsails for the glass foretold a squall
‘Twas in old Salty pool me lads we was beaten about the surf
All bound for the port of Newton with a cargo of Dartmoor turf.
We started off with a favouring gale, the weather was all sublime
We were just a-passing the Teignmouth bridge where you can’t pass two at a time
We were struck midships by another flat which gave us a serious check
She stove in our larboard paddle-box and destroyed our hurricane deck
While hugging the shore near Netherton Point, a very dangerous spot
We ran down onto a cobb of coal that wasn’t marked down on the chart
So to keep the ship from sinking and to save each precious life
We threw the cargo overboard, including the captain’s wife.
And all was great confusion while the stormy winds did blow
The bosun slipped on an orange peel and he fell in the hold below
A piratical joke the captain cried and on us she doth gain
Next time I go to Newton me-boys b’jaggers I’ll go by train
We got our arms all ready for to meet the coming foe
Our grappling arms, our boarding pikes, our Armstrong guns also
Unfurl all sail the captain cried for we are sorely pressed
But the engineer replied from the back that the ‘orse was doing his best
The ship came past, the heroes fell and gallons of blood were spilt
And many fell before they were touched to make sure they wouldn’t be killed
And when the enemy struck her flag, the crew being laid on their backs
We found that she was a sister ship with a cargo of cobbler’s wax.
The ship is in the marine store now; the crew in the county jail
And I’m the only survivor left to tell the terrible tale
But if I could release that ship, I’d sail her off afar
And admiral be of a blooming fleet on the fighting Calabar