Celtic Junction Arts Review

And what is a Wellerman?

Shawn McBurnie

Sea shanties have sprung into our collective awareness lately, and with good reason. They’re an expression of community and camaraderie, of working together in tandem and in harmony—things we sorely miss in person in the COVID era. The sudden popularity of Scottish postman Nathan Evans’ videos of himself singing several shanties, most notably “The Wellerman,” has given rise to a surge of interest and myriad renditions and remixes. But as usual, internet fame barely scratches the surface. Who or what is a Wellerman, and is the song even—technically speaking—a shanty?

Illustration by W. Symons. – Patterson, J.E. “Sailors’ Work Songs.” Good Words 41(28) (June 1900): 391-397., Public Domain.

Sea shanties are work songs, and as such they come in several flavors depending on the specific type of work to be done—most of which involves hauling on a rope in some capacity. The ability to keep a work crew in close coordination was essential on board a sailing ship, and it was said with reason that “a good shantyman is worth four hands on the rope.”

True shanties tend to fall into three fairly broad categories. 

Short-haul (or short-drag) shanties feature brief verses and choruses, suited for quickly completing a task. “Haul on the Bowline” is one popular example. (Audio samples from the Smithsonian Folkways recording Foc’sle Songs and Shanties.)

Long-haul (or halyard) shanties, for longer tasks where a pause-and-pull rhythm is needed, are longer, often featuring verses that can be added or removed to suit the length of the job, and often take a call-and response form so the sailors can sing briefly and save most of their breath for the work. Here’s “The Black Ball Line.”

Finally, capstan or windlass shanties feature a prominent and consistent rhythm so sailors turning a capstan or, arguably, working a bilge pump, can easily keep in step. (There is indeed some argument on that last point, as some scholars maintain that pumping shanties are their own distinct category.) “Leave Her, Johnny” is well suited to these tasks.

National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, United Kingdom – Crew at the capstan of the Parma; weighing anchor.

But also, there are forebitters, or fo’c’sle songs, which served an important function on board ship despite not being shanties in the purest sense. These are for recreation: entertainment, storytelling, and humor. The Wellerman, with its clear narrative, comparatively long chorus, and preposterous conclusion, is a good candidate for that last category. In the broader sense of nautical songs with a strong engaging beat, however, it is eminently a sea shanty!

Regardless of how or whether you categorize it, there’s a lot going on in and around this song that may not be immediately clear. Let’s have a listen…

By Flickr user “Johan Larsson“, CC BY 2.0
There once was a ship that sailed to sea
The name of the ship was the Billy o’ Tea…

Hold up. The who of what?

Turns out a “billy of tea” is a phrase from Australia and New Zealand, for a “billy-can” (a repurposed large can that had typically held “bully beef,” or corned beef, with a wire bail added to suspend it over a fire) full of… well, tea. Those who aren’t from Down Under may remember a glancing mention in “Waltzing Matilda” as our hero waited ‘til his billy boiled. This places our ship, or her origin at least, in the Southern Hemisphere.

The winds blew up, her bow dipped down
So blow, me bully boys, blow

A sailing ship running before high winds would pitch forward, lowering the bow and raising the stern. It’s unclear how much additional effect her crew blowing—however robust or “bully” they might be—would have under these conditions.

Soon may the Wellerman come
To bring us sugar and tea and rum

When I first looked into the song’s background, I wondered whether the Wellerman was a corruption of Hindi wallah, as a chai-wallah is a tea vendor and the word was one of many colonial imports from India to the British Empire at large. The real story is more interesting: the Wellermen crewed provisioning ships operated by the Weller Brothers, who established a whaling station at Ōtākou, on the southeastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, in 1831 and, seizing opportunity, began provisioning other coastal whaling vessels in the area by the peak of the station’s short-lived success in 1833.

Otago Harbour. Photo by Alistair Paterson, CC BY-SA 2.0
Edward Weller, 1831. Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.

