“Fetch aft the rum, Darby!”
    The last words of Captain Flint
    -Treasure Island

The original title of this poem was Derelict and written by a Kentucky poet in 1891. Young E. Allison (1853-1932), of Louisville published his long and gory impression of a rhyme from a popular novel of the day in the Louisville Courier-Journal. He promoted Derelict as "a reminiscence of Treasure Island" the adventure novel penned by Robert Louis Stevenson.

As the authors original title points out, the verse is about a ship found adrift at sea. The crew have all done each other in and left behind a ship laden with plunder. The discoverers of this shipwreck of flotsam and jetsam have tossed the dead overboard with a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-thee-well then taken the loot for themselves. By the way Yo heave ho is a seaman’s chant is that was commonly employed to synchronize oar work or hauling activities of the gang crew with everyone working together on the word heave Stevenson liked the rhythmical phrase so much that he turned it into the now familiar Yo ho ho colloquialism.

Young E. Allison was a writer, editor, poet and insurance executive of Louisville, Kentucky. His various works include song lyrics, opera scores, biographical essays, editorials and news stories, historical treatises, articles on insurance topics, speeches, and entertaining sketches. He had a wife, Margaret Tarrant Allison and a son and daughter, Young E. Allison, IV and Margaret Allison Nightingale. One expert Skip Henderson researches and annotates English language sea shanties and maritime music as a hobby. He also volunteers at Hyde St. Pier, in San Francisco for the National Maritime Historic Park Service. Mr. Henderson explains:

    Fifteen Men on the Dead Man's Chest was a poem …describing the fate of the crew on a ship wrecked on the infamous Dead Man's Chest, a reef close to the island of Tortola in the eastern Caribbean, east of Puerto Rico, in the British Virgin Islands. Allison used the lines from Stevenson's Treasure Island story to retell the folk legend. The tune was used by several professional musical organizations recording an approximate melody, most notably the Roger Wagner Chorale on a cassette tape called SEA CHANTIES (RW 029-C). The most accurate tune from the early San Francisco shanty days was performed by A.L.Ekstrom of Sausalito, CA.

During the 1500’s Dead Man's Chest was an island rendezvous in the Caribbean of buccaneers and smugglers and it’s where Stevenson set the scene for Treasure Island. It was while drawing a map with a young boy named Lloyd that Stevenson came up with the idea of writing the novel and whether this was a traditional sea shanty or a fictional creation by Robert Louis Stevenson remains uncertain. The classic story revolves around the relationships of respectful gentlemen and carefree buccaneers. In it Stevenson cleverly refuses to define these opposing moral forces. It was the Stevenson’s pirate ditty that appears in Chapter 1 on page ten of his novel that Allison expanded on:

    "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!"

Stevenson intended the rhyme as a forewarning of the events in his tale. In the novel the sailors sing about a dead man's chest before the adventure has even begun, and almost all of them by the end are quite dead. Good and bad are entwined together and at the heart of it all is the relationship between the dastardly pirate Long John Silver and the novel's honorable young hero, Jim Hawkins. Silver's "two-hundred-year-old" parrot, screeching dead men's words and "Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight" gives Long John his now classic aura of uncertain malevolence.

Stevenson conjures up doubts of fulfillment for many of his characters. The treasure map leads to an empty hole, which becomes figurative of how one can lose their soul in the pursuit of some imagined treasures. Gluttony and senselessness lead only to fatality, failures, and frustration.

Repeated throughout the adventure novel the rhyme remains one of the best-known legacies of Treasure Island. It evokes the sensations of wild glamour associated with pirate’s along with "drink, death, and wickedness." The "bottle of rum" summons ups the perpetual state of drunkenness of Silver's ragged group of rouges and drinking becomes responsible for the "dead men" as the buccaneers’ drunkenness leads to calamity and casualties and their ultimate collapse. The "dead man's chest" is represented in Stevenson’s narrative as both Billy Bones's sea chest and to the dead pirate Flint's hidden upon this "Treasure Island."

Poet Allison creates plenty of violent and gruesome images within his musings of Treasure Island:

    Fifteen men on a 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.
    The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike
    bosun brained with a marlinspike
    And cookey's throat was marked belike
    It had been gripped by fingers ten;
    And there they lay, all good dead men
    Like break o'day in a boozing ken
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

It’s the break of day over what was once a boozing ken or sea tavern on the shores of West Indies island used as a regular hideout by buccaneers during piracy days. Bosun is a spelling variant for a Boatswain and a bosun's pike was a weapon that belonged to this a petty officer who was in charge of hull maintenance and related work. A marlinspike was a long pointy tool handy for untying knots and braining pirates.

    Fifteen men of the whole ship's list
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist!
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    The skipper lay with his nob in gore
    Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore
    And the scullion he was stabbed times four
    And there they lay, and the soggy skies
    Dripped down in up-staring eyes
    In murk sunset and foul sunrise
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

The whole ship's list refers to the muster or list of sailors aboard and the captain’s nob is of course the state of his poor head left by the scullion. A scullion is the cook’s, or in this case, "cookey’s" assistant who did KP duty. After a dark sunset with rain and overcast skies the sun comes up to reveal a fetid sight. Aptly enough the nautical term for foul refers to " piece of equipment that is jammed or entangled, or dirtied." One can just imagine the tangle of bodies lying overnight upon the lifeless deck.

    Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    Ten of the crew had the murder mark!
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead
    Or a yawing hole in a battered head
    And the scuppers' glut with a rotting red
    And there they lay, aye, damn my eyes
    Looking up at paradise
    All souls bound just contrawise
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Ten of the crew had the murder mark! Avast! Out of fifteen men, ten had been branded as killers! Who or what had the temerity to kill these terrible men? A cutlass was a short curving sword used by sailors during the 1500’s on warships and scuppers are the all the drains on deck which is grisly and flooded with blood as it drained down into the bottom of the ship.

