EdRLS

The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

On Board the Old Equator

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This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.

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Summary: In this post, John F. Russell argues that the comic song “I’ll sing you a tale of a tropical sea” was not composed by Fanny Stevenson and Lloyd but by Stevenson himself; he explains some of its allusions, and links it to the music for Thomas Moore’s “Believe me, if all those endearing young charms”.

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A storm at sea

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The Equator (From MacCallum, Thomson Murray. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934)

 

Sometime between the 4th and 11th of November, 1889, the schooner Equator, all sails standing, was becalmed in the South Pacific a few hundred miles south of Butaritari. The Stevensons were asleep in their specially fitted stateroom when a sudden squall tore off the schooner’s fore topmast, ripped the sail, tipped the Equator on its side and threw Louis and Fanny against the wall.

No one was hurt and the ship was soon righted, but RLS was so impressed that he wrote two poems and two letters about the event. On approaching Samoa a couple of weeks later, he rather calmly told his mother:

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The next day and fifty miles farther south he recalled the incident with a little more excitement:

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To further commemorate Mrs. Stevenson’s “bearing up wonderfully,” he wrote the poem To My Wife, where the last stanza recalls the storm:
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Songs of Travel XXXIV

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Finally, he satirized the event in some unpublished lyrics used as an entertainment for his shipboard birthday celebration on November 13th. He had already written ‘Tis Years Since He Was Born for fellow passenger Adolf Rick’s birthday on the 12th.

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Huntington Library, Rare Book 45074

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The complete lyrics read:

I’ll sing you a tale of a tropical sea,
On board of the old Equator.
There never were passengers better than we,
On board of the old Equator.

Chorus:
Captain, darling, where has your topmast gone pray?
Captain, darling, where has your topmast gone?

Of chequers the captain did blow and boast,
On board of the old Equator.
The passengers did him as brown as a roast,
On board of the old Equator.

Chorus

In Santo Pedro was our delight,
On board of the old Equator.
When bobbery struck us along in the night,
On board of the old Equator.

Chorus

The captain he ran from a fifteen hand,
On board of the old Equator.
I’ll be damned if that old jib-topsail will stand,
On board of the old Equator.

Chorus

The sail was the rotteness’d ever was bent,
On board of the old Equator.
But blamed if it wasn’t the stick that went,
On board of the old Equator.

Chorus

The captain he turned to the mate, and he laughed,
On board of the old Equator.
I guess you are learning some sailor craft,
On board of the old Equator.

Chorus

There’s one thing you know at the least and the last,
On board of the old Equator.
You know how to lose a fore-topmast
On board of the old Equator.

Chorus

Some of these lyrics may benefit from an attempt at explanation.

  • There never were passengers better than we

 According to the Equator’s 20 year old novice cook Thomson Murray MacCallum (1869-1957), “Quite a few changes were made in the cabin … for the accommodation of the passengers,” including extra bunks and other conveniences. These changes were necessary because the Equator was a copra trading schooner, not a cruise ship. The Stevensons were its first real passengers and therefore there were none better.

  • In Santo Pedro was our delight,
    On board of the old Equator.
    When bobbery struck us along in the night,    

 The sense of the stanza is that the storm struck at night while they were near Santo Pedro.

San Pedro (Motane, Moho Tani) is an island which RLS visited on the Casco in August of the previous year. In the Marquesas section of In the South Seas he writes, “I was amazed to behold so deep a view behind, and so high a shoulder of blue sea, crowned by the whale-like island of Motane.”

In his letter to his mother, Stevenson said they left Butaritari Island in the Gilberts on November 4th and that the storm occurred after this and before his and fellow passenger Adolf Rick’s birthdays on the 12th and 13th. The storm must then have occurred within a week’s sailing distance, or around 300 miles from Butaritari.

Since San Pedro Island is in the Marquesas thousands of miles away and the storm occurred in the Gilberts, RLS must have been mistaken about the name. According to the British Hydrographic Office‘s The Pacific Islands (1885) there is no island in the Gilberts called Santo (or San) Pedro. Perhaps because this one Spanish name stood out among so many Polynesian ones, he confused it with Peru Island, 378 miles from Butaritari. This may be where the storm actually occurred.

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  • The captain he ran from a fifteen hand,    

 Because it was night, everyone except the watch was probably sleeping when the storm hit. Stevenson says there were 15 men and one woman (Fanny) on the boat. The captain, then, ran from where the men were sleeping to save the ship. If the letter “a” is actually the Scots word for “all,” this may be some small evidence for Stevenson’s authorship.

Celebrating the Storm

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Thomson Murray MacCallum recalled Stevenson’s birthday celebration in his book Adrift in the South Seas (1934):

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Fellow passenger Paul Leonard, also known as Paul Höflich, described the same storm and celebration in Nellie Sanchez’s The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson (1920):
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On the day of the party, Lloyd photographed the participants. Wearing a hat with a band, Fanny sits to the left of Scotch-Irish Captain Edwin Dennis Reid (1865?-1920) in a Tam O’Shanter. RLS stands at the far left.

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MacCallum, T.M. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934

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Considering that Stevenson had already expressed himself multiple times in poetry and prose regarding the squall, it seems most likely that he also wrote On Board of the Old Equator, especially since he had just written lyrics for Adolf Rick’s birthday. Neither Fanny nor Lloyd ever published any verse.

