Of Happy Fish and Wellermen: Notes on the Marine Politics of a “Social Media Hype”

Part II: Wellerman: Singing of Whales and Hope?

When the Wellerman-craze started in January 2021, it reminded me of the backend of a party. That point at which you have exchanged all pleasantries, news and gossip and silly things can happen. Silly things such as breaking out into song. To my mind this isn’t necessarily a consequence of drinking (too much) alcohol, but of company; rather than a sign of uninhibitedness it is one of comfort. Only, Wellerman happened for exactly the opposite reason: no one really was together. Comfort, now, requires an intense amount of energy because there is so much terrible news to ignore. During the COVID-19-pandemic, singing together has become a dangerous, life threatening activity; to be avoided at all cost. So the shanty-singing becomes at once more elusive and more significant, it becomes an existential act and – this is what this post will be about – it is no accident that this particular song is at the center of it all.

The video platform TikTok allows users to combine videos and it was this feature that made postman Nathan Evan’s video so successful. Within a couple of days more and more versions appeared with skillfully added baselines and instrumentation. I admit, it moved me how well it worked (and I am still at risk of falling down the #shantytok rabbit hole). Combining separately recorded voices and instruments is by no means a new technique. What is different in this case, however, is the spontaneous and apparently effortless quality of it. Instead of a “record”, the TikTok (re)mix produced the effect of someone spontaneously starting to sing and others joining in.

I assume, I am not the only one tired of the constant reminders that “this” (a video conference meeting, a digitally mediated collaboration, a TikTok sing-along) is not the “real” thing. Maybe this is a different kind of real – the only one we get under the present circumstances. And what happened is astonishing. Something that was almost ruined by the slow-clap-ish pathos of Hollywood movies gained an urgent quality. Singing together during a pandemic, especially singing a shanty – a type of song whose goal is synchronization, as in aligning many people to a shared rhythm (of work) – has the potential to both mock and take seriously the particular loneliness of the lockdown. In other words, the ways in which ‘the social’ plays out during the pandemic (or, rather, doesn’t) is at once too serious and too pathetic to ignore. Wellerman took that up and became – I argue – an instrument of scaling, connecting and negotiating through song and narrative. It becomes a device of ecological communication/story-telling both in terms of its function as a medium and, forgive the pun, a message. Singing of whales and hope (“soon may…”) connects strangers beyond the realm of human sociability, it negotiates human-nonhuman-relationships in crisis.

Rediscovering (Whaling) Comradery

Whether the New Zealand-song from the 1860s is a ‘real’ shanty or not, the simple rhythm and melody produced a feeling of familiarity that made it easy for many to (literally) sing along. But it is more than that. Many have noted that what the song is about – being isolated (on a ship), waiting for supplies (sugar and tea and rum), feeling carried away by a non-human force (whale) – eerily connects to a feeling of being lost, if not at sea. It’s all too easy to mock, but the kind of isolation of song and singers does bear resemblance. Particularly after the holidays, when many could not visit loved ones and when the new year seemed (and still seems) to be falling short of offering the relief that many were hoping for, the song offered a call for perseverance and comradery.

There was a ship that put to sea,
The name of the ship was the Billy o’ Tea
The winds blew up, her bow dipped down,
O blow, my bully boys, blow.

Soon may the Wellerman come
And bring us sugar and tea and rum.
One day, when the tonguin’ is done,
We’ll take our leave and go.

Soon May the Wellerman Come, ca. 1860

I love it, when I come across an apparent collective desire to metaphorize. Social media is a great place and tool for that because it builds heavily on insider knowledge and an ability or willingness to find hidden meanings in things. The dark side, if you will, of this double entendre-quality is a susceptibility for conspiracy, the light side is a playful creativity (with, of course, many shades between those extremes). The reason why I love such phenomena is not only that I like to play along, but also that it gives me the opportunity to turn the tables and finally assume the role of taking things very literal. What does that mean?

It can means noticing, for example, that the apparent simplicity of a crew waiting for a supply ship (the Wellerman) is indeed entangled in a historically vast web of colonial trading. For theconversation.com Adrian York asks: “is the sugar and rum line in Wellerman a reference to slavery?” Keeping in mind that the author probably didn’t get to choose the title, I am still irritated by it. How could it not? A “reference” not in the sense of an explicit mention, but there is no “sugar and tea and rum” without slavery in the 1860s. York speaks of an embedded “darkness” of the song (which is an at least ‘interesting’ choice of words in this context) that he immediately contrasts with the ‘innocent’ desire for relief that connects the present singers with their counterparts in the song:

“Evans’ performance has an authentic sense of stoic forbearance about it that certainly seems to have struck a chord with generation COVID, who, like the whalers, are similarly marking time. […] There is an innocence and integrity about Nathan Evans’ performance and most of the responses to it. But there is darkness embedded in the song.“

Adrian York

The author himself embeds the „darkness embedded in the song“ in the admiration for the innocence and authenticity of the singers, which could either be a euphemism for ignorance or genuine marvel at the seriousness with which Wellerman is re-activated on TikTok. Acknowledging that sugar, tea and rum are indeed products relying on slavery, York still downplays the role this knowledge plays in the singing of the song as a sort of pandemic relief.

