In my youth and the era that I was living in Tottenville, Staten Island, I often heard old timers refer to boys seemingly pre-puberty as “little shavers”. I had thought that it meant someone not yet ready to shave? I have since learned that it means “a shave off of his old man”, thus not yet ready to be regarded as a piece in his own right, and nothing to do with the act of shaving at all. An archaic term for a youngster, usually utilized in reference to a young boy.
In the early days of sail, young boys were handy as “cabin boys”, or in the Navy, “ship’s boys” for running of errands, cleaning of officers’ cabins, getting into tight spots the men were to large to in order to clean or fetch things, &c. Horace Lane joined the US Navy in 1799 at the age of 10, and he was hardly an unusual case. Regarding this song, Stan Hugill (Shanties from the Seven Seas) tells that he had learned it from the writing of R. R. Terry who in turn claims to have learned it from his great-uncle. It appears to have been used at the capstan, although apparently known also in the minstrel scene, and was an overt homosexual bawdy song of a particularly anti-social nature, much like the long-standing running joke about priests and altar boys. That said, Stan went on to give lyrics of a more “acceptable” kind; the boy is shouted and and smacked around in the manner known to have been the lot of boys joining ship and not large enough to present a second thought to the abuser. Not sexual, just the typical abuse of authority particularly known aboard ship. It can be sung with the same detachment we have for pirate-themed songs; pirates were sea-going rapists, thieves, murderers, and general outlaws, yet we dress our children up as pirates today and have parties with the general theme.
2. Oh, they whacked me up, an’ they whacked me down,
The Mate he cracked me on the crown,
They whacked me round an’ round an’ round,
Ch. When I was just a shaver, a shaver,
Oh, I was fed up with the sea,
When I was just a shaver.
3. When I went aloft through the lubber’s hole,
The mate, he cried, “Lord damn yer soul
Ye’ll do, me son, what yer bloomin’ well told!”
4. And when we wallop’d around Cape Horn,
I wisht to hell I’d never been born,
I felt like a sheep with its wool all shorn
5. When we left behind the ice and rain,
An’ once more to the tropics we came,
The mate came hazin’ me once again.
6. When we made port, well I skipped ship,
I’d had enough for one bloomin’ trip
I’d stay ashore an’ never more ship