"Dead Man's Chest" (also known as Fifteen Men On The Dead Man's Chest or Derelict) is a fictional sea song, originally from Robert Louis Stevenson's novel
Treasure Island (1883). It was
expanded in a poem, titled Derelict by Young E. Allison, published in the
Louisville Courier-Journal in 1891. It has since been used in many later works
of art in various forms.
Stevenson found the name "Dead Man's Chest" among a list of Virgin Island names in a book by Charles Kingsley, possibly in reference to the Dead Chest Island in the British Virgin Islands. As Stevenson once said, "Treasure Island came out of Kingsley's At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies (1871); where I got the 'Dead Man's Chest' - that was the seed." That is, Stevenson saw the three words "Dead Man's Chest" in Kingsley's book among a list of names, germinating in Stevenson's mind it was the "seed", which then grew into the novel.
In Treasure Island Stevenson only wrote the chorus, leaving the remainder of the song unwritten, and to the reader's imagination:
“ Fifteen men on the dead man's chest--
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest--
...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
The song has been widely used in the arts for over a century. In 1901 music was added to the lyrics of "Derelict" for a Broadway rendition of Treasure Island. In the 1954 film "Return to Treasure Island", starring Robert Newton, the song was sung in the opening credits, and instrumentally as the thematic background to the action. In the 1959 television series "The Adventures of Long John Silver"--again starring Robert Newton--it was, although only in instrumental version, the series' theme song played both at the beginning and the end of each episode. In 1967, writers for the Walt Disney film company found inspiration in "Derelict" for the sea-song "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)", which was played in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" theme ride at Disneyland. Astrid Lindgren expanded Stevenson's couplet differently in the script for the 1969 Pippi Longstocking TV series; the two resulting verses were sung to a West Indian sea shanty. In the 1978 film Revenge of the Pink Panther, Chief Inspector Clouseau, disguised as a "salty Swedish seadog", sings a mangled version of the song.
Alan Moore made a play on the song in the 1986 graphic novel Watchmen; the chapter is called "One man on fifteen dead men's chests." In 1993, the contemporary "pirate" vocal group, The Jolly Rogers, recorded Mark Stahl's arrangement of Young E. Allison's lyrics, re-released in 1997 on their CD titled "Pirate Gold". A rendition was recorded by the steampunk band Abney Park as "The Derelict".
In German, the song is sometimes known as "17 Mann auf des toten Manns Kiste", so it mentions 2 more men, or sometimes as "13 Mann", mentioning 2 fewer, most prominently in Michael Ende's Jim Knopf stories. Likewise, in the Hungarian translation of Treasure Island, the phrase is "seven (men) on a dead man's chest"; apparently these numbers provided the closest effect to the original regarding rhyme and syllables in English.