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This New Zealand folk song likely dates from the 19th century, but the first written evidence does not appear until 1969,[1] making it difficult to pinpoint the date more specifically (at least one paper specifies the 1860s, but does not cite a source for the information[2]). It has been performed by numerous singers throughout the years, but has recently seen a resurgence of popularity thanks to The Norfolk Broads (you may recognise one of their members).

The Longest Johns' version appears as track three on Between Wind and Water. In the wake of the 2021 Shanty Tok trend, it reached number 37 on the UK Singles chart.[3]

Factoids

The Weller Bros. was a Sydney, Australia-based shore-whaling company that operated primarily along the southern coast of New Zealand from 1830 to 1840. Though they had numerous vessels in their employ, none appear to have been named the Billy o' Tea. In the song, the Wellerman refers to a supply ship sent by the company.[4]

Billy is slang for a makeshift kettle used for boiling water to make tea.

Tonguing refers to the process of butchering the whale after it was caught. In New Zealand, this was carried out by teams of "tonguers" onshore.[5]

Lyrics

These lyrics are based on the version performed by the Longest Johns on Between Wind and Water.

There once was a ship that put to sea
And the name of that ship was the Billy o' Tea
The winds blew hard, her bow dipped down
Blow, me bully boys, blow!

{Chorus}
(HUH!)
Soon may the Wellerman come
to bring us sugar and tea and rum
One day, when the tonguin' is done
We'll take our leave and go

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

{Chorus}

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

{Chorus}

No line was cut, no whale was freed,
The captain's mind was not on greed!
But he belonged to the Whaleman's creed
She took that ship in tow

{Chorus}

For forty days or even more
the line went slack then tight once more
All boats were lost, there were only four
And still that whale did go

{Chorus}

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

{Chorus x2}

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