British whalers of the late 18th century were the first to take up this ballad, but it was soon a favorite with naval and merchant seamen as well. In the early versions the date is somewhere in the 1790s; the ship is the Lion; the commander a Captain Speedicut(t). These details are lost in the American versions....
'Twas in eighteen hundred and fifty-three
And of June the thirteenth day,
That our gallant ship her anchor weighed
And for Greenland bore away, brave boys,
And for greenland bore away.
The lookout in the crosstrees stood
With his spy glass in his hand;
"There's a whale, there's a whale, there's a whale fish!" he cried.
"And she blows at every span, brave boys,
She blows at every span!"
And the captain stood on the quarterdeck,
And a fine little man was he;
"Overhaul, overhaul! Let your davit tackles fall,
And launch your boats for sea, brave boys,
And launch your boats for sea!"
Now the boats were launched and the men aboard,
And the whale was in full view;
Resolved was each seaman bold
To steer where the whale fishes blew, brave boys,
To steer where the whale fishes blew!
We struck that whale and the line paid out,
But she gave a flourish with her tail;
And the boat capsized and four men were drowned,
And we never caught that whale, brave boys,
And we never caught that whale!
"To lose the whale," our captain cried,
"It grieves my heart full sore!
But, oh to lose four gallant men
It grieves me ten times more, brave boys,
It grieves me four times more!"
Oh, Greenland is a dreadful place,
A land that's never green;
Where there's ice and snow, and the whale fishes blow
And the daylight's seldom ever seen, brave boys,
And the daylight's seldom ever seen.