New column: Poem of the day. Yo ho ho!


Hugh Paxton’s Blog has a proud, if not entirely reliable, tradition of launching columns. If bored and have time on your hands some are well worth reading. Some .are a bit out of date. Dope of the Day always worth a glance.

This latest column launch is Poem of the Day. My plan is to select a poem (or it could be lyrics from a song, or excerpts from a speech if it sounds poetic). I then explain a bit about it, and educate everybody. Particularly myself.

I have consulted with the Hugh Paxton Blog editor Robin and we begin with a pirate sea shanty.

And how it came to be.

“Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”

Why 15 men on the Dead Man’s Chest?

That’s what I wondered when I first read this in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure story Treasure Island. Stevenson never explained what the pirates were singing about. I thought the 15 men might be standing on a dead man’s chest. His rib cage. It would have cracked. Or his packing trunk. Or his treasure chest. All ideas seemed unlikely. You can’t get 15 men on any of them.

The real explanation is exceptionally intriguing!

And is brought to us courtesy of Geographical, published by the Royal Geographical Society, by an explorer who says Dead Mans Chest is part of the British Virgin Islands.

In the early 1700s, says Quentin van Marle , the pirate Edward Teach – known as “ Blackbeard ” – punished a mutinous crew by marooning them on Dead Man’s Chest, an island 250 yards square surrounded by high cliffs and without water or landing places.

Each was given a cutlass ( A type of sword designed with a curved blade, better at slicing than longer swords) this and a bottle of rum, and Teach’s hope was that they would kill each other. But when he returned at the end of 30 days he found that 15 had survived.

This would explain in full the verse:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

What did the island look like?

“DeadChest. There is no food on the island,” Mr van Marle says. “It is occupied by pelicans, lizards, non-poisonous snakes – and mosquitoes.”

It has never been developed for tourism because of its inaccessibility.

Dead Chest Island is to the North East of Peter Island. It is described as “eerie and infamous” on a local calendar. Mr van Marle, who discovered the true story by studying local history and folklore, was himself marooned on it in 1969 when he lost his outboard motor while on a scuba trip.

Hugh Paxton’s Blog would like to thank Adrian Berry, who was Science Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. It has been kindly brought to our attention by LJS Trust supporter Barry Wright . Thanks too, to Barry Wright! And, of course, Quentin van Marle.

I want this Poem of the Day to inspire raucous singing (please be noisy and really uncouth), rum (if you drink responsibly – no more than two bottles for breakfast) lots of cutlasses (if you slaughter people humanely).

And if you want to launch a pirate expedition – go ahead! Give the Somali coast a try.

Some sites to browse if you are interested in pirates. Sea shantys. Rum. Etc

Robert Louis Stevenson

Black beard

Songs of the sea


– Hugh Paxton


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