Poets of John Company/A Note on "Starboard Watch, Ahoy!"

A Note on "Starboard Watch, Ahoy!"

James Silk Buckingham (1786–1855), whose song is reproduced on page 43, was one of the pioneers of Anglo-Indian journalism. He came to India in 1815; and three years later he started the Calcutta Journal. His attacks on Government resulted in his deportation in 1823. He became Member of Parliament for Sheffield (1832–37), and successfully conducted a case against the East India Company, compelling the grant of a pension of £200 as compensation for his deportation and the loss of his journal. He began life as a sailor; and when serving on the West Indian route, he had the following curious experience related in his autobiography from which originated his popular song:

"I felt it my duty to remain on deck all night, keeping three watches in succession instead of one, and that too after a most fatiguing day in getting the ship fairly out of port. My fatigue was such as to reduce me almost to a state of insensibility; though, when the morning broke upon us, and I heard the welcome sound of "Starboard watch, ahoy!"—the summons for relief from the duty of the deck—I seemed to feel a thrill of delight which gave me new life, though for a few moments only. And here I must record a singular psychological fact, unique in my own experience, though since appearing to me, from what I have seen in others, to partake of the nature of a short mesmeric trance.

The log slate was brought to me by the boy entrusted with this duty, to enter the course and distance steered, and the usual remarks of the watch for subsequent entry into the regular log book of the ship. I was then seated in my own berth, intending to turn in and get some rest: and I sat with my pea-jacket still on, and wet to the skin from the constant squalls of wind and rain during the night. I made the proper entries with the pencil and fell asleep seated on the chest in my berth, with the slate in my hand: and four hours afterwards, when it was my turn to be on deck, I was found in that position, sleeping almost as heavily as death. Being roused by constant shaking, I changed my wet clothes and went on deck to resume my duty.

It is customary at sea for the log slate to be handed to the officer who has charge of the log book to transfer the entries from the one to the other; after which the slate has to be cleaned and hung up in its usual place under the companion hatchway for the entries of the ensuing watch. When the second officer had made his entries therefore, he cleaned that side of the slate, but on turning to the other, he found some verses there, which he knew to be in my handwriting, and he brought the slate to me, to know whether this might be cleaned off also. I was perfectly amazed at what I saw; the writing was certainly mine: and the words forming the heading of the verses, "Starboard watch, ahoy!" I well remembered as having caused me a thrill of inexpressible delight; but of the lines that followed, I had not the most distant recollection. They had emanated, it was clear, from my brain, and expressed no doubt the genuine feelings of the moment: but I was as utterly unconscious of their being written by me, as a clairvoyant in a mesmeric trance is of what has been said and uttered during its existence, after he has been awakened from it. The lines, however, were copied by me from the slate, on paper, and when shown, after our return to England, to Mr. Dale, a music-seller in the Poultry, he thought they would become popular as a sea-song if set to music. He accordingly engaged Mr. Charles Horn, then a rising young composer, to execute this task. It was published by Mr. Dale,—had a good run,—was sung at several places of public entertainment,—and from a printed copy of the words and music now in my possession, I am able to present the following version of this unconsciously written effusion.