Kōrero: Popular music

Whārangi 2. Early settlers, 18th and early 19th centuries

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Sealers and whalers

Working in extreme conditions, the early Pākehā sealers and whalers recorded their experiences in ballads such as ‘David Lowston’, about a marooned sealing gang, or ‘Shore cry’, which finds an ex-sailor exchanging tales about whales in a Bay of Islands tavern.

True story

The ballad ‘David Lowston’ is based on real-life events. In 1810 a group of sealers led by David Lawrieston were dropped off by the ship Active on Open Bay Island near Westland. The Active subsequently foundered and did not return to re-provision the party. The men made it to the mainland on a small boat they had been left with but were not rescued until 1813, when they returned to Sydney.

Australian influence

The developing colony also had another musical influence. From the late 1700s songs performed by visiting Australian traders, bushmen and shearers often provided the model for the first New Zealand songs. ‘Whalers’ rhymes’ – sung by Waikouaiti whalers in the 1840s – evolved from the Australian ‘Pommy’s lament’, which used the melody of ‘King of the Cannibal Islands’, an English music-hall song.

The gold-rush standard ‘Shanty by the way’ was originally an 1865 poem from the Victorian goldfields which crossed to New Zealand with Australian gold-diggers. Another goldfields song, ‘Digger’s farewell’, describes a digger wanting to return to Australia as New Zealand’s goldfields become depleted.


Immigrants from Europe were advised to bring along musical instruments for entertainment. Some brought pianos, which – along with the more common fiddle or recorder – were played by their owners during the voyage, providing amusement and accompaniment for dances. Many migrants brought bound volumes of sheet music compiled from their own collections, as a portable reminder of home.

Once in New Zealand, the immigrants were not isolated from the latest popular melodies and dance styles in Europe, which were imported as quickly as a ship’s journey would allow. The styles of music were broad, but reflected the displacement of the immigrant: classical favourites and lieder, romantic ballads and songs that reflected nostalgia for the ‘mother country’ or patriotism for a new land.

Also popular were hymns, Scottish and Irish melodies, US ‘plantation’ songs and vulgar or sentimental songs from music hall. Sheet music was quickly distributed, and dance teachers demonstrated new steps such as the quadrille, the waltz and the polka. At balls during the colonial era, the styles were varied, as were the social classes of the dancers, not because of egalitarianism, but to make up the numbers.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Chris Bourke, 'Popular music - Early settlers, 18th and early 19th centuries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/popular-music/page-2 (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Chris Bourke, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014