The Dead Horse Song

Taissumani: 2008-02-01

By Kenn Harper

Arctic whalers were a superstitious lot, and had their own rituals that they carried out on board ship, especially en route to the whaling grounds.

There were two regular days of celebration on board a whaler going north. One was the day a ship crossed the Arctic Circle. The other was the first day of May. Sometimes the two ceremonies were rolled into one.

When a ship crossed the Arctic Circle, an initiation ceremony was held for first-time whalers. After breakfast, a garland was placed on the topmast. Then the neophytes were blindfolded, stripped half-naked, and locked in the coalhouse.

Next they were led around the ‘tween-decks, then covered with tar, soot and molasses. This messy concoction was "shaved" off them with an iron hoop from a barrel serving as improvised razor.

They were then asked a series of ritual questions. The reward for a sailor who answered correctly was to have a shaving brush shoved in his mouth. Some reward!

But the real prize was yet to come. After a good dousing with cold water and a scrub, the victims would be offered a shot of rum. Then an impromptu band would strike up a tune – many of the veteran whalers were Orkneymen and many were good musicians, especially on the fiddle. A sing-song and dance would follow – never mind that the whalers were all men.

Another ceremony was The Dead Horse Song, celebrated on whaling ships in the 1800s.

Late in life, Austin Murray, son of the well-known Arctic whaling captain, John Murray – known to the Inuit as Nakungajuq because he was cross-eyed – recounted the ceremony as he had heard it from his father.

"Ordinary sailors got a months ‘advance' when they signed on a ship. This was often spent before they set sail or given to the wife or family. Thus, starting out on a new voyage sailors used to feel that, for the first month, they were working for nothing – ‘working out the dead horse.'

"So on certain ships it was traditional that on the last evening of this first month, at one bell in the second watch, a procession would appear on deck carrying torches and holding the stuffed effigy of a horse made of canvas. Astride this ‘hobby-horse' one of the sailors would dance about waving a whip, or he might be dragged round by the other sailors. This man would be wearing old clothes and a battered tall hat. And there was this song:

"They say old man, your horse will die,
And they say so, and they hope so.
They say old man, your horse will die!
O, poor old horse.
Then if he dies I'll tan your hide,
And they say so, and they hope so.
And if he lives, I'll ride him again,
O, poor old horse.
Old horse, old horse, what brought you here
After carrying sand for many a year
From Bantry Bay to Ballywhack,
Where you fell down and broke your back?
Now, after years of such abuse,
They salt you down for sailors' use;
They tan your hide and burn your bones,
And send you off to Davy Jones.

"And afterwards the ‘hobby horse' would be run up to the lee main yardarm, where a man would be ready with a blue light and a knife. He'd fire the light and cut the rope holding the stuffed hobby-horse, which would plunge down into the sea to big cheers from the whole crew. That was a very old custom."

Austin Murray never visited the Arctic, where his father spent so many years. But he vividly recalled the tales his father had told him of the last days of whaling among the Inuit in Hudson Bay and Davis Strait. It was my privilege to visit Austin Murray in Scotland in late 2003, a few months before his death.

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