We’re bound for the Rio Grande

The lively young pupil who has been taught in a way that makes connections will feel a thrill at recognising names like the above—which is more of a predication than a name, and it is used of several rivers.

One such pupil saw the name, and connected it with an item he had seen in a book of sea shanties in in his parents’ bookcase:

Oh say was you ever down Rio Grande?
Away for Rio!
‘Tis there that the river rolls down golden sand
And we’re bound for the Rio Grande!

And away, boys, away!
Away for Rio!
‘Tis fare ye well, ye Liverpool girls,
For we’re bound for the Rio Grande!

Our ship went a-sailing right over the Bar,
Away for Rio!
We pointed our bow to the Southern Star,
And we’re bound for the Rio Grande!….etc

This pupil’s original questions had been:

  • Why does the of rivus get left out in the Spanish and Portuguese rio?
  • Why does Italian keep flumen as fiume, but the French and Romanians as their normal word prefer fleuve and fluviul from fluvius?
  • Why in Venice is a small canal called a rio?

These were questions to which I could give no immediate response. He then had two more, to which, with some checking, I could give partial answers:

Q. What exactly is a sea shanty?

A. A song sung to sailors—who sang the refrain—to help them rhythmically with the arduous labours of the capstan and the hauling of the sheets. There are many different versions of them, some impolite, but they were not composed for public performance, or for public knowledge, or for women to hear. A great many originate in Liverpool, from the days of the regular runs from that port, especially to New York—where Liverpool ships had precedence—, to Rio Grande, and to San Francisco, which took over 120 days, rounding Cape Horn. (The Panama Canal did not open until 1914).

Q. Where is Rio Grande?

A. In these shanties, and in Rudyard Kipling’s verse Rolling down to Rio, it is not the river that borders the US with Mexico, but is Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil, a place of immigration by English in the 19th century.

Now, some years later, I have seen a poster, kindly put on the net by its owner. It was posted in Liverpool in 1850, and reads:



The undersigned will dispatch a regular succession of superior first-class Ships from Liverpool to the above Port,
thus providing the most favourable opportunity to Parties wishing to Emigrate to this,
the most salubrious port in the Brazilian Empire.


It gives details of imminent sailings by ‘Splendid Clipper Barques’ and adds that ‘These Vessels are fitted up expressly, with every comfort and convenience for Passengers, who will be found in Provisions and Water of the best possible quality.’

English immigrants to Brazil were welcomed because of the ancient treaty with Portugal—it is our oldest alliance. And the role of English people in Brazilian history is a subject in itself.

The pupil concerned was a future historian.