 “There has been some debate on social media about the ‘problematic’ nature of these references. But it is apparent from an analysis of the lyrics that the song is neither a post-colonial type of critique nor an embrace of the exploitation of indigenous peoples or the slave trade. It can be seen as a genuine cultural expression by exploited workers for whom ‘sugar and tea and rum’ provided a much-needed respite from the drudgery and toil of their daily lives.”

Adrian York

In fact,“relief” and “much-needed respite” become a means by which – again, by way of two levels of interpretation – the “problematic” darkness of the song is watered down, i.e. it is not denied but excused by way of focusing on the validity of the initial desire. The ends justify the means, so to say. York characterizes the critic’s task as follows: “Understanding the context behind these songs enables us to move beyond the visceral pleasures of communal performance and towards a more nuanced view of the world, encouraging us to consider what has changed since the days of the Wellerman” (Adrian York). Comradery of the isolated first, we’re off the hook.


But is that all we can do? Either “cancel” singing the song, or defer the uncomfortable parts, those that might implicate ‘us’, and be content with a “more nuanced view of the world”? And how nuanced would that world-view be if it accepts one comparison but rejects another, equally valid one? Why is it more important to zero in on the similarities between the crew and the contemporary singers in lockdown than, say, on the similarities between the ways in which “much-needed respite” often comes at a cost for those providing the means, not those enjoying the outcome. Why, if we’re already comparing, would we look past the fact that many of the things we’re doing at this very moment to find relief hurt others – workers bringing us “sugar and tea and rum” (prepared foods, convenient boxes of stuff and all kinds of things that need to be produced, often under dismal labor conditions)? Why look past the fact, that all the masks, our streaming habits and the gadgets we assemble to distract us from our predicament come at a cost to others?

No, I’m not saying that we cannot look for relief. I would be a hypocrite doing so. But I am saying we should not be content with letting a song be “just” a song. The “darkness” embedded in it is part of the “dark ecology” (Timothy Morton) we are living in and it’s not one to pick and choose from. “Sugar and tea and rum” are not ‘innocent’ metaphors but deeply entrenched in global routes of providing respite for some and rejecting responsibility for others.

In another essay for theconversation.com, Kate Stevens looks behind the lyrics of the popular song. Far from administering blame, she points to the “cross-cultural whaling history of Aotearoa New Zealand”. A more nuanced view, here, means carefully distinguishing between different economies of whaling. The historian makes clear that the Wellerman shanty talks of a type of whaling in New Zealand that differs significantly from the canonized Atlantic ways:

“Unlike deep-sea whaling in the Atlantic and northern Pacific, these newcomers practised shore-based whaling which required land to process the whales caught. The ‘tonguing’ in the Wellerman lyrics refers to cutting strips of blubber to render into oil in large ‘try pots’ — a challenging process aboard ship. The crew also required land on which to live and cultivate food.”

Kate Stevens

Catching whales is only the first step in a process that continues with on-board “tounging”. This is where the lock-down-metaphor begins to get shaky, to say the least. Work might feel hard at home, but I do prefer never ending video conferences to stripping blubber from whales. [I’m pausing here, thinking of running away to find another line of work…still wouldn’t be whaling, though]. This is an image which, without rhythm and melody is difficult to romanticize from a contemporary point of view. And with Steven’s research on “kin-based economies”, romanticizing the comradery of hard working whalers aboard would miss the thing that makes this ‘route’ interesting: “Because the industry was based on settlement rather than short refuelling stops, shore whaling fostered more intensive cross-cultural interactions in southern New Zealand than elsewhere in New Zealand or abroad.”

So, if one wanted to metaphorize, building on Steven’s research, it would be a more complex undertaking than deciding between accepting comradery as valid and rejecting references to slavery as invalid comparisons. Rather, the more entangled relationships between sea and land, whalers and farmers, traders and laborers – albeit not as “catchy” – offer a picture that resembles our situation much more than the isolated hard-at-work-comradery on its own.

The “Whale”

Yet, I still wonder why all the attention goes to the supplies and hardly any to the protagonist of this particular shanty, and whaling songs in general: the whale. Possibly, the tendency to read the lyrics exclusively through the pandemic-TikTok lense succeeds in making the actual whale invisible. Probably, “the whale” is such an elusive (yet canonized) figure that it is hard to bring together the animal and its narrative renditions. Still, here it goes:

She had not been two weeks from shore
When down on her a right whale bore.
The captain called all hands and swore
He’d take that whale in tow. 
Before the boat had hit the water
The whale’s tail came up and caught her.
All hands to the side, harpooned and fought her
When she dived down below.

