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Scrimshaw powder horn by Louis Gauvin

Date: 19th century
Overall: 420 x 85 x 290 mm
Medium: Cattle horn, leather, wood
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Scrimshaw powder horn
Object No: 00042490

User Terms

    This large scrimshawed cow horn was constructed as a powder horn or flask for gunpowder. A wooden plate has been affixed to the open end of the horn with a wooden knob protruding from its centre to which one end of braided leather strap is attached. The other end is attached to wooden stopper at the narrowest point of the horn.

    The scrimshaw work includes numerous motifs and subjects. The main feature at centre is a three masted ship, possibly British, under full sail. To the right of the ship is a bird carrying a banner which reads 'Safe return'. On the other side is a square shaped decorative design with two columns either side. Both columns are decorated with leaves. The design includes a Masonic theme, with a compass and setsquare at the centre with an Masonic eye at the top. Surrounding the eye an inscription reads 'Peace Joy Plenty'.
    Below this are the Latin words 'Gratias Agamum Domini Deo Nostro AD 1870'. At the top of the design are three flags; at left a union jack, at centre a flag displaying the Masonic compass and square, and at right a flag with three vertical bands, possibly a French flag. The top section features four birds, possibly doves with banners reading 'Prosperity Faith Hope Charity'/ Other birds carry banners reading 'good[sic] speed' and 'Safe Return'. Below the ship is a banner inscribed LOUIS M F GAUVIN MAKER TAMBO BARCOO.
    HistoryScrimshaw was the carving done by seamen in whaling ships on the jawbones and teeth of whales and the tusks of walruses. The term has also been extended to include carvings on bone from other sources, horn and shell, when the subjects are maritime. Most scrimshaw is naive in execution, and seamen were commonly illiterate. It is rare to find scrimshaw with dates and names of makers, although names of ships were sometimes given. It is often impossible to date scrimshaw or to establish the nationality of the carver. The whaling period extended from about the 1780s to the 1890s, with a hiatus in the mid-nineteenth century when whaling declined for a period before factory ship operations began about the 1870s. Seamen used any sharp implement they could find to incise designs. The tip of their knife was the basic tool, but they also used needles and any other kind of tool they could improvise. They used anything from soot to ink or paint to colour the lines. They often pricked out the outline of a design, tracing from a picture, and joined up the dots. The scrimshaw powder horn includes pinprick hatching in the bodies of the birds, and all the lettering is made up of pricked dots.

    The scrimshaw powder horn carries a wealth of information and mystery. Louis M F Gauvin was at Dalby and Paroo in Queensland between 1868 and 1883, over which time he is believed by a descendant to have fathered six children. The inscription TAMBO BARCOO refers to the town of Tambo, originally a property of that name, on the Barcoo River in south central Queensland. It was gazetted a town in 1869, the year before the date on the powder horn. Tambo is in the same general region as Dalby, Paroo and Charters Towers where the Gauvin family eventually settled. One of Gauvin's grandsons, George Pollock, was Speaker in the Queensland Parliament in the 1930s and other descendants live in Queensland.

    Family lore among Gauvin's descendants associates him with Marshal Ney, the head of Napoleon's army, who was executed in 1815, even to the extent of believing him to be Ney's son. There is a long established belief that Ney's execution was faked and that he was helped to escape to the United States by the British and by freemasons - Ney himself being a freemason. The masonic symbols on the horn clearly had strong significance for Gauvin, assuming he was the carver. The design appears to be celebrating or urging union between France and England, in a masonic framework. The ship on one side of the powder horn is flying flags which appear to be a French and an English flag, the same two flags which appear on the other side of the horn as part of a structure enclosing the word UNION. While there is no colour to identify the flags, one has a cross in the upper left hand quarter, and the other has three vertical stripes. The 'all seeing eye' is a masonic symbol referring to God or the Grand Geometrician of the Universe. The crossed set square and compass (which appears twice) is one of the most basic masonic symbols - architect's tools which symbolise God as the Architect of the Universe. The words PEACE, JOY, PLENTY, and PROSPERITY, FAITH, HOPE, CHARITY, have significance in masonic ritual, and the Latin words GRATIAS AGAMUM DOMINI DEO NOSTRO, mean 'Let us thank our Lord and God'. This is one of the responses in the Latin Mass, and it is also a sentence used in masonic ritual.

    A seaman named Gauvin was listed in official records as an unassisted arrival in Sydney on 22 October 1846, after surviving the wreck of the French whaling ship COLON at Banks Peninsula, off New Zealand. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 26 September 1846 that the COLON had been wrecked at Pariki, and that the brig BEE had been chartered at Port Nicholson to proceed to the wreck, to bring the crew and cargo to Sydney. The Herald of 23 October reported the arrival in Sydney the previous day of the BEE, with the captain, officers and crew of the COLON. The Index to Unassisted Arrivals in NSW lists the arrival of a passenger on the BEE named Gauvin, but gives no Christian names. He was described as 'Harponneur [harpooner], FRA, Visitor, Fr wreck French whaler "Colon".'

    This seaman is almost certainly Louis M F Gauvin, the carver of the powder horn. In 1872 on the birth certificate of his daughter, Fane Francoise, Gauvin gave his age as 45, his birth place as St Servan, France, and his occupation as sail maker. This would mean he was 19 when he came to Sydney in 1846. Since he still gave a maritime occupation in 1872, it may be that he continued to go to sea in the meantime. He appears to have lived with Harriet Sartin, with whom he had children, but not to have married her. His daughter is described as illegitimate on her birth certificate. No record has been found of his death.

    The most intriguing question raised by the scrimshaw is the possible connection with Marshal Ney, because of the masonic symbols, the fact that Ney was a freemason, and the designs linking France and England together. The Gauvin family legend was that Gauvin was the son of Marshal Ney, who escaped to America, and whose family went to live in Canada taking the name Gauvin. But the dates alone make this impossible. However it seems quite possible that a Gauvin ancestor may have been associated with Ney, or fought under him in the Napoleonic wars, and may have been a fellow freemason.

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