One particular word in the third stanza of the song reinforces Stevenson’s authorship. In Booth-Mehew letter 2153 from Honolulu around April 2, 1889 to Edward Burlingame, RLS asks him to send 11 novels of Frederick Marryat. Stevenson first mentions Marryat in Booth-Mehew letter 849 (September 1881) and then in letter 1733 (Dec. 23, 1886) where he quotes from Mr. Midshipman Easy. Marryat uses the unusual word “bobbery [hubbub]” in Midshipman Easy and also in two other works Stevenson requested, Peter Simple and Newton Forster.

In a letter to Colvin as recent as the previous January Stevenson wrote:

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He uses the same word again in a letter to Colvin two years later:

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Neither Lloyd nor Fanny appears to use the word in any of their works.

Other Darlings

Both MacCallum and Leonard claimed that On Board of the Old Equator was written by Fanny and Lloyd and at first the words of the chorus appear to favor Fanny.

Captain, darling, where has your topmast gone pray?
Captain, darling, where has your topmast gone?

It seems appropriate only for Fanny to call the captain “darling.” The lyrics never refer to RLS in any way, so she was not addressing him, even though MacCallum and Leonard called it a birthday song.

After Fanny and Louis had been thrown against the wall, Stevenson asked Murray MacCallum to give a message to the Captain.

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MacCallum, T.M. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934

MacCallum, T.M. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934

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If the Captain was on familiar enough terms with Stevenson to give him his “love,” perhaps Stevenson might also call him “darling” for fun in return. RLS stated his affection for Captain Reid in A Footnote to History (1895):

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However, it may be more accurate to treat the term “darling” as a surname rather than an endearment. Throughout the centuries there has been no lack of Captain Darlings, but one in particular could easily have been familiar both to Stevenson and Reid.

Built in Glasgow, the intriguingly named barque Edinburgh Castle was launched in 1863. The last captain of this 175 ft., 627 ton, three-masted, iron-hulled ship was J.B. Darling. The California Digital Newspaper Collection records it’s presence at San Francisco multiple times after 1872. Of course RLS was in that city in 1880 and 1888, and the Equator itself was built for the San Francisco based Wightman Brothers in 1888 with Reid as its first captain. The Edinburgh Castle and Captain Darling may have come to the attention of Reid and Stevenson by the fact that on January 15th, 1888 it was stranded in the harbor at Warnambool, Australia and wrecked there by a storm.

It should also be noted that by 1888 the boys’ adventure novelist Frank H. Converse (1843-1889) had already written two works with the suspiciously familiar titles Island Treasure and In Southern Seas. The last featured a character called Captain John Darling.

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Golden Argosy. New York, Saturday, June 11, 1887

Golden Argosy. New York, Saturday, June 11, 1887

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In another story by Converse, Darling is described as being in the same business as Captain Reid.

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Finally, in an article about the Equator by MacCallum in Robert Louis Stevenson: Interviews and Recollections (1996), “Captain Darling” is printed as if it were a proper name.

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Young and Old Charmers

Murray MacCallum said On Board of the Old Equator was written to the melody of a popular song and that Lloyd sang it. Paul Leonard said he joined in the singing. However no one ever actually names the tune.

There is no obvious clue to the music in Stevenson’s lyrics, but an examination of the more than 120 manuscript copies of his own compositions, arrangements and favorite tunes provides one match which requires only, as RLS said of Alan’s Air in Catriona, “a little humouring to the notes in question.”

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Princeton University Library, Morris L. Parrish Collection, Box/Series/Folder/Thesis #: Bd MSS 113, 114, Code/Call Number #: C0171 1B

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New lyrics are often supplied to old songs to take advantage of the irony that results from the contrast, and On Board of the Old Equator is no exception. The music among Stevenson’s manuscripts that best fits “I’ll sing you a tale of a tropical sea” is “Believe me”, a transcription of the traditional melody normally associated with Thomas Moore’s very different lyric “Believe me, if all those endearing young charms”.

According to the Historic American Engineering Record of the United States National Park Service, the 78 foot, 72 ton schooner Equator entered the South Pacific copra trade in June 1888 under 23 year old Captain Edwin Dennis Reid, so when Stevenson began his journey from Hawaii on June 24, 1889 the boat had been in the water for only a year and hardly deserved to be called “old.”

Reading the lyrics while keeping Captain Reid, the Equator or RLS in mind, it is an appropriately ironic song for a 39th birthday, a damaged new schooner and a very young captain.

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This image of Thomas Moore’s (1779-1852) lyrics was scanned from the 1872 edition of his Poetical Works, which RLS owned, according to the Stevenson’s Library Db. The melody sung with Stevenson’s lyrics can be heard by clicking here.

After its six month Pacific cruise with the Stevensons, the Equator went through many metamorphoses. In 1897 it was converted to a steam tender for work in the Alaskan salmon trade, and then became a tugboat for charting underwater hazards in southeastern Alaska in 1915.

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MacCallum, T.M. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934

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In 1923 it ran aground and sank off the Washington coast but was refloated. It was converted to diesel in 1940, and in 1956 after 68 years of service it was finally abandoned near the mouth of the Snohomish River at Everett, Washington. In 1967 it was hauled out and in 1980 moved to the Port of Everett in Washington State.

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The endearing young charms of the old Equator clearly have faded away but must still be dear to our memory of Stevenson.

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