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Antique Seychelles art? |24 February 2024

Antique Seychelles art?

The scrimshaw attributed to Seychellois born Manual Morgan (Photo: Contributed)

A piece of scrimshaw recently sold at auction may be one of the oldest surviving pieces of art by a Seychellois. The scrimshaw, a carved whale tooth, has been attributed to one Manuel Morgan, born in Mahe in 1860. It depicts the name ‘Manuel Morgan’ in a banner above clasped hands, the date 1880, two anchors and a portrait of an American- flagged three-masted vessel.

 During much of the 19th century, whaling ships, particularly American ones, were a common sight in Seychelles’ waters, especially off Bird and Denis islands where they hunted sperm whales. The whales were valuable for their oil which was used for lighting and machine lubrication. 

 Occasionally the whaling vessels would call at various islands such as Mahe, Praslin, Frégate, Denis and Bird to get supplies of water, food and wood and the crews would socialise with the local population. Some crew members preferred Seychelles to life on board a whaling ship. It is almost certain that Manuel Morgan’s maternal grandfather, Antoine De Sylva of the Cape Verde islands and his father Francis Morgan, a native of the Azores, both deserted whaling vessels to settle in Seychelles.

 Some Seychellois men were recruited locally to work on board whaling vessels, but Manual Morgan took a different path. He was just 17 when he emigrated to Massachusetts, USA where he may have had family. Barely a month after his arrival he joined the crew of the whaling bark, Morning Star as a ‘greenhand’ (an inexperienced sailor on his first voyage.) The ship spent over two years cruising the Atlantic in search of whales. It was during this time that Manuel Morgan is believed to have made the scrimshaw and the vessel depicted is likely the Morning Star.

The scrimshaw was found in a house in Cape Cod. As far as scrimshaw goes, its size, its awkward calligraphy and its subject matter made it seem too good to be true when it was offered for sale. This raised questions about its authenticity and it was offered at auction with the caveat that it might not have been an antique.

However, according to Dr Stuart Frank, an expert on scrimshaw, “it was evidently produced by young Morgan on his maiden voyage on the bark Morning Star.” If that is indeed the case, the piece would be one of the earliest surviving pieces of artwork by a Seychellois. Not that we could claim it. According to US federal regulation, the scrimshaw could only be sold to a Massachusetts resident and could not be shipped out of state.

 It seems the lucky buyer also believed the piece to be real for the scrimshaw fetched US$425 – above the pre-sale estimate of $250-$350. 

 But is the piece by Morgan? A similar piece of scrimshaw by the same hand and addressed to ‘Andy and Jack’ with the date 1879 and depicting a whale showed up at another auction shortly afterwards. “This tooth is less convincing as authentic whalemen’s work,” opined Dr Frank. It begs the question - did Manuel Morgan carve both pieces or was the scrimshaw with his name on it a present to him? Either way, the piece is a physical reminder of the link between Seychelles and the American whaling industry.

Denise Johnstone

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