The Last Sailing of the Henry Charles Morgan in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841)
by A.C. Wise
- Sperm whale tooth, lampblack
The first scene depicted is the whaling ship Henry Charles Morgan, beset by a storm. The waves are stylized curls, the wind traced as spirals battering the masts and tearing the sails. A series of dots arranged diagonally across the image stand in for rain. The lampblack is worked most deeply into the ocean bearing the ship up and tossing it around. The ship itself is second in darkness, with the spirals of wind touched most lightly, giving them a ghostly feel. Spaces of blankness within the waves suggest the presence of hands, shapes of absence rather than definitively carved things. It is possible the artist meant to metaphorically represent the storm, the ocean as a malignant force actively trying to pull the whalers from the ship and cause them to drown.
- Sperm whale tooth, red sealing wax
This piece depicts the immediate aftermath of the storm that struck the Henry Charles Morgan. In contrast to the high, vicious curves of the first piece, the waves here are represented by small triangles with concave sides, indicating the water calmed. The Henry Charles Morgan is clearly damaged, sails limp and torn, the mainmast cracked and listing. Debris lies scattered upon the waves. In the forefront, two human figures float face down. A third figure hangs limply from a rope secured around his chest and under his arms as three of his fellows haul him back aboard. The artist took care to include the minute detail of water dripping from the man’s toes. Again, the absence-marked shape of a hand is suggested, reaching after the half-drowned man as he is pulled from the sea. Perhaps this is meant to represent the sea’s jealousy, and its unsated hunger, despite the lives already claimed. The red hue of the sealing wax calls to mind waves darkened by blood.
- Right whale baleen
The third piece shows the Henry Charles Morgan repaired, but becalmed. The water is not depicted at all, the absence of waves underscoring the utter stillness. The natural arc of the baleen is used to good effect, suggesting the vast sweep of sky above the ship. The artist has taken care to illuminate the scene with a scatter of stars etched into the baleen, and the faintest crescent of a moon. It seems likely the choice of material for this particular piece was made specifically to represent a scene taking place at night.
In the midst of the becalmed sea, the Henry Charles Morgan lies still, yet motion is suggested in a singular figure, scaling the ship’s hull. The figure is shown from the waist up only, legs swallowed by the invisible water. The arm muscles stand out with the effort of the climb, while the tips of the fingers taper to points fine enough to suggest claws sunk into the wood. A faint pattern of scales, so slightly drawn it might be missed, covers the skin. Ropes of wet hair hang over the figure’s shoulders. Seen only from behind, the figure’s sex is indeterminate.
To stretch the metaphor applied to the earlier pieces, here the artist gives physical form to the whalers’ anxiety. Even though their ship has been repaired, they cannot leave. The sea still has a grip on them, creeping up the very boards, intent on doing them harm.
- Three joined Right whale vertebrae (collectively known as the vertebrae triptych), verdigris
Even though three separate scenes are depicted on each of the three bones, the piece, taken together, is counted as one entry in the series. The first bone shows a group of three men. One holds a lantern aloft, and finely drawn rays of light illuminate a fourth figure, crouched in front of them. It is reasonable to assume this is the same figure depicted on the baleen climbing the ship.
The figure is shown in profile, the sex still indeterminate, with much of the body hidden behind a wet mass of hair. The features in evidence are thin haunches, accentuated by the crouched position; jutting hipbones; wiry arms, the muscles still in evidence though less defined; and fingers splayed upon the deck to show a hint of webbing between each. The figure is poised to spring.
The expressions on the faces of the three whalers are, if not identical, at least similar. Each clearly shows a man frozen in a his own private moment of surprise, terror, or disgust.
The second vertebrae shows the moment after an attack. The lantern lies on its side, projecting rays of light upward. The man holding it now clutches his face. The darkness of his hands is emphasized, suggesting blood from a wound he is trying to staunch. The other two men are sketched more lightly, having withdrawn a pace, and putting their wounded fellow between themselves and the creature. The creature itself now crouches on the opposite side of the men, as though it leapt clear over their heads, tearing at the face of the man formerly holding the lantern as it passed.
The third and final vertebrae shows four men holding the creature restrained. Impressionistic lines – like the ghost outlines of hands reaching up for the ship – cloud the background suggesting all hands on deck after being raised by an alarm. The creature’s arms are pinned behind its back; the taut lines of its body imply motion, a struggle. At last, the creature can be seen head-on. The chest is flat, faint contours marking a dip inward at the waist. No sexual organs are in evidence, although this may be a choice of modesty on the part of the artist, rather than a factual report. Diagonal slashes heavily darkened with verdigris suggest gills along the creature’s sides, or the extreme protrusion of its ribs. Its mouth is open, revealing rows of needle-like teeth.
Aside from the creature, the clearest figure in the third piece of the triptych is the captain, marked by the fine cut of his clothes. He stands apart from his men, elevated on the forecastle deck while the crew holds the creature on the main deck. A concentration of verdigris suggests the captain’s face is largely in shadow, with stark contrast given to the whiteness of his eyes. The ultimate effect is a staring expression, the roundness of his gaze foreshadowing mania, or obsession, as it fixes firmly upon the creature.
It is in the vertebrae triptych that the allegory of the sea’s hunger begins to break down. The details are extremely specific. Perhaps the artist chose to give the capricious cruelty of storm and sea a concrete and monstrous form. Or perhaps an inhuman being actually crawled from the sea and onto the deck of the ship. No written records from the Henry Charles Morgan remain to support either position.
