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Sperm whale being harpooned from a longboat

Date: 1840-1850
Overall: 75 x 135 mm
Medium: Sperm whale tooth
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Scrimshaw
Object No: 00000430

User Terms

    The sale of carved whales' teeth and bone (scrimshaw) and other novelties quickly became a feature of Regatta Day in Tasmania. The struggle between whale and whaleboat was a popular scene.
    SignificanceThis scrimshaw whale tooth is representative of the items sold at regattas during the 19th century. In particular this piece represents the activities of the Tasmania whaling industry and its profile in community events such as the Anniversary Day Regatta.
    HistoryRegattas were central to competitive boating and community celebration in the 19th century and functioned as a social and sporting event, as well as a marker of official anniversaries in a public aquatic spectacle. Civic leaders, politicians and merchants offered patronage and sponsorship. The community regatta featured several races, including rowing, sculling and sailing events usually for professional watermen and amateurs.

    Far more than a yacht race, the Tasmanian Anniversary Day Regatta celebrated the anniversary of Abel Tasman’s ‘discovery’ of the island in 1842. It demonstrated the patronage of civil and military elites, promoted the role of whaling and other free-settler enterprises, and even hoped to erase some of the colony’s convict stain. By the 1900s ‘the greatest aquatic carnival South of the Line’ had evolved as ‘the perfect people’s carnival’. Boat races competed with other novelty entertainments – fancy costume parades, bearded ladies, greasy pole fights and snake charmers.

    The events on the program revealed the commercial and leisure activities of the colonies at the time. There were races for watermen who carried people and goods across the waters as professionals and for the crews of the many visiting naval whaling, and trading ships and ketches, in gigs, pulling boats, skiffs, and sculls. Spectators represented a broad cross section of society at the time – public holidays were declared and free beer was issued in the fledgling convict settlement for the Hobart regatta of 1838.

    There were races for amateurs in sailing and rowing craft – a limited few until late in the 19th century. Tasmania had a particular emphasis on whaling vessels understandably with a race of 15 whaleboats inaugurating the first regatta of 1838 and a whaling schooner holding the honour as flagship for the Day.

    Scrimshaw was originally a maritime craft that developed from the unique conditions onboard whaling ships in the early 19th century. No one knows for sure where the word originated, but it comes from the Dutch words 'scrim' meaning to etch and 'shorn' meaning to make. The earliest written reference is in an American ship's log dated 20 May 1826. There is also a reference to 'skrim shunder articles' in Herman Melville's Moby Dick in 1851.

    Scrimshaw is produced by engraving, carving, inlaying or assembling bone from marine mammals, such as whale bone, teeth and baleen, walrus tusks and shell. sing jackknives, saws, homemade files and sharp sail needles, sailors etched images of women, whaling scenes or other memories of home.

    For a period of roughly 100 years whalers produced a wide variety of scrimshaw, but it is the engraved and carved teeth and jaws that have received the most admiration. Teeth are generally considered classic scrimshaw because of their decoration, including whaling scenes, family members, religion, love, women and patriotism.

    A tooth would be selected and sawn off for stability, then filed and sanded to a smooth surface. The basic design was often copied from books and magazine illustrations and would be scratched into the tooth and the engraved lines filled with ink, lamp black or other pigments. As the work progressed more detail would be added to finish the design.

    Additional Titles

    Assigned title: Sperm whale being harpooned from a longboat

    Web title: Scrimshaw whale tooth sold at Regatta Day

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