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Turtle and pearl shell inlaid box in the form of a boat

Date: c 1910
Overall: 150 x 210 mm
Medium: Turtle shell, pearl shell, wood, metal, nylon
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Shell boat
Object No: 00030079
Place Manufactured:Torres Strait

User Terms

    This box in the form of a model boat is finely crafted from mother-of-pearl, bone and turtle shell and was made by a lighthouse keeper in Torres Strait about 1910. It is made to be suspended by two removable davits and a series of pulleys.
    SignificanceThis boat is a unique object, a piece of maritime-related handcraft using locally found materials, painstakingly executed with fine craftsmanship and technical skill. It provides an insight into the life of the isolated lighthousekeeper.
    HistoryA hand made turtle shell and pearl shell inlaid box in the form of a boat, made by a lighthouse keeper in Torres Strait around 1910. The box has one slide out drawer, made from timber, lined with fabric. Two davits, made from bone and turtle shell, support a series of pulleys which in turn hold a boat made from turtle shell. The boat has two sets of oars and a chain made from turtle shell and pearl shell.
    A card accompanying the box is inscribed:

    'This box and boat was made by an Austrian born, Torres Strait light house keeper about 1910. The silver rivets used in the construction were fashioned by him from links of his watch chain. This interesting example of patient craftsmanship was acquired by the present owner during the First World War 1914-1918.'

    There were only two lighthouses operating in Torres Straight in 1910, Booby Island and Good's Island. In 1910 Good's Island also housed a pilot station and a pearl shelling station, whereas Booby Island contained only a lighthouse, and was used primarily as a navigational outpost.

    The lighthouse keeper who made the box may have been Alex Baase at Goods Island in the Torres Strait, although Baase was German, not Austrian-born. Baase was born at Hanover in 1859. He migrated to Australia and was working at Sandy Cape Lighthouse on Fraser Island in December 1909, when he was promoted to Goods Island, where he was both lighthouse keeper and signalman with no other staff apart from island boatmen.

    For thousands of years, coastal Aboriginal people collected pearl shell by combing the beach while the tide was out, and traded it with inland peoples. The European-Australian pearling industry began in the 1850s and by the early 20th century pearlers from north Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and the Torres Strait were supplying 75 per cent of the world's pearl shell. A valuable material before the days of plastic, pearl shell sold for £150 per ton in Sydney in the 1860s.

    The abundant, versatile and decorative mother-of-pearl - the highly polished and shiny inner surface of a mollusc shell - had been used for centuries to make buttons, which were affordable for those with modest budgets. Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s natural pearls were extremely rare and expensive, and mother-of-pearl was used an inexpensive alternative in a range of jewellery and accessories. It was also used to make buckles, cases and cutlery, and was used as inlay in watches, furniture, ornaments and instruments.

    Additional Titles

    Web title: Turtle and pearl shell inlaid box in the form of a boat

    Assigned title: Turtle shell boat

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