My younger son, a senior in high school, mentioned to me a few mornings ago that the newest version of the historical action-adventure video game, Assassins Creed, which is Assassins Creed IV – Black Flag, has a feature that lets you turn sea shanties on or off. It seems that Black Flag focuses on pirates more than assassins. The game is designed so that the game-playing pirate/assassin commands the ship Jackdaw around the Caribbean of the early 1700s. As the player sails from island to island, plundering, capturing ships, and finding treasure, he can also acquire sea shanties that his crew can sing as they sail on their misbegotten adventure.
The sea shanties are causing quite some excitement. In a review in GameZone.com, Mike Splechta reveals what he describes as the “best feature” of the game: ”Sea shanties! These songs that are sung by your crew are collectibles you can acquire through exploration, and having different ones will enable your crew of sailors to burst into song when sailing the sea. Seriously, it’s awesome!” And he is not alone in his enthusiasm. XBox Magazine proclaims: “Singing shanties is as iconic a pirate activity as drinking rum and wearing wooden legs, so of course Assassin’s Creed IV has the option to order your crew to sing as they sail.”
The only problem is that pirates of the early 1700s most assuredly did not sing sea shanties. The word “shanty” or “chantey” did not come into use to describe the songs until around one hundred years later. No doubt, pirates sang for their own entertainment and amusement but they were not the same work songs that merchant sailors would sing a century later when hauling on halyards or stamping around a capstan.
There are two wildly anachronistic shanties from the game on Youtube. One is the Randy Dandy shanty which Stan Hugill in his Shanties From the Seven Seas describes as a “capstan and pump song heard mainly aboard the old Cape Horners.” This would place it toward the end of the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries rather than the early 18th century of the game. The shanty begins, “Now we are ready to sail for the Horn.” There is also a reference to warping the ship through the locks and for sailing to Valparaiso – all references that have nothing whatsoever to do with the lives of pirates in the Caribbean around 1710.
The other shanty associated with the game is “Leave Her Johnnie Leave Her” which was traditionally the last shanty sung before the crew left the ship. The crew’s last job aboard was to pump the ship dry before they went ashore. “Leave Her Johnny Leave Her” was the shanty where they could complain about the captain, the mate the cook or the owner, with no fear of reprisal. A great old shanty, but again, having nothing whatsoever to do with pirates.