Hey all, I wasn’t planning this topic, but a friend asked me if I knew anything about this sea shanty craze on Tik Tok at present. My friend had seen a news report claiming ‘The Wellerman’ was written by a New Zealander. I knew little beyond the broad strokes. I could say whalers and sealers made up the vast majority of white folk in New Zealand from the early 1790s till some time after most Maori tribes signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. While most early contacts between Europeans and Maori (New Zealand’s first peoples) were peaceful and fruitful – a couple of violent incidents, most notably a massacre aboard the European ship the Boyd in December 1809 – made Europeans wary of attempting to colonize New Zealand in those early days. Whaling would continue in New Zealand until December 1964. I could recall a television interview with the last of the whalers discussing how they sometimes turned the sea around Kaikoura red with whale blood, and in hindsight felt guilty for their actions.
It certainly was conceivable the song belonged to the kiwis. We had a long history of whalers. It stands we should also have a history of sea shanties.
Clearing an evening I got out a few old course books from university, and I went surfing the net. I found a few items of interest. In short, yes, ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ was likely written in Timaru, New Zealand. It was written between 1860 and 1870, by an anonymous author – believed to have been a young man of around 19. The Billy O’ Tea appears to be a fictitious ship, though there were plenty like it in reality around the lower South Island at the time. Here’s what I found.
I should quickly set the scene on this tale, seeing over 98% of people following Tales are from places other than New Zealand. New Zealand, sometimes called Aotearoa, is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. A little over 5 million people, colloquially ‘kiwis’ live here. Thirteen out of our estimated 600 islands are inhabited, but most people live on the North Island (Te Ika-a- Māui) or South Island (Te Waipounamu). Maori migrated here in several waves between 800 and 1000 years ago. Europeans first ‘discovered’ New Zealand in December 1642 – when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman tried to land at an area now called Golden Bay. The Maori, who had surveilled Tasman’s two ships for two days beforehand, attacked the landing boat – killing four Dutch sailors. The Dutch fired upon the Maori, hitting one of the defenders. The reason for the defense is unknown, but one theory states the locals believed the Dutch to be ghosts, there to steal their women and children. Another theory suggests word may have already reached Aotearoa from other island nations about the cruelty of European explorers. Tasman named the site Murderers Bay, and departed.
The next undisputed European visit would put Aotearoa on the map. On 6th October 1769, a 12 year old cabin boy named Nick Young called out to all aboard The Endeavor he had spotted land. The ship’s captain, James Cook, promised a reward of rum and a piece of headland named after them to the first to see land. The Endeavor was officially sent out in the pacific to observe the Transit of Venus from Tahiti – part of a larger experiment to determine how to measure longitude – and unofficially to look for the mythical ‘Terra Australis’, a massive continent thinkers at the time believed must be on the bottom side of the globe. One presumed Cook paid the cabin boy his rum – the headland he spotted is now called ‘Young Nick’s Head’.
The first whaling ship would arrive in New Zealand in 1791, The William and Ann, captained by Eber Bunker. Several other ships arrived in the early 1800s, congregating around the far north or far south of the country. Kororareka, now known as Russell, was an early settlement of note. Local tribes saw an opportunity to do business with whalers and sealers, and a town emerged in this far north location which would soon become known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’ for it’s drinking, lawlessness and prostitution (sex seen as a commodity by some tribes to get their hands on muskets, which they used to wipe out rival tribes – but this is another story).
The image you get of these early towns is one of vice, sex, and rough men (not just whalers and sealers, but soon enough some escaped criminals from Australia). Maori, however they felt about these rough men, often did business with them – and some Maori did join up with whaling crews in much the same way that Australian Aborigines joined Indonesian ships from Makassar. (Makassan ships began visiting Australia by the 1720s, possibly even several decades earlier than that, to collect sea cucumbers and pick up local labour – but that IS DEFINITELY a whole other story).
But…. Back to Sea Shanties?
Yes. This appears to be quite the rabbit hole. A number of sea shanties originated from whaling towns in New Zealand. The first song on record is probably worth the digression. ‘Davy Lowston’ is New Zealand’s first known sea shanty, dating from around 1815. It tells the story of a group of ten sealers left on Open Bay Island, an island on the west coast of the South Island to catch all the seals there and skin them. Telling the men he’d be back soon, captain John Bedar sailed for Australia. The ship sank on it’s journey, leaving the men stranded on the inhospitable rock for four years (from 1810 – 1813). All ten men survived, rescued, of all people by New South Wales Governor Bligh (The same William Bligh cast adrift by the mutineers on the HMS Bounty in 1789). A musical kiwi wrote the following, which basically just puts the above to music.
Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal.
Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal.
My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal.
