This sperm whale tooth features a sketch of a busy whale hunt. Four large ships and their rowing boats are shown chasing a pod of whales. During the many long hours spent at sea, whalers often amused themselves by creating intricately detailed scrimshaws for their families, friends and sweethearts. Carved on the bone, teeth and baleen of whales, crude sailing needles were used to etch into the surface and then soot, tobacco juice and later ink were used to bring the design to view.
During the early nineteenth century, whaling and sealing were a valuable global industry. The world was hungry for fur and oil and the North Atlantic could not keep up with demand. Cook had returned from his voyages telling of the plentiful marine life in polar waters and it was only a matter of time before the whalers and sealers started to look further south for their prey. Discoveries soon followed.
In February 1819, William Smith, the skipper of an English sealing ship, the Williams, was blown south as he rounded Cape Horn and found the South Shetland Islands just off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Hearing news of his discovery, the British Admiralty commissioned Smith to survey the islands under the command of Edward Bransfield the following summer.
Sailing from Chile in early 1820, Bransfield and Smith had an uneventful voyage to the islands. After claiming King George Island for the British Crown, they sailed further south and on 30 January 1820 caught sight of the Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland. Antarctica had been seen. Bransfield made note in his journal of two ‘high mountains, covered with snow’. Unknown to Bransfield, however, Thaddeus von Bellinghausen, leading a Russian Antarctic expedition on his ship the Vostok, may well have caught sight of the icy Antarctic coastline two weeks earlier, although he had only been able to report seeing ‘a solid stretch of ice’.
News of Bransfield and Smith’s discovery quickly spread to the New England and British ports, triggering a rush to the South Shetland Islands to exploit the breeding fur seals for their skins. By the end of 1820 at least 69 vessels were operating around the archipelago, with another 49 vessels the following season. The impact on the fur seal population was devastating and by 1825 the boom was over – their numbers were decimated.
Currently on display at the Canterbury Museum. N.Z.