26 Jan 2021

Sea shanty about NZ settlers resurfaces about 190 years later

2:59 pm on 26 January 2021

A sea shanty called Wellerman is rising up the UK record charts about 190 years after the Weller family settled in Aotearoa.

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A sea shanty with roots in New Zealand's early history of whaling has become a hit in the UK this summer. Photo: konart/123RF

The Longest Johns' rendition of Wellerman has made it into the official top 40 charts in Britain.

Before that, it was a viral sensation on TikTok, sung by Scottish postie Nathan Evans, who now has a record deal.

The song immortalises whaling family the Wellers, who settled in Dunedin in 1831.

RNZ tracked down Edward Weller's great-great grandson and name sake, Edward Ellison, who is a kaumātua at Ōtakou Marae in Dunedin.

Edward Ellison speaking on Otakou marae on Otago peninsula during Ngai Tahu Treaty of Waitangi festival.

Edward Ellison speaking on Ōtakou Marae. Photo: RNZ

Ellison said he came across the Wellerman sea shanty years ago, but only recently heard the "catchy" tune for the first time.

The song describes the hardships of life on a whaling ship and includes the refrain "soon may the Wellerman come with sugar and tea and rum".

Ellison explained that his great-great grandparents sailed from England and settled in Ōtakou, where they were involved in whaling and trading various commodities with local Māori.

"The indication is that the person who may have composed it was an employee of the Wellers working out of Sydney, but will have continually been travelling and trading on merchant ships coming across," Ellison said.

"It's great and a lot of my relations are quite taken by it. Some of my relations are converting the song into a waiata... putting Māori words to it."

He imagines the sea shanty would have helped to lift people's spirits when they were were working in "pretty horrid conditions" on whaling and other ships in New Zealand and Australia during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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