“Soon May the Wellerman Come To Bring Us Sugar and Tea and Rum … “

Alright, unless you’ve been living on a deserted island and have never seen TikTok (or if you don’t know any fifth-graders), you’ve probably heard this song and clapped along with it. “The Wellerman” was a viral sensation that broke the Internet in 2021 and has since spawned what seems to be a million different versions in all sorts of musical styles (there is even a version by the Vienna Boys Choir). Though written at least 150 years ago, the catchy little earworm managed to hit the Number One slot on the music service Spotify in 2021.

But “The Wellerman” has an interesting story behind it.

On the off chance that you are one of the five people in the world who have never heard the song, here is the original TikTok version of it, performed by Nathan Evans:

So, let’s break this down piece by piece.


I’ve already done an in-depth piece on the history of the whaling industry here:

The short version: whaling was an important industry in the 19th century and it was mostly dominated worldwide by the American whaling ships from New England. Whales were caught by harpooning them in open water (from large row boats) and then towing the carcass to shore to be shorn of blubber that was rendered into oil (a process known as “flensing”) and to be butchered into parts (known as “tonguing”). The whales that were most sought-after were the Right Whales, which had a lot of valuable oil in their bodies and which floated at the surface when dead, making them the “right” whale for hunting.

One of the centers for whaling in the South Pacific was New Zealand. By the 1820s, Europeans had settled along the coast of the North and South Islands of New Zealand and established a number of whaling stations. This would eventually lead to conflict with the native Maoris, and to the conquest and colonization of New Zealand. At its peak, a typical whaling station would process as many as 100 whales a year and produce over 300 tons of whale oil. But by 1840 the area around New Zealand had been mostly hunted out, and by 1850 the whaling industry here had virtually died out.

During the good times, however, one of the important whaling ports was in the region of Otago, on the South Island at present-day Dunedin. Here, in 1831, the Weller brothers (George, Edward and Joseph) from Australia established a storage station in Otago which would dispatch ships out to the whaling stations and resupply them with food, water, gunpowder, clothing, and other necessities. These supply ships were known as “Weller Men”. So a visit from a Weller Man was a much-anticipated event for the crew.

Sea Shanties

Life on a 19th century sailing ship was hard, both physically and mentally. There was constant labor of hauling ropes or lifting cargo. To help make these tasks more pleasant, sailors often composed songs with a fast beat and a cheery attitude. These also had a practical purpose, allowing a group of men to work together rhythmically when performing tasks like hoisting up sails or pulling on anchor ropes. These work songs became known as “shanties”.

Most often, a shanty consisted of an upbeat tune and a lilting tempo that went up and down in sync with the physical work to be done. Sea shanties usually worked in a “call and response” format, in which a singer would relate the verses and the rest of the crew would join in with the chorus, which was usually short, repetitive, and easily learned, allowing even new crew members to quickly join in and sing along. This not only allowed everybody to literally pull together on the task at hand, but it helped to form a stronger social bond between all of the crew members, allowing them to work as a fully functional team towards a common goal.  

There was also another category of sea songs, however, which, while not really work songs (and therefore in the eyes of some scholars not really a “shanty”, though today the term is usually applied to any fast-beat sea song), were composed and sung by sailors using many of the same tempos and harmonized tunes, but were longer and told a narrative story. These were known as “forebitters”, and they served the purpose of entertainment. Whaling ships regularly spent months, and sometimes years, at sea, and sailors often gathered in their spare time on the foredeck to alleviate the boredom and pass the time by singing songs that told of made-up adventures, tall tales, and amusing stories. One of these, a fanciful tale about the fictional whaling ship Billy O’ Tea (Australian slang for “a pot of tea” or “dinner”),  is now known to us as “The Wellerman”.

“The Wellerman”

We do not know for sure who wrote “The Wellerman” or when. It was likely done by an anonymous sailor aboard a whaling ship or perhaps a shoreside whale-tonguer. We do know that it had likely appeared in the New Zealand area by 1860, so it was probably written in the 1840s or 1850s.

The song tells the fanciful story of the whaling ship Billy O’ Tea, which encounters a Right Whale and harpoons it. The whale smashes the ship’s rowboats and then dives deep, dragging the Billy O’ Tea along for “forty days or even more”. It becomes a standoff—the whale continues to drag the boat around forever, and the stubborn crew continues the fight and hopes the Wellerman can meet them somewhere and feed them as they continue their “Nantucket sleigh-ride”.

The first definite history we have of the song and its lyrics comes in 1967, when a New Zealand music teacher named Neil Colquhoun co-authored a short book titled Shanties By the Way containing the song, followed in 1972 by a book of his own titled New Zealand Folk Songs. By most accounts, Colquhoun had heard the song from an 80-year old local resident named FR Woods, who had himself heard it as a boy from his uncle David Hunter Rogers, who had lived in one of the whaling ports in the 1840s and may have worked for a time as a whaler or tonguer. Some stories have a young Rogers himself as being the song’s writer, while others assert that he had heard the song from others as a young man and memorized it, later passing it on to his nephew. There is another sea shanty titled “John Smith AB” which had been published in The Bulletin magazine in Australia, by “DH Rogers” in 1904, which Woods said he had also heard from his uncle.

The first commercial performance of the Wellerman song, though, seems to have been in 1990, when the New England-based musical trio Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir, and Ed Trickett recorded “Soon May the Wellerman Come” on their album And So Will We Yet. Bok had worked for a time as a sailor and had seen Colquhoun’s book. Over the next two decades the song was occasionally covered by other folk singers and groups, including the Wellington Sea Shanty Society, the Irish Rovers, and the British folk group The Longest Johns.

But it took the Great Pandemic for the song to really be rediscovered.

 By 2021, most of the world had been in lockdown for almost a year as the Covid-19 pandemic raged around the globe. Cooped up inside and unable to do most of the things we had previously taken for granted, nearly everybody turned to the Internet, and in particular a platform from China that had appeared as a competitor to YouTube—TikTok. The TikTok platform confined itself to short-form videos, just a few minutes in length, and this was perfectly suited for musical performances.

In January 2021, a postal letter carrier from Glasgow, Scotland, put up a new vid on TikTok. Nathan Evans was a musician who collected old sea shanties and recorded them a capella for the Internet. And the shanty he had just posted was “The Wellerman”. Evans soon found himself performing the song on television and would eventually be awarded a professional recording contract. Meanwhile, “The Wellerman” flooded the Internet, with hundreds of versions performed by professionals and amateurs alike—a phenomenon which became known as “ShantyTok”. New performances are still appearing today, and anyone who scrolls TikTok for even a short time is bound to see multiple styles, everything from orchestral arrangements to heavy metal guitars.


One thought on ““Soon May the Wellerman Come To Bring Us Sugar and Tea and Rum … “”

  1. Whaling was a dangerous business. It wasn’t unusual for the rowboats to be smashed, and the “Nantucket sleigh-ride”, in which a harpooned whale would drag the ship helplessly along behind it, was a real thing. When the whaler “Essex” was sunk by a harpooned whale that rammed her, the press reports inspired Herman Melville to write “Moby Dick”.

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