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Man beneath a palm tree : Scrimshawed whale tooth

Date: c 1840
Overall: 45 x 58 x 136 mm, 265 g
Medium: Sperm whale tooth
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Tooth
Object No: 00048072

User Terms

    This is one of a matching pair of sperm whale teeth, most likely from either side of the jaw of a single whale, with scrimshaw work.

    The 'front' of the tooth shows what appears to be a woman lying prone under a palm tree.

    The reverse shows the initials 'F. M. R' inside a wreath. The initials are 'pricked', whilst the rest of the decoration is 'scratched', which is consistent with 19th century scrimshaw practice.

    The same scrim-handiwork appears on both teeth. The artwork is naïve and relatively crude, suggesting they were the work of an ordinary sailor.
    SignificanceThese teeth are rare examples of well-provenanced, early Australian scrimshaw.

    They are among a handful of surviving examples of scrimshawed whale teeth from the first half of the nineteenth century that can be reliably traced to a scrimhander from the Australian colonies.

    They were quite likely crafted aboard the French whaling vessel ASIA that fished Australian waters in 1840.

    The iconography is quite unique and appears to be based on a popular French novel Paul et Virginie. There are few examples of scrimshawed whale teeth that show images of non-European people.

    Scrimshaw work that includes a ship's name is not common. Examples that have a ship name and a connection with an individual or maker, are rare.
    HistorySeveral generations of the Richards family were recorded as mariners or crew during the nineteenth century. A Mark Richards was listed as a 'pulling hand' in 1844 and 1845 for the South Australian whale fishery owners 'John Hart & Jacob Hagen' (1844) and in 1845-6 'Jacob Hagen, John Baker & John Hart'.

    According to South Australian passenger arrivals a Mark Richard/s had arrived in Port Adelaide by 12th December 1840. Considering the movements of the whaling ship ASIA, this fits with Richards leaving the vessel during its period in Australian waters.

    Whaling in South Australian waters in the 1840s was widespread and conducted by foreign as well as colonial vessels. In 1841 Edward Eyre estimated that around 300 whaling vessels were operating along the south-western coast and in 1844 Captain Cooke on the whaling barque Mercator reported around 140 foreign whalers operating in these waters. Importantly, a French whaling vessel L'ASIA fished in the southern Australian and New Zealand grounds in 1839-40.

    The French whaler, the barque L'ASIA (or commonly recorded in English as ASIA), was built for the 'South Seas trade' ; 436 tons, oak, copper fastened and sheathed in France in 1823, owned by J. Winslow of Le Havre and captained by Thomas Jay. ASIA joined a substantial French presence in New Zealand for the 1839-40 whaling season. ASIA left the French port Havre on 15th June 1839 'bound for the whaling grounds of 'Sud de l'Australie and Nouvelle Zealande' returning to France in March 1841 having taken 32 whales. It called at Hobart in February 1840. Although flying the French flag, it appears the ASIA was owned and captained - and it seems crewed by at least some Englishmen.

    From Mark Richards connection with the whaling ship ASIA in 1840, and then employment with the Hagen whaling fishery from 1844-46 it appears the Richards scrimshawed teeth refer to the 1840 season on the French whaler ASIA.

    The imagery of the two figures on the teeth may be taken from the popular novel Paul et Virginie, by Jacques-Henri Bernadin de Saint-Pierre, first published in 1787. It was a popular novel and reprinted several times into the early nineteenth century.

    Although they appear slightly different to the known published images, the scrimshaw may have been traced from a copy of version of the novel, or inspired by the novel - both common practices among mid-nineteenth century srimhands.

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