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Lot 224

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American Sailor Tells of Escape from French Prison in the Caribbean in Song that Became Popular with Sailors

In this songsheet published in Boston, probably in the 1820s, P. Russell tells of the exploits of “Bold Dighton” in leading a group of British and American prisoners to commandeer a ship and flee their French captors on Guadeloupe. After escaping at night aboard the Tiger, the sailors had an artillery duel with French sailors on the Lion. After defeating the French in hand-to-hand combat, they returned the French survivors to Guadeloupe on board the Tiger and continued on to British-held Antigua on the Lion.

[NAPOLEONIC WARS.] Printed Document, Song Sheet of P. Russell, “Bold Dighton.” Boston: Leonard Deming, ca. 1808-1830. 1 p., 7.25ʺ x 9.5ʺ.  Accompanied by a Typed Letter Signed, on Department of the Navy letterhead, by Edward M. Furgol, Curator of the U.S. Navy Museum, May 4, 2005, 1 p., 8.5" x 11", in response to an inquiry concerning a naval action in 1805; and a hand-colored lithograph by L. N. Rosenthal of a painting illustrating the uniform of an “Officer of U.S. Marines” worn in 1819. Philadelphia: Charles Desilver, ca. 1850s.


Bold Dighton. Being the account of an action fought off Guadaloupe, in 1805, where ninety-five Americans and near three hundred Britons made their escape from the prison at that place.

A gallant young hero, form [from] St. Louch he came,
Both generous and wealthy, call’d Dighton by name;
He’d the heart of a lion, the soul of a Prince,
And friendship’s kind impulse to us did evince.

Says he, my bold seamen, now take my advice,
If you will prove constant, ’tis done in a trice;
’Tis down by yon pier, the Tiger does lay,
A staunch, good, sound corsair, that’s fit for the sea.

And now from all dangers we thought ourselves clear,
But for this mistake we all paid very dear;
When daylight came on, ’twas when we espied,
The Lion, a corvette, bearing down alongside.

To board and to slaughter they were fully bent,
To give us no quarters it was their intent;
To board us, thrice over they tried, with this view,
But they were repuls’d by the Tiger’s brave crew.

Three hundred bold men were now slain of their crew,
When the Frenchmen gave up, & they cried out Mon Dieu!
They fell on their knees, and their weapons let fall,
And on our bold heroes for quarters did call.

To conduct the French back, we the tiger then gave,
For seamen, though valiant, are generous as brave;
’Twas down for Antigua, with our corvette we bore,
And on the next morning, we all jump’d on shore.

And as for bold Dighton, our true gallant friend,
May honour pursue him, and glory attend;
And when he does die, then bold seamen draw near,
And kneel at his tomb-stone, and let fall a tear.

Historical Background:

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French retained two major naval bases in the Caribbean, Guadeloupe and Martinique. The British seized Guadeloupe in 1794 in the wake of the French Revolution, but the French retook the island and abolished slavery. In 1802, the First French Empire reinstated the pre-revolutionary government and reestablished slavery, leading to a slave rebellion led by Louis Delgrès. When the rebellion failed, Delgrès and several hundred followers committed mass suicide by exploding their gunpowder stores.

During the War of the Third Coalition between France and its colonies and client states on one side and Great Britain, Russia, and Austria on the other, Guadeloupe served as a base for French privateers who preyed on British and American shipping, though the United States was a neutral nation during the conflict. The island also held British and American sailors captured by both the French navy and privateers. In a June 20, 1805, letter, Captain David G. Gillers of the American ship Daphne described his capture by a privateer and transport to Guadeloupe, where “immediately on our arrival we were put into the common prison, among mad men, witches, murderers, and people of every description: we were deprived of all communication with the Americans in this port and God only knows what will be the result of the unfortunate business.... The prison we are confined in, is too bad for any christian to be in; we are by far worse used than the English sailors, and I see no prospect at present to alter for better.”

These lyrics, written by P. Russell, celebrate the escape of some three hundred British and nearly one hundred American sailors from Guadeloupe under the command of Dighton. Earlier editions have the title, “The Escape from Basseterre.” According to an earlier printing, Russell was second in command to Dighton and was wounded twice in the escape. He composed these lyrics “while lying in Irons in the Moro Castle [Cuba].” It was to be sung to the tune, “Paul Jones.” “Bold Dighton” became a popular sea chanty of American sailors.

Leonard Deming (ca. 1787-1853) was a publisher and bookseller in Boston, Massachusetts, and Middlebury, Vermont. He published a variety of song sheets in the 1820s.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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