    Fifteen men of 'em good and true
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    Ev'ry man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew,
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
    There was chest on chest of Spanish gold
    With a ton of plate in the middle hold
    And the cabins riot of stuff untold,
    And they lay there that took the plum
    With sightless glare and their lips struck dumb
    While we shared all by the rule of thumb,
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

Spanish gold was also called pieces of eight and a ton of plate in this sense means a piece of silver; partly from Old Spanish plata meaning a ton of silver coins. Between 1519 and 1617, when the Calusa Indians were at the height of their trading power, the King of Spain's plate fleets transported millions in New World gold, silver and precious stones.

Jack is a general term for sailor and Old Pew is the only character from Treasure Island that Allison makes a direct comment about. He is an old deformed, blind beggar and apparently a harmless pirate. In Stevenson’s story Pew gives Billy a black spot, an ultimatum to give up the sea chest's contents to the pirate gang. To "place the Black Spot" on another is to sentence him to death, to warn him he is marked for death, or sometimes just to accuse him of a serious crime before other pirates. Billy does indeed breath his last breath soon after Pew's visit, and Pew get killed in a carriage accident. Pew can be seen as an angel of death since he foreshadows many of the pirate deaths in the book.

    More was seen through a sternlight screen...
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
    Chartings undoubt where a woman had been
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
    'Twas a flimsy shift on a bunker cot
    With a dirk slit sheer through the bosom spot
    And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot
    Oh was she wench or some shudderin' maid
    That dared the knife and took the blade
    By God! she had stuff for a plucky jade
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

A jade in this instance is "a flirtatious girl" and this verse is Allison’s acknowledgement of the ancient Grecian myth that women are bad luck on a sailing vessel. The myth has its beginnings in the legends of the Sirens described as huge birds with the heads and voices of women who sang irresistible songs luring sailors and their ships that came near them to their deaths on the rocks off the shores of Sicily. The only man to ever hear their songs and survive was the Greek hero Odysseus who had his men lash him to the mast of his ship to prevent him from jumping to his death.

    Fifteen men on a 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.
    We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight
    With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight
    And we heaved 'em over and out of sight,
    With a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-you-well
    And a sudden plunge in the sullen swell
    Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell,
    Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

A hawser is a large rope for towing, mooring, or securing a ship and the poet ends his grim tale with a rather fitting burial at sea, wrapped in sail cloth and bound with rope and, like Stevenson moral seems to say, it doesn’t matter what kind of intentions one paves the road with it still leads to the same place.

Out of these two productions has sprung the well known idiom "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!" and popular consciousness had re=titled Allison’s poem to Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest. Other variations on the title are "Bottle of Rum," "Fifteen Men," and "Dead Man's Chest." Author and pirate enthusiast Kage Baker tells more about how Allison’s poem has made its way into the mainstream:

    Stevenson only ever wrote the fragment above. In 1900, a sometime librettist from Kentucky named Young Allison wrote a bloodcurdling long version titled "The Derelict" for a musical version of Treasure Island. The composer was one Henry Waller, about whom I have been able to find out only that he was an American, that he studied under Dvorak, and that he collaborated with Allison on several more musicals and composed at least one opera before vanishing like a shadow into obscurity…

    It's never quite the same from one film to another. The Wallace Beery/ Jackie Cooper version(s) (1934 and 1950) differs by a few notes from the one used in the Robert Newton TV series (1955). The Jolly Rogers recorded a rip-roaring version of "The Derelict" with another tune variation. Possibly this is to avoid paying royalties, or simply artistic liberty?

And the beat goes on in the 1985 song Jockey Full Of Bourbon adding one man to this dead man’s tale with the line "Sixteen men on a dead man's chest..."

Young Ewing Allison added his gruesome lyrics in 1891, and a Broadway musical version of Treasure Island opened in 1901 with an extended version of the song credited to Allison and Henry Waller. There is a a scan of the 1901 lyrics broadsheet at the Bounding Main website. In 1967 writers for Walt Disney, Xavier Atencio and George Bruns merged the song and story into the ever-popular sea ditty Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me). Anyone who’s ever traversed the Pirates of the Caribbean ride has heard the tune that retells Stevenson’s saga, what thrilling memories it conjures up to hear "Dead Men Tell No Tales!" as an Ahoy there! homage to the Derelict and Treasure Island. Here’s to three generations and more to come of legends about pirates that went "Arrr" and "Yo Ho Ho!"

Many thanks to Pseudo_Intellectual who contributed several ideas and sources for an update on July 19,2005.


Allison (Young Ewing) Papers, 1878-1943:
digilib.kyvl.org/dynaweb/oak/kntead/knt000095/ @Generic__BookTextView/178
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Bounding Main -- Sea Shanties and Songs of the Sea -- The ... :
Accessed Jun 26 2003

ClassicNotes: Treasure Island Character List:
www.classicnote.com/ClassicNotes/ Titles/treasure/charlist.html
Jun 26 2003

Fifteen Men:
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Jockey(1) Full Of Bourbon :
www.keeslau.com/TomWaitsSupplement/Lyrics/ Raindogs/Jockeyfullofbourbon-ub.htm
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Modern Drunkard Index:
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Night Shade Books Discussion Area: Baker, Kage: A contest for musicologists.
Google cache retrieved on Nov 18, 2004:
Accessed July 19,2005

Public domain text taken from ...And a Bottle of Captain Morgan!:
Accessed Jun 26 2003

Accessed Jun 26 2003

Yo Ho Ho:
Accessed Jun 26 2003

CST Approved.

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