What are the origins of the sailor’s hornpipe?

Figure of dancing sailorA flat-backed figure of a sailor, standing with legs crossed in a dancing pose. Maker unknown, circa 1840. Repro ID: AAA6072 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Fawssett CollectionThere are references to the instrument the hornpipe used to accompany the dance in Chaucer’s works: 'Controve he welde and foule fayla with hornepypes of cornewayle'.

The instrument known as the hornpipe apparently consisted of a wooden pipe with spaced holes and a mouthpiece made of horn. The earliest reference made to the dance appears to be in a stage direction to the Digby Mystery performed about 1485: 'here mynstrellys on hornpipe' to conclude the performance. It may have been about this time that the dance became associated with sailors and the sea. It is easy to understand that the small space required for the dance and the fact that no partner was necessary made it particularly suitable for shipboard use. Samuel Pepys referred in his diary to the dance calling it 'The Jig of the Ship' and Captain Cook is noted to have ordered his men to dance the hornpipe in order to keep them in good health in the cramped space of sailing ships of those days.