Sea Shanties

Sea Shanties are a genre of traditional folk song. They were commonly sung as a work song to accompany labour aboard large merchant sailing vessels. They were found mostly on British and other European ships, and some had roots in lore and legend. The essential thing in the singing of Sea shanties is rhythm. 

Sea shanties

Sea shanties have become a viral trend on TikTok. We have no evidence, that the “Wellerman” song, which was at the heart of the viral trend, was ever used as a shanty, so as far as we know it’s an occupational song of sailors. It may not technically be one of the sea shanties. It is more likely to be a 19th-century whaling ballad or folk song from New Zealand

One of the original purposes of the sea shanty was to create a sense of community and shared purpose. On merchant marine vessels in the 1700s and 1800s, a shantyman would lead sailors in song as they worked, distracting them from their toil, enlivening their tasks and establishing a rhythm.

There is a harsh history behind the internet’s favourite sea shanty. The “Wellermen” crewed provisioning ships operated by the Weller Brothers – one of the earliest whaling and trading companies to make a fortune in New Zealand and Australia. Company founder Joseph Weller was an ex-pat Brit, a wealthy landowner from Kent. He took his family to Australia in the hope it would improve his health. On arrival, Weller and his three sons got into the trading game, and in 1831 they founded the remote Otago whaling station on New Zealand’s south island

The Wellers were doing a brisk trade, bringing in about 300 right whales per season and employing 80 people. But for as little as they paid in actual wages, they also paid a high personal price. In 1832 a Maori raiding party burned down Otago station. Joseph rebuilt Otago in 1833 but lost his battle with tuberculosis and died in 1835. Edward Weller left Otago in 1840, never to return. The number of right whales began to decline. The Weller company went bankrupt shortly afterwards. 

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).

The reality of whaling was grim. 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. Whaling was a difficult, dangerous, and thankless profession. 

The “Wellerman” song is believed to have been written in New Zealand around 1860–1870. While its authorship is unknown, it may have been written by a pirate or shore whaler and may have served as a “cutting-in shanty” that whalers would sing as they slaughtered a whale.

Sea shanties are perfect music for pandemic times. We’ve spent months in isolation, yearning for the day when this ship of weirdness will reach the port of normalcy. However, context is key to understanding the “Wellerman” song. So the next time you hear sea shanties like it, take a moment to remember the gruesome whale oil business it describes.

I think the use of catchy, rhyming and interesting language makes the song so viral. Working out what the lyrics mean is a challenge. It is one of the reasons why the song is often played so many times by one person. If you like sea shanties, why not listen to them in high-resolution or listen to others on the 8tracks website.


Author: Piers Midwinter
I am an artist and a teacher. I am currently teaching at a Cambridge International School in Vietnam.