As it turns out, the Wellermen were as much an expression of colonialism as the chai-wallah would have been, as Ōtākou was originally a Māori settlement. Permission was negotiated for the station’s adjacent establishment, involving trade agreements (boats, guns, and ammunition from the Wellers, for pigs, potatoes, and flax; flax being a staple of the Wellers’ trade empire) and one of the Weller brothers, Edward, marrying Paparu, the daughter of the local Ōtākou chief Tahatu, with whom he had a daughter named Fanny. After Paparu’s death in 1836 he then married chief Taiaroa’s daughter Nikuru and had a second daughter named Nani. He was widowed again, and when the station shut down he left both of his daughters behind and returned to New South Wales.

Such marriages were a common Māori strategy as part of an overall effort to bring colonizing Europeans into their whanaungatanga (interconnectedness; community) and thus align their interests; results varied. In addition, Māori made up a substantial minority of the station’s workforce—though this did not necessarily enhance the popularity of the arrangement. Tensions flared at times; the station was occasionally ransacked and was burned once, at which time Edward himself was held for ransom.

Port Otago from the 1840s. Copy from the heritage library of Gray, Haute-Saône, France.

Amid all of this history it would seem the Billy o’ Tea herself is fictional, much like her slightly ridiculous fate… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

One day when the tonguin’ is done
We’ll take our leave and go

Whaling was a difficult, dangerous, and thankless profession. Accordingly, leaving the ship and going anywhere else was a glowing prospect, often dwelt upon in whaling songs.  It might or might not be paid in proportion to its difficulty and the profits it generated—usually not, despite the promises of agents eager to recruit sailors. New Zealand coastal whalers and tonguers were often paid in kind, with the very goods the Wellerman delivered, and after the company and agent had taken their cut, the remainder was meager. As a contemporary local song, Come All You Tonguers, put it: “Go hang the agent, the company too / They are making a fortune off me and off you / No chance of a passage from out of this place / And the price of living’s a blooming disgrace.”

Tonguing, specifically, was an on-shore prospect for coastal whalers such as the Billy o’ Tea. It involved butchering the whale, rendering the blubber for oil, and preparing the bone for use in its myriad roles (which are now filled by plastics). For those who caught whales off Greenland or in other seas similarly distant from settlements on land, there was nothing for it: the whale had to be processed and rendered on board ship, despite the danger of rendering oil on any but the calmest seas. But the Billy’s crew had only to tow their catch to a station such as the Weller Brothers’ so that the tonguing could be done on dry land, and thence, if the song’s hope was to be believed, take their leave.

She had not been two weeks from shore
When down on her a right whale bore
The Captain called all hands and swore
He'd take that whale in tow

Our ship’s finally in luck. Not only a whale, but a right whale, so named because their buoyancy, abundance of oil and whalebone, and typically gentle and curious disposition made them the “right whale” to hunt. (The whales’ own opinion on this was somewhat different.) The Captain’s plan is, again, typical for the time and region: tow the whale to a station for tonguing. But first, of course, she must be killed. This turns out to be less than straightforward for the Billy’s crew.

Unknown artist, Whaling off the North Cape, New Zealand. From the book Early History of New Zealand Brett’s Historical Series: From Earliest Times To 1840-1845(link is external: https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/1416863), by Richard Arundell Augur Sherrin and J. H. Wallace, edited by Thomson W. Lays (or Leys), 1890, book. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter. Te Papa (RB000042)
Hunting sperm whales off the North Cape, NZ. Te Papa.
Before the boat had hit the water
The whale's tail came up and caught her
All hands to the side, harpooned and fought her
When she dived down below

Sailors were lowered in boats, typically crewed by four to seven rowers and one harpooner, to approach and impale the whale with barbed iron harpoons, ideally setting one with a heavy rope line behind the left flipper (where the whale couldn’t dislodge it) for later towing, and then going on to pierce the lungs or heart and kill the whale. It seems this particular whale may have had some experience with boats and harpoons and isn’t eager for more, and a whaleboat was no match for the tail of an angry whale if it came to direct contact.

