Thursday, 3 May 2012

Starving in the Belly

               Speaking of elephants, and getting back to ivory, a couple of Old Testament verses come to mind.

For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.
(1 Kings 10:22)

For the king's ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram: every three years once came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks. (2 Chronicles 9:21)

I remember learning John Masefield’s Cargoes by heart at school ;
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir, 

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

In the Book of Jonah, God commands Jonah to go the Nineveh but Jonah disobeys him and flees to Tarshish instead. God sends a tempest to hinder Jonah, so Jonah volunteers to be thrown overboard from the ship, which ends the storm.

Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17) 

In Chapter 9 of Moby Dick, Father Mapple preaches a sermon on the subject of Jonah, telling how, as he enters the sea;

“… he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.”

The ivory teeth of the Sperm Whale were carved by whalers, an art known as scrimshaw. Further on in Moby Dick, in Chapter 57, Melville writes:  

"Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material, in their hours of ocean leisure. Some of them have little boxes of dentistical-looking implements, specially intended for the skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their jack-knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner’s fancy.”  

This is a reproduction of a whale tooth. It is decorated with the image of a ship, The Dakota, and has ‘Nantucket’ inscribed on the back. It is cast from resin and has been patinated to give it an aged look. Like all other forms of ivory, whale’s teeth are now protected by laws, but it doesn’t stop either the trade in illegal ivory, or copies like this one being offered as genuine. If scrimshaw like this fools you, well, frankly, you deserve to be fooled.  

The Dakota was one of the last whalers to sail from Nantucket, (when a whale was harpooned, it could drag the whaling launch across the sea at great speed - this was known as a Nantucket Sleighride – maybe, if you are old enough, you remember the song Nantucket Sleighride by Mountain was used as the theme music to the television programme Weekend World). 

There is only one remaining wooden whaling ship left. Here is the box of a model of the Charles W Morgan which is in my pipeline of boats to build. I bought it on eBay for £12.50 + £2.50 p&p. I’m saving it for a rainy day. 

And of course, I can’t mention whales and Jonah without a link to Tom Wait’s magnificent Starving in the Belly of a Whale. One of my all-time favourites.

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