Researching the Wellerman

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A New Zealand sea shanty with the refrain, “Soon may the Wellerman come to bring us sugar and tea and rum” has become unexpectedly popular on TikTok.

The term “Wellerman” may refer to a resupply ship operated by an Australian shore-whaling company known as the Weller Brothers.

Not knowing whether the specific events of the song have any basis in fact or not, the question arose: has there ever been legal liability for a Wellerman failing to resupply a stranded whaling ship? If that answer proves difficult to pin down, then is it possible to find some historical cases worthy of their own sea shanties?

New Zealand Shore Whaling and the Law

Using the search term “Weller Brothers” on HeinOnline (UofSC login required) reveals two articles by Stuart Anderson:

Harris v. Fitzherbert: Customary Rights of Labour on a Shore Whaling Station, 42 Victoria U. Wellington L. Rev. 639 (2011).

Commercial Law on the Beach: Shore Whaling Litigation in Early Colonial New Zealand – Macfarlane v. Crummer (1845), 41 Victoria U. Wellington L. Rev. 453 (2010).

mountains, a few houses on a grassy plain, a beach
1907 watercolor by Walter Bowring depicting Jillett’s whaling station on Kāpiti Island in 1844

The facts of Macfarlane involve “clothing, tobacco, soap, flour, tea, sugar, calico and more” being delivered to a struggling whaling station. Anderson at 454, emphasis added. Could this delivery of provisions be the basis of the sea shanty, with some facts changed or exaggerated? There may be no way to know, but even assuming it were true, unfortunately Anderson informs us “there are no surviving court papers” from the Macfarlane case. Anderson at 470.

A Case for a Sea Shanty?

Wouldn’t it be great if the next popular sea shanty had a legal citation we could all link to?

The fact sections of many ship collision cases from past centuries somehow seem more poetic than the fact sections of modern automobile collision cases, with notable exceptions such as Fisher v. Lowe, 122 Mich. App. 418, 333 N.W.2d 67 (1983).

HeinOnline (UofSC login required) provides access to the sea-faring example below from English Reports

In re: H.M.S. Swallow, 166 Eng. Rep. 1002 (1856).

The "Leila," coal-laden, was bound to Cadiz; the "Swallow" was proceeding from Milford 
to Portsmouth, for the purpose of taking in her engines. The "Leila," it appeared, was
close hauled on the starboard tack; the "Swallow" was running right before the wind.
The night was foggy, and on the "Leila" descrying the "Swallow," [31] from her starboard
bow, making directly for her, she exhibited a lantern, and a fog-horn was loudly blown.
The light was answered by the "Swallow," and her helm slightly ported. The "Leila" kept
close to the wind until the last moment, when in order to ease the blow, her helm was put
hard a-port, and her head sheets let fly. The "Swallow" in her defence alleged that on
descrying the "Leila" she put her helm hard a-port; that the fog was so thick that the
two vessels could not see each other in time to avoid the collision, which was the result
of inevitable accident.

Hopefully, composers of shanties will consider case law as a potential source of inspiration.