I Saw a Ship A-Sailing is one of the most fun nursery rhymes for kids to learn. Little is known about the origin of the song but there is substantial speculation that it is about Sir Francis Drake, an English admiral during the 16th century, who commanded slave ships and circumnavigated the world in search of treasure. The line from this Mother Goose Rhyme, “The captain was a duck” suggests an identification with the historic sea captain. This source goes on to say “Drake…did introduce many new “comfits” to Elizabethan England. Drake brought potatoes which he thriftily caused to have planted in Lancashire.” There is also a suggestion that the “four-and-twenty white mice with chains about their necks” are slaves.
The white mice appear in some old illustrations actively engaged in activities of the ship, while in others, they appear to be held in bondage. Still, other illustrations omit the mice entirely.
A Ship Went A-Sailing Lyrics
I saw a ship a-sailing,
A-sailing on the sea;
And, oh! It was all laden
With pretty, things for thee!
There were comfits in the cabin,
And apples in the hold;
The sails were made of silk,
And the masts were made of gold.
The four-and-twenty sailors
That stood between the decks,
Were four-and-twenty white mice
With chains about their necks.
The captain was a duck,
With a packet on his back;
And when the ship began to move,
The captain said, “Quack! Quack!