Rollin’ Down to Old Maui

Spending more time at the Michael White Adobe has me thinkin’ about lots of stuff, and one of the things that I think about is how to tell the story of his life in such a way that kids don’t think that it’s an advanced form of torture. Plus, it’s an exciting true story with a lot of action and adventure – it doesn’t “need” to be boring!

For example, at the age of 13 (around 1815), our boy, Michael Claringbud White was apprenticed on a whaling ship, the “Perseverance.” So you can see why he eventually changed his name to Miguel Maria Blanco – he was provoked!

In 1817, he was stranded in San Jose del Cabo, in Baja, which is a story I’d like to know more about. And then, from 1817 to 1829 he made several trips between the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and California. 

The song “Rollin’ Down to Old Maui” is a real oldie about whalers dividing their time between hard duty on the Kamchatka Sea and the relatively good times they had in Hawaii. The song has been changed over the years, and some versions are more PG-13 than others. The earliest written version (that anyone knows about) dates from 1858 and it is tempting to think of Michael White, Joseph Chapman, and other whalemen singing a precursor to the song we know now.  

Don’t get me wrong – I think killing whales is completely barbaric and I don’t condone it for any reason any more than I’d give a thumbs up to slavery. Historic wrong is still wrong. But you do have to understand the context and Michael White killed whales in an era when whale oil was used for all sorts of stuff like petroleum oil is today.

Here’s a nice a cappella version performed by Blue of a Kind. I tend to like it at double time with musical accompaniment, but this one had the cleanest recording and no camera work that mimicked being on the high seas during a storm.  Personally, I like a cover of this ol’ chanty done by a bunch of scurvy dogs called the “Poxy Boggarts” from a CD of theirs called “Lager Than Life”, which contains some fun drinking songs and such.  I sing it myself with much gusto in the shower. . .

It’s a damned tough life, full of toil and strife
We whalermen undergo.
And we don’t give a damn when the gale has stopped
How hard the wind did blow.
We’re homeward bound! ‘Tis a grand old sound
On a good ship taut and free,
And we don’t give a damn when we drink our rum
With the girls on old Maui.

Rolling down to old Maui, my boys,
Rolling down to old Maui.
We’re homeward bound from the arctic ground
Rolling home to old Maui.

Once more we sail with a northerly gale
Through the ice and sleet and rain.
And them coconut fronds in them tropic lands
We soon shall see again.
Six hellish months we’ve passed away
In the cold Kamchatka sea,
And now we’re bound from the arctic ground,
Rolling down to old Maui.

We’ll heave the lead where old Diamondhead
Looms up on old Wahoo.
Our mast and yards are sheathed with ice
And our decks are hid from view.
The horrid tiles of the sea-cut ice
That deck the Arctic Sea
Are miles behind in the frozen wind
Since we steered for old Maui.

How soft the breeze of the tropic seas
Now the ice is far astern,
And them native maids in them island glades
Are awaiting our return.
Even now their big black eyes look out
Hoping some fine day to see
Our baggy sails running ‘fore the gales
Rolling down to old Maui.

And now we sail with a favoring gale
Towards our island home.
Our mainmast sprung, our whaling done,
And we ain’t got far to roam.
Our stuns’l booms are carried away
What care we for that sound?
A living gale is after us,
Thank God we’re homeward bound!

If you haven’t read this book, it is absolutely the best account I know of about the hardships faced by whaling crews. It has it all: vengeful whales, shipwrecks, cannibalism, unlucky sea captains, psychotic first mates… And it’s a true story. 


~ by ravenjake on December 4, 2009.

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