The sailor is in love with the Captain’s daughter – who is promised to the First Lord of the Admiralty. Can a common sailor love above his station?
It is noon in the harbor at Portsmouth, and HMS Pinafore, a ship in Her Majesty’s navy, is anchored. Sailors are busy scrubbing the decks for the expected arrival of Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty.
Little Buttercup, a bumboat* woman, comes aboard to sell to the sailors her stock of little luxuries.
Ralph Rackstraw, a handsome and accomplished sailor, appears – in a forlorn mood. He tells his messmates that he is in love with the Captain’s daughter, Josephine. Dick Deadeye, the embodiment of the ugly truth, reminds the starry-eyed seaman that Captain’s daughters don’t marry foremast hands!
The Captain arrives to inspect his crew. The gentleman captain sings that he never uses bad language and is never sick at sea – well, ‘hardly ever’.
The Captain’s daughter, Josephine, arrives. She is sought in marriage by Sir Joseph, but it seems that she has no enthusiasm for the union – secretly, she is in love with the lowly sailor, Ralph. It also seems that Little Buttercup has a romantic interest in the Captain and harbors a secret about Ralph!
Finally, Sir Joseph arrives attended by the Ladies (his many ‘sisters and his cousins and his aunts’), among whom is his cousin Hebe. He explains that he rose to the top post in the Navy by sticking close to his desk and never going to sea. He also encourages the Captain to follow his orders to his crew with the phrase ‘if you please.’ After all, ‘a British sailor is any man’s equal’. He even presents the crew with a song that he himself has composed to celebrate the courage and character of the British Sailor. Sir Joseph and the Captain retire below decks to discuss the proposed marriage.
Ralph finds Josephine alone on deck and declares his love for her and his willingness to try to fit in with middle-class society. Although she secretly loves him, and finds his argument compelling, she rejects him – she is a dutiful daughter and cannot forget that they are from ‘different ranks’. But when Ralph threatens suicide, she relents and declares her love for him. They plot to elope that very night – assisted by the sailors, sisters, cousins and aunts. Dick Deadeye warns the pair of the impropriety of their plan.
*A bumboat is a small boat that takes supplies to moored ships. The name comes from a Dutch word for ‘canoe’.
That evening, Captain Corcoran sings to the moon of his troubles, accompanying himself with a guitar (or mandolin, banjo or ukulele). Little Buttercup comes to him and reveals her affection for him. He sadly tells her that, because of his rank, he can never be more to her than a friend. But Buttercup tells him she has gipsy blood and knows that a change is in store for him.
Sir Joseph returns, informing the Captain that Josephine is not accepting his proposal. The Captain suggests that she may be dazzled by his exalted rank and that he should assure her that ‘love levels all ranks’. When Josephine hears this argument, she notes that Sir Joseph has just stated the justification for her to marry Ralph!
Dick Deadeye finds the Captain alone and reveals the planned elopement. Together they lie in wait for tiptoeing party to arrive. The Captain reveals himself and becomes so agitated that he actually swears: ‘Damme!’ which is overheard by Sir Joseph Porter. Sir Joseph is shocked and orders the Captain to go to his cabin.
Sir Joseph learns that Ralph and Josephine love one another and orders the sailor to the dungeon (the brig). Little Buttercup suddenly discloses her long-concealed secret: Buttercup had been a ‘baby farmer’* in her youth, and, as their foster mother, she had accidentally exchanged the Captain (who actually came from a poor family) and Ralph (who actually came from a ‘patrician’ or well-to-do family) while they were both babies.
Sir Joseph calls for Ralph and the Captain – who have now changed uniforms and positions. Since the Captain is now a mere sailor, Sir Joseph feels that he can no longer marry Josephine and consents to let her marry Ralph. The former Captain is now free to marry dear Little Buttercup, and Sir Joseph agrees to marry his longtime admirer, cousin Hebe. All ends happily.
* ‘Baby farmer’ was an expression used to describe women who fostered orphans or ran crèches.