From Ushant to Scilly

Spanish Ladies features a hidden tragedy, one that is either expressed ironically or cynically, often within the same context. Traditionally, young ordinary seamen will sing the ironic line unwitting (or feigning innocence). Old salts and officers sing it cynically. The official version pretends nothing is wrong at all.*

It goes like this:

Farewell and adieu to you Spanish fair ladies
Farewell and adieu to you ladies of Spain
For we’ve received orders for to sail to old England
But we hope in a short time to see you again / And we fear we are never to see you again.**

The story goes like this:

Setting: Napoleonic War!

Revolution! Terror! Misery! Sad little singing girls! Everyone was angry in France, and Paris fell to revolution. King Louis XVI went on trial and Austria and Prussia sent word: Harm a hair on poor Louis’ head and we will lay siege to Paris. True to French fashion, the window of death came hurtling down on King Louis, January 21, 1793.

This made every lord and lady in Europe really rather irate. Declarations of war against France sparked off west and east. Anyone who didn’t send one instead received one from France. It made things easier.

Of course the French army was in a bit of disarray at the time, because revolution and inner-strife. So France tried a novel idea — conscription, by which suddenly they had a huge if under-equipped army of angry French lads. Napoleon came up with an idea, attack their armies, steal their supplies. And after a couple of faulty starts, it worked. Soon Napoleon had an army that was massive and well supplied. And then Napoleon went all Napoleon everyone’s mustachioed butt-faces.

The War of the First Coalition was on.

The British Navy in Spain

Notice: The internet is being slow where I’m researching, and no-one is willing to tell me where exactly the British supply line ported in Spain.

Things were going badly in Spain against the French scourge. The English crown didn’t have much in the way of an army to fight the French directly, but they had a spectacular navy. One of their operations was to supply Spain against the French menace. And as a result, many a British tar was stationed at the ports of Spain (Probably A Coruña, Gijón or Pontevedra. Stupid internet.)

As has been tradition and typical of sailors at a port o’ call, the English intermingled with the Spanish. They would be stationed there long enough to fall in love, and in some cases be wed and have children.

Navy Reality Rears Its Ugly Head

As history tells us, le Grande Armée was eventually defeated. Spain hadn’t entirely fallen to the French menace after all. A glorious and happy day.

Well, not so much.

As it was observed by the crown, there were plenty of unruly waves still to be ruled, and English people to be kept free, and Navy life wasn’t just a thing you do before going to college. Everyone was a lifer until they retired (i.e. to Davy Jones’ Locker) …or went pirate. And orders came to our Spanish-settled sailors, that they were to return to England and to duty.

And they weren’t allowed to take wives, children and lovers with them. Because reasons. Because immigration was problematic. Because life sucks for the English rating.

Spanish Ladies chronicles the journey back to the English Channel. And it has this chorus:

We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors,
We’ll rant and we’ll roar across the salt seas
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of old England
From Ushant to Scilly ’tis thirty-five leagues.

Ushant to Scilly is the journey across the English Channel, with the Ushant isle being at the southern end of the crossing, and it’s along this time that the ordinary seamen probably learned that they had probably seen their beloveds for the last time.

The English sense of duty is legendary, much like the immobilizing muds of Normandy or the hyperborean winters of Russia. Strip a tar of his wife and family, and rather than cursing King George (or perhaps while he does — George didn’t care.) he’d fuel his work with his rant and his roar. Every cannon he’d load, every sail he’d secure, every swab of every plank would be driven that much harder by seething rage and smoldering grief for his loved ones abandoned.

God. Save. The King.

* The video suggests this is a Royal Navy version. It’s not. It’s performed by the Robert Shaw Chorale named after Robert Shaw who is not this Robert Shaw, who played Quint in Jaws (1976) and sang a version, exposing my generation to the tune.

** Spanish Ladies is rather old naval traditional. As is expected, it’s been revised and re-purposed countless times, sometimes even losing the bit about Spain and ladies or even sailing. So the words you know may not be the exact same as these.

People in the 21st century who call the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys forget that the (apocryphally) short-guy-with-the-tight-pants and his artillery-supported armies mashed their jackboots against the faces of pretty much everyone else in the early 19th century. Even Russia fell to him, but only for the notorious Russian winter. Before Hitler had his moment as megalomaniac-blitzkrieg-rockstar-of-the-week and before the sun set for the last time on English soil, Monsieur Bonaparte had his way with anyone he pleased and their little sister too. Even Beethoven wrote a symphony about how awesome he was.

As a statesman, Napoleon’s contributions were notable. Granted, he crowned himself emperor (You know, megalomania.) but then he authorized the Napoleonic Code confining even an emperor’s actions to the letter of law.

Different versions suggest the distance to be thirty-four or even forty five leagues. It’s actually 38.732 leagues (187.0 KM) by taking the coordinates (see below) and measuring the distance along the circumference of the Earth. But the distance from Ushant to Scilly had been used as an instrument of maritime law to determine the official length of the league, with the number increased or decreased depending on if the Crown wanted the league shorter or longer respectively. Hence the song may correct, only outdated.

And while I have you here, what is wrong with the internet that I can’t simply get the distance between two geographic locations? Google maps would only tell me traversable routes (by land) and I even got one alleged distance tracker to tell me it was 15,532 KM (3,217 leagues). The scenic route, to be sure.

Eventually I had to grab the Cartesian coordinates for Ushant (48°27′29″N, 5°05′44″W) and the Scilly Islands (49° 56′ 10″ N, 6° 19′ 22″ W) and run them through a geographic computer.

…We’ll drink and be jolly and drown melancholy…

Update: There’s a difference between terrestrial leagues and nautical leagues (just as there’s a difference between common and nautical miles). Wolfram Alpha (which I finally got working) computed the distance as 33.66 UK nautical leagues and 33.68 in US Nautical Leagues because holy crap there’s a whole bunch of standards of measurement. Note that none of these measurements are the same as I reported above.


3 thoughts on “From Ushant to Scilly

  1. Thank you so much for looking into the distances from Ushant to Scilly. Like you I was frustrated by Google Maps but fortunately found your blog page. I’m including it in a handout for a U3A shanty group (more like a class) and attributing it to this page but I don’t know whom to name. If you’d like me to tell group members your name please let me know.


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