The dark side of the sea shanty

Jaunty nautical tunes have been keeping us entertained in lockdown—but songs like the “Wellerman” belong to a cruel age of whaling

January 29, 2021
A whale being speared with harpoons by fishermen in the arctic sea. Engraving by AM Fournier after E Traviès Source: Wikimedia commons
A whale being speared with harpoons by fishermen in the arctic sea. Engraving by AM Fournier after E Traviès Source: Wikimedia commons

The social media sea shanty craze has been one of the more surprising aspects of lockdown life. The original video, by Glasgow postie Nathan Evans, has been viewed over 6m times on TikTok alone, but more remarkable is the spirit of collaboration it has inspired. Evans’s clip can now be found in multiple versions, with vocal harmonies or instrumentation added by other social media users—everything from traditional folk violin to funk bass guitar.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s been a lonely year and sea shanties are songs of community. They tell of people working together through adversity. Moreover, the 19th-century song that inspired the craze, “Soon may the Wellerman come,” speaks of better days ahead: “Soon may the Wellerman come / to bring us sugar and tea and rum.” The Wellermen were employees of a company that supplied New Zealand whaling ships during their long and arduous trips at sea. Behind the thudding rhythm of the chorus beats the hope that life will soon be richer and more satisfying.

“Wellerman” isn’t strictly a sea shanty: it’s a “cutting-in song”—a work song sung to a shanty rhythm, but meant to accompany the flensing of a captured whale rather than raising sails. “One day,” the chorus continues, “when the tonguin’ is done / we’ll take our leave and go.” “Tonguin’” refers to the process of stripping the whale of its blubber and body parts to reach the valuable oil, which was poured in vast quantities into the manufacture of candles, soap and mechanical lubricant throughout the 19th century. The slaughter was relentless. The Wellermen sailed from a station that opened in Otago Bay in 1831 but closed only 10 years later as the southern right whale population collapsed.

Unusually for a sea shanty or cutting-in song, “Wellerman” has a narrative. It tells an epic tale of a crew struggling with a harpooned whale, which drags their boat for more than 40 days and nights. At the song’s close, they have yet to land their catch.

As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on
The line’s not cut and the whale’s not gone

By the 1920s, a pre-whaling population of 47,000 was reduced to no more than 40 mature females. Still the killing continued. Until the international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, nearly three million whales were killed worldwide.

“Wellerman” isn’t the only shanty that tells an extinction story. In the late 18th-century oysters were so abundant in the Firth of Forth that three-man clinker-built boats would take 30m a year. Two men would row, while one controlled the dredge, a net attached to an iron frame dragged along the seafloor. The mouth of the dredge was held open by a rope attached to the boat, which maintained a constant speed: too fast and the dredge would skip and lift off the bottom; too slow and the mouth would close. To keep the right pace, the fishermen would sing a “dreg song.” The lyrics were incidental and mostly improvised. What mattered was the asymmetric rhythm—five syllables sung by the leader followed by three repeated by the rowers—which matched the greater effort needed to pull the oars through the water and the lesser effort involved in bringing them round through the air.

The dredges were so effective at scraping oyster beds clean that Charles Darwin copied their design on his Beagle voyages. But for the fishermen, it wasn’t the dredge but the dreg song to which they owed their success. The monotonous chant, they believed, would charm the oysters from their beds. “The oysters are a gentle kin,” went one 18th-century song. “They winna tak unless ye sing.”

Demand was intense and, despite warnings that the practice was “ruinous and short-sighted,” in the 1840s fishermen began adding brood oysters to their hauls. The consequences for the oyster population were calamitous. The annual catch fell from nearly 9m in 1867 to 60,000, 10 years later: a drop of more than 99 per cent. Oysters were declared extinct in the Firth of Forth in 1957, but by then the dreg songs had been silent for decades.

Is it just spoiling people’s fun to point out the link between shanties like “Wellerman” and extinction? No one wants to be a killjoy, but it’s worth recalling that the propulsive rhythms of these songs, so much a part of their appeal, measured the beat of organised plunder.

It’s not all bad news. Ten years ago, oysters were discovered again in the Firth of Forth. And despite being so severely cut back, many whale species are in a fragile recovery. Southern right whale populations are growing by 7 or 8 per cent annually, and last year it was reported that—astonishingly, given their populations were reduced by 97 per cent—scientists in Antarctica recorded 55 blue whale sightings in a single survey.

Sea shanties have brought comfort to many in these dark days, but remembering the even darker histories they recall might help us to sing for a brighter future. “The line’s not cut and the whale’s not gone.”