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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The mystery of the seahorse teeth

This story goes back some years to when I was writing a book called Mr. Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World.  Basically, this was about the events of 1859, the year that Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.  It is common to hype the publication and say that the world would never be the same again, once Darwin's work was in print. The implication hangs there that if Darwin had published sooner, the world would have changed sooner.

My response was to agree that yes, the world did change, massively, in 1859, but that it was doing so in any case, and most of the changes happened before Darwin's book came out, and change depended on those points.  Many enabling things happened, like the development of the spectroscope, which allowed some new elements to be identified, enough so that a few years later, Mendeleyev could draw up the periodic table of the elements.  We hit a critical mass of identified elements in 1859.

There were other patterns as well: germ theory was fluttering around, though not yet accepted, muscular Christianity had emerged a year or two earlier, the notion that we needed mens sana in corpore sano, or "a healthy mind in a healthy body".  Lawns (the subject of another book a few years later) were in vogue, so were public parks, and many team sports—and lawn tennis, began in 1859.

Why was Darwin's world shrinking?  Communications were getting faster, the world was rapidly being linked by a web of telegraph cables, railways were reaching out as fast as they could lay tracks, steam presses got news out faster, and books and newspapers were rushed across a nation or the world by steam trains and steam ships.  They started digging the Suez Canal in 1859, to bring the world closer together.

There were changes in materials as well, and I started looking at cargoes that steamers brought to the world's major ports.  I was interested by gutta percha, a rubber-like material that was used to waterproof cables under the sea.  It also made waterproof boots and clothes and envelopes in which naturalists could send specimens of seaweeds to one another.

It was fascinating, though not entirely productive, but my interest was in unearthing the unexpected.  Like the discovery that The Times reported in January 1859, the screw steamer Behar had docked at Southampton from Alexandria, bringing passengers and pearls valued at 12,200 rupees, 728 bales of silk, 490 bales of flax, 59 boxes of oranges, 26 cases of seahorse teeth, 23 packages of elephants' teeth and 47 packages of sundries.

In late October, the same paper advised readers that the mail packet Norman had reached England from Table Bay with one package of specie, 253 casks of wine, 2000 horns, six cases of ostrich feathers, 100 cases of arrowroot, 13 bales of wool, 180 bales of skins, 1000 wet hides, 44 tons of copper ore and "ten packages of sundries". (What, pray, was the rest of the cargo, if not completely sundry?)

It sounded a bit like that Masefield poem, but I was particularly taken with the seahorse teeth carried by Behar.  We have seahorses near my home, and they are relatives of the pipe fish, curious little things looking like the knight of a chess board.  I had visions of exploited workers somewhere, sitting with tweezers, picking the teeth out of the mouths of small dead fish, and dropping them in a glass bowl.  How many teeth, I wondered, would it take to fill one bowl?  Would the ting! ting! of falling teeth deafen them as they fell into the bowl?

I wondered what the teeth were used for, and suspected a medical application.  In the end, I discovered that "seahorse" had at least three simultaneous and contradictory meanings in the 19th century—and the Oxford English Dictionary asserted that my little fish, genus Hippocampus, was first called "seahorse" in 1859 (that was wrong, but we'll come to that later.)

In point of fact, the seahorse teeth came from the other two types of "seahorse", and the teeth were a form of ivory.  To find out which sort of animal's ivory was involved, you needed to look to see where the ship came from, because if the ship came from the east, the seahorse in question was a hippopotamus (that name comes from the Greek for "river horse"!).  If the ship came from the north, the seahorse in question was a walrus.

I dealt with the matter fairly promptly, and went back to more pressing matters like Abe Lincoln preparing to make his run for the White House and the last battle to see several royal persons commanding armies: the resulting carnage from a battle with modern arms and untrained leaders provided the impetus that gave us the Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross a few years later.  See what I mean about a time of change?  The seeds of more recent strife in Chechnya and Indochina were sown in 1859 as well…seahorse teeth just didn't rate a lot of attention.

Anyhow, if you Google the phrase "seahorse teeth", you will find my name associated with a few of the top hits, but now I have some time to spare, I thought I would dig around more carefully, because I was still fairly ignorant on the matter.

First up, it turns out that my original thought of a medical benefit from the teeth had some merit. Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, died in 1626, but not long before he died, he wrote in his Natural History in Ten Centuries that wearing a ring of seahorse tooth could prevent cramp.  Reading between the lines, "cramp" here probably meant rheumatism, but did he believe it himself? You decide:
Nor is the philosopher less free from the absurdities of sympathetic magic, such as wearing a lion's claw to make one brave. Thus the wearing of diamonds, emeralds, and yellow topaz comforts and exhilarates, rings of seahorses' teeth worn on the fingers prevent cramp, the root of the peony tied to the neck cures the falling sickness and the nightmare, little bladders of quicksilver or tablets of arsenic are to be worn as preservatives against plague, being poisons themselves, they draw venom to them from the spirits.
This seahorse tooth may well have been walrus tooth, because in 1633, there is a passing reference to a Captain Bruton, who was apparently somewhere near modern Canada.  The Captain had dealt with the locals to buy a "unicorn's horn" (probably a narwhal's tooth), but then he went with them to buy seahorse teeth, and they killed him.  Bruton is a bit shadowy, so just as I left the seahorse teeth on the back-burner for later, now I leave Bruton.

