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Sea shanties


 The New Zealand topsail schooner Shepherdess sails in Cook Strait about 1870.

Songs of the sea

Ahoy there! Sea shanties, work songs sung on board sailing ships, were a feature of seafaring life in the 19th century. Although most shanties were of British or American origin, some had a distinctly New Zealand flavour.

Sea shanties were work songs or chants sung by the crew of sailing ships to help co-ordinate their efforts as they hauled on the halyards or tramped around the capstan to raise the anchor. In the 19th century shanties were commonly heard aboard vessels sailing to and from New Zealand and around the coast. Although most well-known shanties, such as ‘Rolling home’, ‘Drunken sailor’, ‘Homeward bound’, ‘Shenandoah’, ‘The Rio Grande’ and ‘Maggie May’, were British or American in origin, their words were frequently adapted to include local places, people and stories.

In the early 20th century the historian James Cowan collected several shanties with a New Zealand flavour, including ‘I’ve traded with the Maoris’, which was an adaptation of the British capstan shanty ‘The sailor’s way’:

I’ve traded with the Maoris
Brazilians and Chinese
I’ve courted half-caste beauties
Beneath the kauri trees;
I’ve travelled along, with a laugh and a song,
In the land where they call you mate
Around the Horn and home again,
For that is the sailor’s fate.

Across the Line, the Gulf Stream,
I’ve been to Table Bay,
Around the Horn and home again
For that is the sailor’s way.

Cowan also heard a local version of the popular halyard shanty ‘A long time ago’ (or ‘A hundred years ago’), which begins with the following verse:

Oh, I wish I was in Auckland town,
Away oh, aye oh!
Where all the girls walked up and down
A long time ago!



Alexander Turnbull Library
Reference: C-105-001
Artist: Forster, William James, 1851–1891
Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

How to cite this page

Sea shanties, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated