An 18th century whale's tooth with excellent scrimshaw work depicting two female, two male African slave and a slave ship...with the name, Jacob Ives. This artifact was sent to one of the premier experts (Dr. Stuart Frank) at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, MA. Dr. Frank stated that while the tooth is genuine and old, the scrimshaw work was done much later...perhaps late 1800s or early 1900s. His assessment was that it was an intriguing collectible with fine scrimshaw, but not scrimshaw work etched by real whalers in the early 1800s. The fact that the words "Slave Ship" were etched over the top of the ship is a clear indicator that the artistic work was done later. Those involved in the Slave Trade would have never artistically rendered those words (Slave Ship) at the time of the Trade. This is an intriguing piece, reflective of a horrific period that had occurred prior to the time of its creation. Was the whale's tooth etched by an African American artist? We will probably never know.
-- BACKGROUND: African Americans in the Whaling Industry, From Colonial times to the twentieth century -- The whaling industry, centered until the 1870s in New Bedford, employed a large number of African Americans. This was in part due to the Quaker tradition of tolerance in the New Bedford area, but more importantly, to the large demand for manpower in an expanding industry requiring unusually large crews. Some black seamen in the business were Americans, from the Northeast and the South, some were from the West Indies, and a significant group was from the Azores Islands off the African coast. Whatever their origin, black seamen found acceptance as hard workers and skilled mariners in an industry that was physically demanding, dirty, and often financially unrewarding. Men of African ancestry were active in New England's whaling industry as sailors, blacksmiths, shipbuilders, officers, & owners. By the 1840s, Black sailors constituted about one-sixth of the labor force; and by 1900, African Americans and Cape Verdeans had become a majority. When the center of the industry moved to San Francisco in the 1870s, African Americans continued to form a large percentage of the crews. The whaling business was no doubt the largest employer of African Americans seamen on the West Coast until it ended shortly before World War I.
-- The Whaling Museum of New Bedford, MA presents the following information: African Americans have been a presence in New Bedford since its early days. Runaway and freed slaves were attracted by the Quaker majority's early (1716) opposition to slavery and the prospect of employment on whaleships. Free seamen from continental Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, and the Caribbean also became part of the African American heritage of New Bedford. Blacks served among the crews of whaleships before the American Revolution (1775-1783). Some were runaway slaves, like Crispus Attucks, who spent twenty years as a whaler and merchant seaman, before he was killed in the Boston Massacre (1775), or John Thompson from Maryland, who found safe haven on the New Bedford Bark Milwood on its 1842-1844 voyage. Others were free Africans or West Indians. It is known that more than 3,000 African-Americans served on New Bedford whalers between 1803 and 1860. However, after the turn of the twentieth century, Cape Verdeans became the backbone of the whaling industry. Although a number of African-Americans served as boatsteerers (harpooneers) and a few as mates (officers), they rarely rose to the post of captain. Absalom Boston, Pardon Cook, and Paul Cuffe were three notable African American whaling masters. There were also a few African American captains who went to sea with all-African American crews. They represented a small percentage of all whaling vessels. The toggle harpoon head developed in 1848 by Lewis Temple, an African American blacksmith in New Bedford, was the most successful of all harpoon designs. After the American Revolution (1750-1783), the northern states abolished slavery. Massachusetts took the step in 1780. New Bedford became an important stop on the "underground railway," a network of people opposed to slavery, who hid runaway slaves in homes and churches. Frederick Douglass found refuge in New Bedford from 1837-1841. He worked at Coffin's Wharf as a ship caulker before becoming a renowned abolitionist, orator, politician, and writer.