Soon May the Wellerman Come, ca. 1860

I wish I’d talk about this in class or at a conference, because I have so many questions and I would be curious how you (addressing you, yes, since I’m not in class) would read this. Who, for example is “she”?  In the first (see above) and second stanza “she” seems to refer to the ship. “Her bow dips down” and “down on her a right whale bore”, but I am not so sure about who “dived down below”. When the captain enters the story, deciding that he will take the whale in tow, an opposition between the captain’s “he” and the whale’s “she” arises and culminates in the verse “She took the ship in tow”.

No line was cut, no whale was freed;
The Captain’s mind was not of greed,
But he belonged to the whaleman’s creed;
She took the ship in tow. 
For forty days, or even more,
The line went slack, then tight once more.
All boats were lost (there were only four)

But still the whale did go. 
As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on;
The line’s not cut and the whale’s not gone.
The Wellerman makes his regular call
To encourage the Captain, crew, and all.

Soon May the Wellerman Come, ca. 1860

Tables are turned, the whale refused to be caught and instead took the ship in tow. Interestingly, whale and captain are of the same kind. That is, both act according to their ‘nature’: “The captain’s mind was not of greed,/ but he belonged to the whaleman’s creed; She took the ship in tow.”

I’m not the only one thinking of Moby-Dick when I hear/read this, am I? Herman Melville’s infamous 1851 novel established the narrative of the heroic whalers in a (Western) cultural consciousness, modelling the relationship between captain (Ahab) and whale (Moby Dick) as a mythical rivalry which both cannot escape. The Wellerman-shanty doesn’t quite go that far, but it alludes to a similar hunter-prey-relationship. One that acknowledges that it is not fixed who is who in that relationship. For the crew aboard the Billy o’ Tea the Wellerman’s supplies provide a respite that tones done the drama somewhat, yet keeps them literally in tow of the whale. It’s hard to resist equating whale and pandemic. Yet, there’s a catch, a hook, if you want: The captain could cut the line. He could free whale and ship. He does not, because he is a whaler and that’s what whalers do.

What has changed really?

The Moby-Dick detour points to much more unsettling similarities than the situational, kind of ironic TikTok trend suggests. It might have started out as a fun project, but the “embedded darkness” not only includes the many violent histories of human-human and human-nonhuman-relationships entangled in global trade now and then. But it also includes a figure who could make a decision but doesn’t. It’s debatable how you might fit the “captain” into the set of pandemic-metaphors and I am undecided (although I want to point out that if you read the whale as a symbol for the virus it is pretty clear that she/it is not a hoax). However, I am more convinced than ever that, however terrible the various lockdowns feel, we should be very careful identifying only with the crew and not with the captain. Denying our implication in this mess is dangerous, and that is true for the pandemic as well as for other global “challenges” ahead.

Copy of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in my “homeoffice”

Preparing for this post, I finally started reading Moby-Dick (started, not finished). I struggle to read anything without making it into a story about the pandemic, at the moment, but this troubled me. Not only the unsettling description of the sleeping quarters, but Ishmael’s motivation. The first sentence of the novel is famous: “Call me Ishmael.” The way it continues however, struck me. It comes down to the narrator being bored – “having…nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world” (3). That sounds breezy enough but it doesn’t stay that way: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a string moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I count it high time to get to sea as soon as I can” (3).

I might be reading this in a darker mood than necessary, but fleeing land and it’s restrictions does sound appealing. Even, or maybe especially, when there’s a whale taking you in tow. But I run danger of stepping into my own trap, glorifying and romanticizing a rejection of responsibility. It’s all fair and well, if you’re Ishmael who apparently can go wherever he wants, but the crew on the Billy o’ Tea is decidedly not isolated or independent. It is not ‘away’. With reference to Kate Steven’s, we can assume that the crew have families to which they would return once they “take their leave and go” and the lyrics themselves revolve around the supplies that keep them close to shore in another sense, too.

Maybe that does make it a great reference for us, living through a pandemic. It’s not a heroic tale, it’s not even particularly dramatic (if you are lucky!), but boring and tedious, gnawing at one’s psyche. Even more reason to take it literal and ask for the connections and relationships that become visible only at second glance; to not be content with believing in one’s “nuanced” world-view. Endulging the sadness, the “darkness” embedded in the song, might get us closer to the kind of loneliness that is not just due to the pandemic but an effect of our willingness to isolate ourselves against others, human and nonhuman, while we’re singing along. Not trusting our own “innocent” interpretations and desire for respite, however “much-needed” it might be, turns out to reveal how little has changed after all. We might not work under the same conditions, but we’re singing the same songs (yes, ending on a methaphor).

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