No line was cut, no whale was freed;
The Captain's mind was not on greed
But he belonged to the whaleman's creed;
She took that ship in tow

After their initial difficulties and probable loss of life, the crew manages to harpoon the whale and return a line fastened to a harpoon in the whale to the ship, where it is made fast. Ideally—from the whalers’ perspective—the whale is dead by this point. Not so for the hapless Billy. But the Captain isn’t about to give up and let her go—not because of the money, but because of the principle of the thing, we’re told, though some skepticism is justified—so the whale tows the ship rather than the other way around.

Image courtesy of the University of Washington’s Freshwater and Marine Image Bank
For forty days, or even more
The line went slack, then tight once more
All boats were lost, there were only four
But still that whale did go

All the ship’s boats have been smashed and it seems the harpoons are in only deep enough to annoy and inconvenience the whale. But even the strongest whale can only tow a ship for so long. Right?

As far as I've heard, the fight's still on;
The line's not cut and the whale's not gone
The Wellerman makes his regular call
To encourage the Captain, crew, and all
Unidentified whaler holding rations. Collection of New Bedford Whaling Museum.

No word on how the whale is faring in all this, but if it weren’t for the Wellerman prospects would be dismal indeed for the remaining crew. (It is sporting of the whale to pause for these “regular calls.”)

Of course, the reality was both grimmer and less drawn out. Once harpooned and made fast to the ship, there was only so long a whale could hold out even if it had not been successfully stabbed in the vitals; the only hope was to threaten the ship’s seaworthiness and be cut free.

Through the mid-1830s a steady stream of dead whales were towed into the Weller Brothers’ station, and whale oil and bone flowed out; in their heyday, they processed upward of 100 whales a year. However, New Zealand coastal whaling, even more than Greenland whaling, which had already collapsed by this point, sowed the seeds of its own destruction; this was where the right whales calved, and hunting them had a devastating impact on their population. As a result, in 1841, the Ōtākou station shut down for lack of whales; others would follow.

Johann Karl Ernst Dieffenbach (1811-1855)

In the midst of this, in 1843, naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach observed: “The shorewhalers, in hunting the animal in the season when it visits the shallow waters of the coast to bring forth the young, and suckle it in security, have felled the tree to obtain the fruit.”

Herman Melville circa 1846-47. Oil by Asa Twitchell. Public Domain.

Among the assets sold off at the station’s closing was the whaling barque Lucy Ann, in which the brothers had arrived at Ōtākou—the same vessel that picked Herman Melville up, along with four other “beachcombers,” from Nuku Hiva in 1842. His experiences there—and previously on another whaler, Acushnet, from which he had jumped ship five months earlier in disgust at the “caprice and tyranny of the captain”—would inform both Omoo, a fictionalized account including time on the Lucy Ann, and Moby-Dick, which he began writing in early 1850 and published in late 1851.

By the 1850s the coastal whaling stations had become New Zealand’s first ghost towns. We can place the Billy o’ Tea and her Wellerman—and that tireless whale—squarely between 1833 and 1841, and there they remain, nearly two hundred years later.

Southern Right Whales, underwater off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand. Photo by Brian Skerry.
Whale watching in New Zealand.

The rest of New Zealand’s southern right whales have, happily, not remained in that moment. In the early 20th Century there were estimated to be only 30-40 mature females in that population, and no right whales at all were seen in New Zealand mainland waters between 1928 and 1963. By contrast, in 2016 the overall population was estimated to be over 3000 whales, and its ongoing recovery rate was put at 7% per year as of 2009, which would put it well above 4000 by now. Whale watching now contributes to a sustainable tourist industry in the coastal waters that the likes of the Billy once hunted.

Meanwhile, though they are no longer needed for bringing whaling crews together for arduous work, sea shanties still bring us a sense of community and, for a moment, a satisfying shared purpose.