- Walrus tusk, India ink
The length of this piece measures twenty inches, the entirety of it carved from base to tip. The scene is a rolling one, composed of several moments in time marked by the phases of the moon etched in miniature above each instance. The work is extremely delicate, yet rich in detail. In total, the events depicted cover a span of just over a month.
Beginning at the base of the tusk, the first moment shows only the creature’s face in close up, struck through by bars, indicating imprisonment.
The next scene shows the creature at full length, secured by a manacle about its ankle. Although the phase of the moon etched above it points to the passage of time, the artist still shows the creature’s hair as ropes of wetness, coiled against its skin. The pattern of scales is shaded more subtly, and the gills are less pronounced. Accentuated, however, is the narrowing of the creature’s waist, giving the illusion at least of the slight swell of breasts and a roundness to the hips. The captain holds a lantern aloft to study the creature. A faint pattern of crosshatching behind the captain, but separate from him, suggests a shadow watching from an unseen distance.
The third scene depicts the captain’s stateroom, a small table illuminated by candle-glow and laid with a rich meal. The captain sits opposite the creature. Thick chains bind the creature about the legs and waist, but its upper body and arms are left free. Bones litter the plate in front of the captain, while the creature’s plate remains full, piled high with food untouched. The captain’s expression is one of slack fascination; the creature is watchful, tense, its mouth open ever so slightly to show the edge of its teeth.
Next, three men – one bearing a bandage partially covering his face – study the creature from a safe distance. Shadows partially obscure the creature. Perhaps it is a trick of the lighting which eliminates the curve at hip and breast, returning the creature to a more neutral form? Though the face itself is inhuman, the creature wears a very human expression – hatred as it glares from its chained position at the watchful crew.
Following this, the same three men are shown wrestling with the creature, then restraining and leading it by a rope. The creature’s forward progress is ensured by means of a harpoon. A wound upon the creature’s side – just below the slit of its lowest gill – leaks blood, highlighted by the artist through the heavy application of ink.
The creature is next seen secured to the deck, ropes binding each wrist and each ankle, holding it splayed. The wound upon its side is longer in evidence – either sealed of its own accord, or merely omitted by the artist. The three men stand with their heads bowed in conference. The creature’s face is turned towards them, lips skinned back to show its needle-sharp teeth.
A fourth man joins the next scene. He carries a surgeon’s kit. The bound figure of the creature appears smaller in this scene, more childlike in appearance, though the bonds remain tight.
In the next vignette, the skilled hand of the artist manages capture a keen intelligence in the creature’s eyes, the growing unease of the three men standing watch, and the heartsickness of the surgeon at his work. Even restrained against the deck, the creature is imbued with a sense of watchful waiting, hatred rolling from its being in a way that is nearly palpable. Also palpable, even carved, is the fear-stench of sweat from the men. It is a remarkable achievement, and testament to the power of art that it can evoke these sensations for all that it is only lines etched upon dead matter, darkened by ink.
The scene itself shows the surgeon cutting into the creature’s flesh. The curve of what appears to be a rib bone lies bloody upon the deck. There is a gaping wound in the creature’s side, and yet it unquestionably remains alive.
In the next scene, the men are surprised at their ghastly work by the captain. His face is livid, brimstone and fire. The creature’s lips show a hint of teeth, either a grimace or a smile.
Next, the four conspirators are clapped in chains. They stand below the main yard, four sturdy lengths of rope depending from it, the end of each done up in a hangman’s bow. The conspirator’s eyes are downcast, all save the surgeon whose face is raised as if to implore God. The creature, unwounded, stands at the captain’s side, hands unbound. A length of rope tied lightly about the creature’s waist leads to the captain’s hand.
The final scene upon the tusk shows four men hanging from the main yard, bodies swollen with rot. Beneath this grisly frieze, the captain and the creature stand facing each other, their hands clasped. The creature is dressed, or clothing has been put upon it – a dress such as a modest woman might wear. The creature’s shape once again suggests a shift to the feminine, though it may be the garments providing this illusion. The captain wears a look of rapture. On the part of the creature, no such expression is in evidence.
- Substance unknown
The final piece of scrimshaw resembles the curve of a rib bone. It was found, along with the other pieces, in a canvas sack likely made from sail cloth. The sack was found in a lifeboat evidently cut free from the Henry Charles Morgan and left to drift.
This last piece in the collection is delicate in size, yet sturdy in nature, harder than most calcium-based bone, yet carved upon nonetheless. It possesses a nacreous quality, its coloring a grey-purple sheen like an oncoming storm. Where lines have been carved into the surface, the bone – if that is what it is – shows silver-white, like the full moon.
The etching on the final piece is cruder, with none of the artistry of the other pieces, suggesting it might have been rendered by a different hand. It shows the Henry Charles Morgan sailing toward a horizon marked by the curve of the setting sun. Debris, including what appears to be human remains, litter the water in its wake, along with two lifeboats, one carrying three men, the other appearing empty.
Of the Henry Charles Morgan itself, no further record exists. Both lifeboats eventually reached separate shores, one bearing a lone corpse, the other the canvas sack containing these six pieces of scrimshaw. The ultimate fate of the ship, the remaining crew, and their strange captive or guest, remains unknown.
About the Author
A.C. Wise‘s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Shimmer, and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2015, among other places. The podcast version of her story Final Girl Theory, which appeared at Pseudopod, was a finalist for the 2013 Parsec Awards.
Her debut collection, THE ULTRA FABULOUS GLITTER SQUADRON SAVES THE WORLD AGAIN was published by Lethe Press in October 2015. Her second short fiction collection THE KISSING BOOTH GIRL AND OTHER STORIES was published by Lethe Press in the October, 2016. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, and writes a monthly Women to Read Column which she continues on her blog.