The “sailor ballads” of the early British Empire employ popular song not only to investigate sailors’ hardships and victories, but to explore the character attributes of seafaring men. This article argues that the range of attitudes and concerns present in these texts signals a larger cultural conversation about these men’s fitness as husbands to the nation’s women, fathers to its children, and members of its communities. Although protoimperialist and mercantilist writers such as John Dee, Robert Hitchcock, and Edward Misselden stressed the social benefits of employing common men in large-scale seafaring projects, the ballads explore the consequences of the common sailor’s presence—and most particularly, his prolonged absence—on the traditional stabilizing structures of family and community. In doing so, the ballads critically examine the potential rewards and consequences of imperial expansion from a terrestrial, local, and communal perspective.

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