BURYING THE DEAD HORSE

From Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas
In the days of sail, when sailors signed on to a voyage they were paid a month’s wages in advance. This was spent on clothing and equipment needed for the trip, as well as grog, women and the other necessities of a matelot’s life. Because they had to work this payment off before they were paid again, the first month of the voyage was known as ‘working off the dead horse.’ When the month was over and they began receiving their pay, they might perform a folk play known as ‘Burying the Dead Horse’
… The crew dress up a figure to represent a horse; its body is made out of a barrel, its extremities of hay or straw covered with canvas, the mane and tail of hemp, the eyes of two ginger beer bottles, sometimes filled with phosphorus.  When complete the noble steed is put on a box, covered with a rug, and on the evening of the last day of the month a man gets on to his back, and is drawn all round the ship by his shipmates, to the chanting of the following doggerel:—
BURYING THE DEAD HORSE.
You have come a long long way,
   And we say so, for we know so.
For to be sold upon this day,
   Poor old man.
You are goin’ now to say good-bye,
   And we say so, for we know so.
Poor old horse you’re a goin’ to die,
   Poor Old Man.
Having paraded the decks in order to get an audience, the sale of the horse by auction is announced, and a glib-mouthed man mounts the rostrum and begins to praise the noble animal, giving his pedigree, etc., saying it was a good one to go, for it had gone 6,000 miles in the past month!  The bidding then commences, each bidder being responsible only for the amount of his advance on the last bid.  After the sale the horse and its rider are run up to the yard-arm amidst loud cheers.  Fireworks are let off, the man gets off the horse’s back, and, cutting the rope, lets it fall into the water.  The Requiem is then sung to the same melody.
Now he is dead and will die no more,
   And we say so, for we know so.
Now he is gone and will go no more;
   Poor Old Man.
After this the auctioneer and his clerk proceed to collect the “bids,” and if in your ignorance of auction etiquette you should offer your’s [sic]to the auctioneer, he politely declines it, and refers you to his clerk!
This was how Richard (later Sir) Tangye, bound for Melbourne aboard the Parramattain 1879 recalled the ceremony aboard that ship. (Richard Tangye, Reminiscences of travel in Australia, America, and Egypt, London, 1884).
Amazingly, on the same ship and the same voyage a young man named George Haswell took the trouble to document the sailors’ work shanties. He was a skilled musician and transcribed the words and music of their songs, including the ‘Dead Horse’ ceremony described by Tangye (bottom of first page and top of second page, below, for melody).

(SLNSW)NB: Very early use of ‘folksong’ here, especially in its combined form – yes, you really wanted to know that!)
There are many other accounts of this maritime ceremony, which was extant before 1845. It must have been eerie in a probably empty sea at dusk, as well as enjoyable for crew and passengers. Certainly, all accounts involve alcohol. 
But what did it sound and look like as the crew advanced across the deck chanting and pushing or pulling a horse-shaped structure, sometimes with glowing and occasionally, if the captain allowed, with fireworks? We’ll never know. But we can hear the song in a very nice modern rendition by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.
The Dead Horse ceremony usually took place in one of the ocean regions known as ‘the horse latitudes’. Respectively, 30-35 degrees north of the equator and 30-35 degrees south of the equator, these were areas where the winds often died away, becalming sailing ships. As the legend goes, if a ship was becalmed long enough in one of these regions for the drinking water to run out, any horses (and presumably other livestock) might be thrown overboard to preserve water for the crew. A bit more folklore – might even be true!
Graham Seal

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