Onward and upward: Thomas Sheridan's A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, 1780 and 1789 is available though Google Books, and by now, the walrus was at the front in any discussion:
The seahorse is a fish of very singular form, it is about four five inches in length, and nearly half an inch in diameter in the broadest part; the morse*; by the Seahorse Dryden means the hippopotamus.
In 1800, Thomas Pennant offered a list of imports from the East Indies, and seahorse teeth were on the list. (Pennant, Thomas, The view of India extra Gangem, China, and Japan, v. 3., 282.  London, J. White, 1800: try Google Books and you will find it if you persevere.)  Those would have been hippo teeth, but then, just four years later, this appeared in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 16 December 1804, on page 3:
Captain Rhodes has brought up several of the very curious tribe vulgarly denominated the sea-horse, nearly resembling that found at the Philippines in shape, but in other respects differing… the whole length of the animal not exceeding twelve or fourteen inches. 
That is no walrus or hippo!  So in 1804, 55 years before the OED has it, vulgar people are calling the fish a seahorse.  How forward of them, how vulgar!

In February 1827, readers of the same newspaper could learn of traders who had settled at Natal in southern Africa, where Mr, Henry Nourse had bought " a quantity of the tusks of the hippopotami, which had formerly been regarded by the Portuguese and natives as of very trifling value. The sale of Mr. Nourse's cargo, however, discovered that sea-horse ivory was worth half as much again as the tusks of the elephant, and since that time it has been in great demand, and better estimated by the Portuguese." 

That's a hippopotamus, that is. Yet in 1835, when a Colonel Fairman was called before the Bar of the House of Commons, he was described as having "…a long pair of sandy coloured mustachios hanging down on each side of the mouth, giving his countenance, very much the appearance of that of a walrus, or sea-horse, in the books of birds and beasts."  Now the seahorse is a walrus again.

Much of the seahorse ivory was used to make false teeth, even in 1860, but American dentists had investigated porcelain as far back as 1818, though in 1822, an anonymous Boston writer classed "the teeth and tusks of the hippopotamus or sea-horse" as the best of all.  By 1830, though, porcelain was making significant progress.

Still, there were other ways the ivory could be used. The story of Henry Harrison, who appeared in a Sydney court in 1838 is best left in the words of the reporter, who called himself Sam Weller:
Henry Harrison was placed at the bar, with a stick resembling a boa constrictor taking a snooze, with a sea-horse tooth top; this appendage was placed along side of him, and they were well matched. The charge was for flourishing said stick about his head in the streets, thereby placing in eminent peril the knowledge boxes of several of her Majesty's subjects; he was therefore secured. As there appeared to be a considerable question whether Henry had, or had not, been indulging in spirituous or vinous potations, and there being no fuddleometer at hand, he received the benefit of the doubt, and together with the dray-load of a walking stick, was allowed to depart; Henry, grasping his companion in his arms, dropped a tear upon the ivory nob, which had become somewhat sullied by a night's lodging in the watch-house, bowed and departed.
There's what the world needs: more fuddleometers!  This is especially so as the assorted vessels called Seahorse which get in the scholar's way of sorting the seahorses were now joined by a steamer of that name which, in 1840, started out on the Gravesend–Australia run. This one is worth looking up, because there were a few adventures on her first voyage.

A table of Chinese customs duties was published in the Southern Australian on February 9, 1844.   It reveals some rather strange merchandise. This is a selection rather than a quote, mainly featuring those we might not see or know today and a few old friends:
Assafoetida, Bees' wax, Betel Nut, Cochineal, Cow Bezoar, Cutch, Elephants' teeth (whole and broken), Fish maws, Flints, Horns (buffalo and bullock), Horns (Unicorn or Rhinoceros), Mother of Pearl, Putchuck, Rattans, Skins (cow, ox, sea otter, fox, tiger, leopard, marten, land otter, racoon, shark, beaver, hare, rabin [sic— other versions of that time show "rabbit" here], ermine), and Seahorse teeth.
Blast!  Now I have a few more items for the to-do list!!

