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Pricked to the Bone

Amongst the Museum’s collection of scrimshaw is this little gem currently on display in our Tasmanian Connections exhibition.

The man who first collected this whale’s tooth, John Watt Beattie, did not record where it came from. As with most scrimshaw, the sailor who worked this tooth remains a mystery. Sailors pricked and cut their designs into whalebone to while away the time on long sea voyages, filling the grooves with soot or ink to create these very personal works of art.

Even though the man and woman on this tooth are seated in a little group with their dog, in the same way that Victorian ladies and gentlemen were portrayed at that time, the people shown here have always been described as a New Zealand Māori warrior with his wife, dog and musket. They are interesting because of their traditional clothing, such as their cloaks, while at the same time the feathers in the man’s hair and the designs on his chest could be open to further interpretation. It must be remembered that scrimshaw was not a precise art – sailors might copy pictures they had seen in a magazine and sometimes they made up their own designs.

Although New Zealand is the width of the Tasman Sea away, it is no surprise that this piece ended up in Tasmania. In the early days of the colony we had a large whaling industry and New Zealand waters were part of our local hunting grounds. As early as September 1805, less than two years after the arrival of the first convict ships, the Reverend Robert Knopwood, Tasmania’s first chaplain, wrote in his diary that ‘when the [whaling] season ends here, the fishery begins at New Zealand’.

(QVM:1985:H:0069)

(QVM:1985:H:0069)

Jai Paterson, QVMAG Honorary Research Associate and Volunteer

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