Though my men and I were lost, though our very lives it cost
We did seal, we did seal, we did seal
‘Twas in eighteen hundred and ten, we set sail, we set sail.
‘Twas in eighteen hundred and ten we set sail.
We were left we gallant men,
Never more to sail again,
For to seal, for to seal, for to seal,
We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down, were set down
We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down
T’was on the sixteenth day, of February
For to seal, for to seal, for to seal.
Our Captain John Bedar he set sail, he set sail.
Our Captain John Bedar he set sail
“I’ll return, men, without fail!” But she foundered in a gale,
And went down, and went down, and went down.
We cured ten thousand skins for the fur, for the fur.
We cured ten thousand skins for the fur.
Brackish water, putrid seal, we did all of us fall ill,
For to die, for to die, for to die.
Come all you sailor lads who sail the sea, sail the sea,
Come all you jolly tars who sail the sea,
Though the schooner Governor Bligh took on some who did not die
Never seal, never seal, never seal.
The Weller Brothers were an early whaling and trading company, with bases in both Sydney, Australia and what would later become Dunedin, in the South Island. Established by three English brothers, Joseph, George and Edward – they moved across the world, in part, hoping less polluted air in the antipodes would extend Joseph’s life. Joseph had tuberculosis, and would still be the first brother to die.
George Weller, then settled in Sydney bought a trading ship in 1826. The brothers were first attracted to New Zealand in 1830, for the flax and kauri (wood) trade in the far North of the North Island. By 1831 they bought The Lucy Ann from the New South Wales government. The ship’s last act for that government was to transport the descendants of the Bounty mutineers from Pitcairn Island (which was believed too small for them), back to Tahiti.
From what little I could find in a short timeframe it looked like the Weller brothers had colorful lives. Joseph would die young, in his early 30s, while in New Zealand. His body would be transported back to Sydney, Australia for burial. To keep him from going off, he was submerged in a large cask of rum, and presumably arrived in Sydney a little pickled. Edward Weller ran the New Zealand business till 1841. He oversaw the establishment of a whaling village of around 80 huts. The village was close to a Maori village, where Edward would meet his first two wives, both Maori wahine (women). The two villages would eventually merge, and are now known as Otakau. While heavily involved in whaling, Edward built up a trading station handling all manner of goods. One particularly odious trade was the sale of mokomokai – the preserved heads of what was originally defeated Maori warriors – but which increasingly included the heads of unfortunate slaves, as it became apparent a tattooed, preserved head was worth a lot of guns and ammunition.
Edward would be kidnapped and ransomed by Maori in Northland in 1833, but released soon after. Though he had plenty of sailors willing to risk their lives whaling – and it was a risky job where people often died – he insisted on captaining one of their ships. As the market for whale oil temporarily slowed down in the mid 1830s (due to competition, a decrease in whale numbers; and transatlantic politics – whale oil was still needed for oil lamps, baleen, the whale bone used in corsets, remained popular also – but Britain and America began butting heads over taxes on the oil) Edward put his money into land speculation. Many of his land deals would be overturned as criminally bad deals following the signing of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi.
Edward relocated back to Sydney – where he would die on 11th March 1893. He refused to leave his house, knowing a flood was coming. To escape drowning, Edward knocked a hole in his roof and sat atop his house till the waters receded. He’d die on his roof, of hypothermia. He’d handed the day to day management of the company’s operations to his sister’s husband, Charles Schultz. Shultz was in charge in the 1860s, when a young man composed a shanty about a ship, the Billy O’ Tea (a Billy, by the way, is a kettle), in an epic battle with a whale – and a man wishing the Wellerman, a supply ship – would soon arrive with sugar, and tea, and rum.
There was one final aspect of the tale of the Wellerman which fascinated me; that we came so very close to losing the song completely. We have folk music compiler Neil Colquhoun to thank for it’s continued existence. Colquhoun was a folk musician, teacher and a great compiler of the songs of New Zealand’s whalers, gold diggers and kauri loggers. He came across the song in 1966, having learned it from an F.R. Woods – a man then in his 80s who had learned ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ from an uncle, who was a sailor. A number of folk artists recorded the song throughout the 1970s, however Colquhoun preserved it. I did a little further digging, thinking it might be interesting to find Mr. Colquhoun and ask him if he’d be interested in doing a short interview with me, however he appears to have passed on in 2013.
I hope you all found my little meander through my back yard a little interesting. I know this hasn’t been usual ‘Tales’ fare. I don’t get to share a lot of history from my homeland, and hell, it is topical. We’ll be back to normal transmission next week…. Though I am saving a Kiwi tale, just on the backburner for now, which features one of my least favorite politicians while he was still a young boy (I’ve been rude and confrontational to this guy some years ago when he was still in power), a famed killer and artist, and a mysterious disappearance… just to forewarn you all.