Meanwhile, the seahorses had made it to central Australia by 1845, where Captain Charles Sturt had gone out, seeking a theoretical inland sea.  Sturt got on well with Aborigines, and when one man visited his camp, he tried to get information by showing his guest pictures from "Cuvier's Plates", some of which the visitor seemed to know:
He guessed the use of the boat the moment he saw it, and pointed to the north-west as the quarter in which we should go…He examined the sheep-netting, and putting his head to the meshes, intimated to us by signs that the fish we should find were too large to get through them. He recognised the turtle, the hippocampus, and several sea-fish, figured in, naming them respectively; but he put his fingers on all the others, and gave them a general name…
From this, Sturt deduced that the man had been to a sea that contained seahorses, and not too far away, at that.  Hope springs eternal and all that: sadly, there was no Inland Sea to be found.

The following year, the Navigator, from Boston reached Hobart, and the cargo included a cask sea-horse teeth.   Then following year, Mr. De La Hunt, Wholesale and Retail Chemist & Druggist of Hobart Town was offering for sale both seahorse teeth and dentists' gold, indicating what use the teeth might be put to.

In 1849, the brig, William, 121 tons, from the Fiji Islands, reached Sydney on February 4, and on February 6, Mr. Mort was offering for auction, 10 tuns of cocoanut oil, 11 pigskins, 2 cases of tortoiseshell and one bag of seahorse teeth which appear all to have arrived in the William.

Ivory sales continued to boom in London, and a sale in late 1882 saw good sales:
There were offered 129 tons ivory, including 35 tons from Bombay, Zanzibar, and Mozambique, 46 tons from Egypt and Malta, 10 tons from the Cape, and 28½ tons from the West Coast of Africa, Lisbon, etc. There were also 3½ tons of sea-horse teeth, 2¾ tons of mammoth, and 3¼ tons of cuttings and waste.
Then followed some sums, showing that people were beginning to get a bit of biological understanding, something that might not have happened if Darwin hadn't printed his troublesome book:
It is estimated that the 5,286 tons of ivory imported into Great Britain during the nine years from 1873 to 1881 inclusive represent 296,016 pairs of tusks, and consequently the same number of elephants that have died or been slaughtered to meet the demands of luxury for the last nine years. At this rate of destruction it is clear that the noble elephant must rapidly disappear, and ivory become a thing of the past, unless the traveller of the future should reveal fresh sources of supply on a vast scale.
The walrus type of seahorse offered another product that hardly rates a mention until it was gone, when it popped up in The New England Magazine, August 1894, 655 (my italics):
Pitch and turpentine torches, seahorse oil and candles have dickered and faded away. Tents, thatched roofs, hewn clapboards, fiddles and bass viol, the foot stoves and the sexton who supplied the live coals, along with the procession of silent, mournful faced worshippers, will never be called back, except in memory and even then after a little time, one by one they drop out of mind and print.
In 1927, ivory came from elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, narwhal horns, seahorses' teeth, walrus teeth, and boars' tusks, but the writing was on the wall, and the plastic was on the billiard table. Ivory was still used for the backs of hair brushes, bead necklaces and billiard balls for the wealthy. But the world was still changing.

In 1936, Lord Ritchie, Chairman of the Port of London Authority could report that he had found in the schedule of rates, duties to be paid on both "dragon's blood" and "seahorse teeth", neither of which he had heard of. (The Times, April 22, 1936, and the newspaper felt that it needed to explain these two products to its readers.)

(To save adding it to the crowded back-burner, Dragon's Blood, Sanguis draconis or Sang. Drac. on the pharmacist's shelves, was a gum from certain trees, used to be used for dyeing horn to imitate tortoiseshell, in staining marble, and for various kinds of tooth-powder (which we used before tooth-paste).

Anyhow, that was the end of the seahorse tooth as an item of commerce. Right at the end, though, I was trying to find out how big the teeth are in the seahorse we know today, and I discovered something I ought to have known as a biologist.

I needed that training, because to cut through all the other bits and pieces of informatic detritus, the dark matter of the web, I had to use biological language and search on <Hippocampus dentition> to discover that the fish we call a seahorse has no teeth.

In short, seahorse teeth are as rare as rocking horse manure and hen's teeth. Or space on my back-burner!

* Footnote added February 8.  Lesley Knieriem commented on something else in an email: "The text began with the words "морж"  and "плотник"  ... [and he]  recognized them as "Walrus" and "Carpenter"...  So there is Thomas Sheridan's mysterious "morse" explained!  All things come to those who wait.

NOTE: this link appears in the comments below, but it isn't clickable. Now it is!

Addendum, 31 July 2017: Somebody went to the trouble of tracing the disappearance of teeth in the Hippocampus crowd.

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

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Mr. Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World was published by Pier 9/Murdoch Books in paperback, ISBN 174196279X or 9781741962796.

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  1. I found you by googleing "sea horse teeth" after coming across this article:

    It states "hippopotamus, or sea horse teeth" on a price list for dentists. I wonder if the comma and the or means 'also called'? At least on that list?

    1. Tash, I am sure that is what was meant. Perhaps it also implied (so not walrus teeth).