When artists exist outside of the canon, their names sometimes remain unknown. However, even if their personal identities fade, they may create objects that encourage future generations to better understand the time in which they lived. Occasionally, their artwork can also empower later viewers to reflect upon the collective identity of their own era.
The object of this essay compels me to consider not only the past and present violence we commit against the earth in the pursuit of luxury, but also how that environment responds to our devastating desires. In other words, this relic reminds me that a sense of self — to borrow the phrase from environmental historian, Linda Nash — is enmeshed within ‘inescapable ecologies’ that bind human and nonhuman actors. Moreover, current formulations of identity rely upon our acknowledging that we have harmed the environment; this process of reflection can begin with an examination of historical artifacts.
Such is the case for many of the items found in Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute. This blog post will analyze a complex example of scrimshaw, one of 78 housed in the Scott Polar Museum, by an unidentified seafarer. For those unfamiliar with the subject, whalers produced scrimshaw by etching onto the teeth and cartilage of sperm and baleen whales. These amateur artisans engraved during their leisure time, using knives or needles to fabricate their designs onto whale by-products; they then enhanced the image with lamp soot or other forms of black pigment.
More often than not, the images on the scrimshaw directly reflected what these craftsmen saw before them, making ships and sailors favorite subjects. Here are two typical scrimshaw specimens from the Polar Museum, one of whaling-boats, incised on both sides, and another of a naval officer.
However, one scrimshaw sperm whale tooth, only slightly larger than my hand, serves as an anomaly since its mid-nineteenth century creator did not portray a maritime subject. Although some scrimshanders certainly drew likenesses of sweethearts back home, this object is distinctive because it depicts not only a woman, but also her surroundings, in great detail. The Museum Label reveals the ‘[unusual]’ nature of this artist’s depiction of a ‘wealthy house.’ In other words, this scene represents not the vessels or actors in the hunt, but rather the hunt’s final destination – into a fine home and onto a refined lady.
Although this woman is the object’s central, single figure, she disappears into her surroundings; the delicacy of the sailor’s engraving style and opulence of her milieu render her part of the scenery. Only the thick sheen of her hair seems to be of substance. The tessellated folds of her dress blur into the patterned rug, floral wallpaper, and carved fireplace of a room bedecked ‘with many ornaments’. A curving candelabra appears to emerge from the lady’s head, further obscuring the distinction between the woman and her environment. In this sense, her very status obscures her identity. And although splendor envelops her, this young woman appears to be in pain. Her form is slightly stooped, perhaps because of the cruel pinch of baleen whale stays. Even the crisscross motif on the front of her skirt recalls the rigid lacings of a corset. As the museum inscription suggests, her ‘tight bodice would have been boned’ and ‘extremely uncomfortable.’ As with the elegant abode she inhabits, her stylish clothes diminish and hurt her; her identity is as restricted as her clothing.
While fashion inflicted subtle violence upon nineteenth-century socialites – as evidenced by their cinched waists – it inflicted overt harm on the various whales that provided baleen for stays as well as precious ambergris for perfume and spermaceti oil for lamplight. In Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, Eric Dolin expresses with Hobbesian force: ‘in reality, whaling … was … dirty, grimy, [and] violent’. Many seafarers would likely agree with this judgment, as evidenced by a motto inscribed into this scrimshaw: ‘Death to the living, long life to the killers, Success to sailors (sic) wives & greasy luck to the whalers.’ There is an odd ambiguity to this saying, though it tellingly grants the men, rather than the whales, the epithet of killer.
Despite the fact that this affluent Victorian lady in her pristine drawing-room seems antipodal from the ugly business of whaling, this scrimshaw emphasizes the connection. After all, the scrimshander scratched her elite existence onto the great cetacean’s bone; there is something savage in a tooth being transformed into a canvas. Although the anonymous artist likely did not intend it, the work reveals a hidden brutality against woman, whale, and earth. Be that as it may, thanks to the efforts of the Polar Museum and spaces like it, past narratives – however troubling – endure for us to decipher.
Indeed, this strange and beautiful artifact reminds us that the pursuit of extravagance does not define, but rather potentially erases, our purpose. Then and now, we commit violence in the name of opulence. This inadvertent message remains relevant today because the atrocities of the nineteenth-century surge into the twenty-first; yesterday’s harpooning links to today’s climate change.
Overfishing points to our dangerous assumptions that we own the ocean — that its resources will never be exhausted and that we exist independently from it. Still, the more we abuse the earth, the more we ultimately abuse ourselves — despite the transient pleasures gained from modern conveniences. As with the nineteenth-century lady in the scrimshaw, our abundant circumstances contribute to the erosion of our planet.
Moreover, because our stance towards preservation evolves – whaling has been banned in the UK since the 1980s – we can develop sort of environmental amnesia – forgetting that to which we have laid waste before. For this reason, we must appreciate and dissect history – including this scrimshaw — because it encodes former values and implies present responsibilities.
Grim as this picture may seem, we ought not forget Melville’s rejoinder that ‘yet is there hope. Time and tide flow wide.’ Though this image of a vast renewable resource, with its undulating waves, may bring solace, it cannot allow for complacency. We must understand the ‘wideness’ of the world does not permit carelessness; it calls for change. Our shared past demands that we remember and interpret the narratives etched into our past to better our future.
Henry Jacob is a Yale graduate completing an MPhil in World History at Cambridge as a Henry Fellow. This fall, he will be a Fulbright researcher in Panama studying the generative tensions between foreign experts’ and local communities’ historical and current perspectives on the isthmus.
For more on the Scott Polar collections, visit their website here: https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk.
See more on oceanic history, especially Sverker Sörlin’s chapter on the Arctic Ocean, in David Armitage, Alison Bashford, and Sujit Sivasundaram, eds. Oceanic Histories, Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, W.W. Norton, 2020.
Consult this work for further information on whaling in the U.S. across centurie: Eric Jay Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, W.W. Norton, 2007.
To explore overfishing in modernity, consult the following two articles: Amia Srinivasan, “What Have We Done to the Whale?”, The New Yorker, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/24/what-have-we-done-to-the-whale; Ed Yong, “The Enormous Hole That Whaling Left Behind”, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/11/whaling-whales-food-krill-iron/620604/.