Scrimshaw whale tooth from Darwin voyage found in English village
CONGLETON, ENGLAND – A remarkable and previously unknown carved whale’s tooth which records the explorer Charles Darwin’s first encounter with Indians in Tierra del Fuego has been found in a market town in Cheshire, England.
Its discovery adds weight to the theory that it was these “savages” and not only the findings on the Galapagos Islands that first convinced Darwin about evolution.
The tooth, known as scrimshaw, was carved and signed by James Bute, a Royal Navy Marine private who served on board Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle. It has a unique provenance: it passed probably as a gift from Bute to Thomas Burgess, one of his shipmates on the Beagle, and has remained lost to marine historians in Burgess’s family ever since. In recent years it was kept in a wardrobe [clothes closet] by its present owner, its significance unknown.
It will be sold by Congleton, Cheshire auctioneer Adam Partridge on Thursday Nov. 5. Only five other examples of Bute’s scrimshaw are known, one of which sold in September for $67,500, an auction record for scrimshaw.
One side of the new find is lightly scratch-carved with four Fuegian Indians in a canoe and the title “Canoe Indians Beagle Channel Tierra del Fuego,” while the reverse is decorated with an island landscape titled “Queen’s Island Tahiti.” White metal mounts and belt loops indicate the hollow tooth, which is 20 cms (8 inches) long, was intended as a snuff mull.
Auctioneer Adam Partridge observed: “To have found such a historically important object like this in a box at the bottom of a wardrobe is astonishing. Bute is known to have served aboard the Beagle on its second survey voyage in 1831 when Darwin was invited to join the crew as naturalist. The date of the carving can be narrowed down to late 1835 or early 1836 when the ship visited the islands.
“On board were three of the four Fuegian Indians kidnapped during the Beagle’s first voyage a year earlier. They had been seized by the ship’s captain Robert Fitzroy to avenge the theft of an auxiliary boat. It is tempting to think that Bute was influenced by them when he chose the subjects to carve on the tooth.”
Fitzroy’s intention was to use the captives to bargain for information about the missing boat but subsequently he decided to take them back to London as prizes to show off to the public. They were christened by the Beagle crew as “Fuegia Basket,” a girl aged eight or nine; “York Minster,” a male aged about 26 named after a rock formation near where he was captured which resembled the British cathedral; “Boat Memory,” a younger man so named because he could not remember where he obtained the bottles of beer found in his canoe and “Jemmy Button,” a boy aged about 14, named because his captors paid his family or him with buttons.
Boat Memory died from smallpox shortly after Beagle’s arrival but the other three were feted by society, taught to speak English and introduced to Queen Adelaide. It was later agreed that the three survivors should be returned to their native land as missionaries for civilisation and Christianity.
Beagle set sail on Dec. 27, 1831 on her second voyage that was to last almost five years. Darwin became particularly friendly with Jemmy Button, the boy administering to him during his bouts of seasickness. They landed back in Tierra de Fuego in 1833 and the Fuegians were left together with a vicar named Richard Matthews to set about their missionary work. Fuegia and York Minster were married in a Christian service, tents erected and a garden planted, but when the ship returned a month later, they found Matthews in fear of his life and he was taken off.
Beagle returned for a second time in 1834, by which time the Fuegians had deserted the settlement, cast off their clothes and returned to their native ways. Years later in 1856, a further mission ended in tragedy when the Fuegian Indians massacred almost an entire ship’s crew including eight white missionaries. At a subsequent government enquiry, Jemmy Button denied any involvement.
Darwin spent more time in Tierra del Fuego than he did in Galapagos. His first encounter with the Fuegian Indians – recorded in the scrimshaw carving – and the contrast between them and the Beagle captives who by now spoke English and wore Western clothes may have led him to think that one species could change into another.
Seeing Jemmy Buttons’ cousins naked, painted and wild was a shock. Darwin wrote: “It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is a greater power of improvement… it seems yet wonderful to me, when I think over all [Jemmy’s] many good qualities, that he should have been of the same race, and doubtless partaken of the same character, with the miserable, degraded savages whom we first met here.”
James Adolphus Bute was born in England around 1799 and joined the Royal Navy as a Marine Private in about 1819. Bute is listed as a marine on board the Beagle’s second voyage to the Galapagos and could have collected sperm whale teeth he carved from the whaling station on the Falkland Islands or from whalers in the vicinity.
Accompanying the scrimshaw snuff mull are copies of letters to Darwin written by its then owner, Stockport man Thomas Burgess. He was another marine serving alongside Bute on the Beagle’s second voyage. Originals of the letters are held in the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library.
One dated March 26 1875 asks Darwin to send him a portrait as “a remembrance of respect”. It reads: “…do you remember me calling you upon Deck one night, when the Beagle Lay in Chilomay, to witness, the volcanic eruption of a mountain when I was on duty on the Middle Watch, and you exclaimed, O my God, what a sight, I shall never forget.
“Another instance, when we walked eleven miles from the —- River Santa Cruz, and returning Back, you had forgot your compass and we had to make our way Back without them.
“Also, do you remember me giving you my water on our returning to the vessel when you was—- exausted (sic) with thirst.”
In another, dated April 13 1875. Burgess, now aged 65, thanks Darwin for the photograph and goes on to explain his career since he left the Beagle. He writes: “I purchased my discharge from the Royal Marines, and went to Stockport in Cheshire, my native place, Admiral Sir Salisbury Davenport was then living at Bramhall near Stockport, and he —- got me appointed as an Officer in the Cheshire Constabulary force, in which I remained in 32 years and am now Pensioned at thirty two pounds per year. Since then I have sought for no other employment.
“I can at times picture to myself very clear some of the sights we had in the Beagle, for instance the coast of Pantagonia and Tierra del Fuego, Falkland Islands, Straits of Magallan with Port Jamine and Wignan Cove and Otcehite with Dolphin Bay, and Giant Oceans. I fancy at times I can see them.”
He goes on to ask Darwin for a copy of “one of his works” writing: “If you would condesend (sic) to send me one with your name as a present to one of the Beagle’s Crew I should think it a small fortune.”
Having received the book, presumably a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Burgess writes: “I thank you most kindly for the Handsome manner in which you have wrote to me, considering I am so much beneath you in Position, I shall whilst I live Prize the Book and when Dead have Ordered it to given to one of my grandsons who is named after me.”
The scrimshaw is expected to sell for more than $16,500. For further information, contact Adam Partridge in the UK at 011 44 1260 223675 or 223606, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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