Sea Shanties

When I awoke at eight o’clock this morning and stretched, my first thought was the tide chart. I hadn’t bicycled yesterday and I was anxious today to do so on the beach. My hurried investigation of the tides led me to an internet site which showed a painting of a sailing ship on the cover of an album of sea shanties. My immediate interest in the sailing ship instigated further inquiry. At last I unfolded on YouTube the rendition of a sea shanty which had its beginnings in New Zealand. This in turn led me to an article in the Guardian.  All told it was a fascinating pursuit.

Oddly my exposure to sea shanties was not entirely new.  Only recently I had touched briefly upon the identical subject perhaps as the result of having breakfasted at Palmetto Bay Sunrise Café adjacent the Yacht Club of Hilton Head where the Stars & Stripes 12-meter sailing yacht was temporarily dry docked. I believe as a result I listened to a sea shanty taken from the archives of Apple Music.  The music didn’t win me over. In fact I abandoned the piece before it had ended. But the sea shanty “Soon May The Wellerman Come” did grab me.  In particular the chorus for its distinctive and ineludible rhyme and rhythm. Cleverly the shanty captures the toil, brazen character and fraternity of the sailing community.

All my life I have yearned to be by the sea.  To date the experience has been second-hand or vicariously, such as law school in Halifax, NS or winter retreats to Hilton Head Island, SC, Longboat Key and Key Largo, FLA or even friendships with those who live or plan to live by the sea. The ambition is compelling because I adore the furnishings, accessories and hardware associated with sea life, especially the nautical artistry. Although I have been across the North Atlantic Ocean twice by ocean liner (and haven’t memorably hung over the side), my less grand sailing expeditions have not been as distinguished by any account. In all instances my recollection of the sea (that is, from my actual seafaring days) is also less glamorous than portrayed by art or any other rendition. By contrast the mere proximity to the sea, or walking or bicyclng by it, or being seated by a fireplace overlooking it, is far more convincing. The fact is I instantly succumb to the allure of the vast ocean and the distant horizon. The beaches, whether sandy or rocky, remain forever in my mind. And nothing distinguishes the flavour and colour of gold jewellery more adequately than the reflection of light upon a windswept beach on a grey day; nor enthralls the meaning of a complex or mechanical watch more than a nautical theme; nor consecrates one’s very anatomy better than salt sea air.

From his home in landlocked Ōhakune, Archer had noticed a sharp uptick in visitors to the New Zealand Folk Song website he set up in 1998. One 19th-century seafaring epic was of particular interest: Soon May The Wellerman Come.

…the shanty itself originates from the Antipodes, and tells of a pivotal point in Australia and New Zealand’s history.

A “Wellerman” was an employee of the Sydney-based Weller Brothers’ shipping company, which from 1833 was the major supplier of provisions – such as the “sugar and tea and rum” of the shanty’s refrain – to whaling stations on New Zealand shores.

The whalers’ wistful eye on a future date “when the tonguin’ is done/We’ll take our leave and go” refers to the practice of stripping blubber from beached whales.

The brothers Joseph Brooks, George and Edward Weller emigrated from Folkestone, Kent, to Sydney in 1823 and within 10 years had established themselves as the region’s preeminent merchant traders.

At the time, whaling was a prime export industry of New South Wales while, in New Zealand, the Wellers’ whaling station base at Ōtākou on the Otago Peninsula was the first enduring European settlement of what is now Dunedin city. Their ship, the Lucy Ann, also went on to be crewed by one Herman Melville.

But by 1841 the Wellers’ business had collapsed. As Ronald Jones writes in Te Ara national encyclopaedia, that period of seafaring industry “slipped unobtrusively out of the pages of New Zealand history” – preserved only through song.

Wellerman’s six verses tell the epic tale of a ship, the Billy of Tea, and its crew’s battle – “for 40 days, or even more” – to land a defiant whale. With the struggle ongoing at the shanty’s end, “the Wellerman makes his regular call, to encourage the Captain, crew and all”.

Neil Colquhoun – a New Zealand folk music pioneer, who died in 2014 – first documented Wellerman in 1966, from a man then in his 80s who said he had been taught it by his uncle. Researching that link led Archer to shanties published in The Bulletin paper in Sydney in 1904.

His Google “guesswork” suggests Wellerman’s composer was a teenage sailor or shore whaler around New Zealand in the late 1830s, who penned the ditty on settling in Australia then passed it down within his family around the turn of the century.

The Guardian
The Manchester Guardian was founded by John Edward Taylor in 1821 and first published on 5 May of that year. The paper was intended to promote the liberal interest in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre, in the context of the growing anti-Corn Laws campaign flourishing in Manchester during this period. December 2008 marked a significant point in the history of the Guardian when the paper moved to a brand new building in King’s Cross after 32 years in its Farringdon headquarters.

The Guardian – Seafaring and Shanties

Soon May the Wellerman Come