Under the Eaves: Ivory, The Pursuit of White Gold

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Under the Eaves: Ivory, The Pursuit of White Gold

In the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century Victorian society was wild for ivory, the natural substance that is the tusk of an elephant. Ivory has been used for centuries in different continents and countries, but in Victorian Britain, demand spiked.

Here at the Museum of Cornish Life we have a number of Victorian items  that are made from ivory or have ivory components (see the end of this blog for examples). When I started thinking about the impact of the ivory trade, I knew there were connections to slavery (explored later in this blog), but I thought I would be writing more about conservation issues and the decline in elephant numbers. I hadn’t expected to discover links to the spread of disease in the pursuit of ‘white gold’.

The legality of ivory

Ivory has a confusing status. We think of it as ‘bad’ now, because of the tragedy of the decline in the elephant population. The Victorian items in the museum are not illegal. They were worked when ivory was freely traded around the world. At the time, it was something of a revolutionary material – it was soft enough to make intricate carvings and didn’t break. It had a lustre and a variation of colour. It felt good to the touch. In nineteenth century Britain, it was a wonder substance, curiously referred to in one article as ‘the plastic of the day.’ By this it meant its ability to be worked, rather than its manufacture or cheapness as a commodity.

Protecting the elephant population

Today there is a global ban on the trade of ivory, with restrictions on the sale of antique ivory. This was only imposed in relatively recent history, in 1989. In 2014 Britain passed a law banning the sale of ivory in secondary markets, but according to BADA (The British Antique Dealers Association) this has not been enacted. Pre-1947 ivory can still be sold in Britain – with the right paperwork. It is hoped that the banning of the secondary market (for antique ivory) will help stem demand for any ivory, and therefore reduce the illegal poaching of ivory and the killing of elephants. Ivory is still desirable (for apparent healing properties as well as aesthetics) in some countries, and with the global trade ban, poaching continues (see below).

Martha Chaiklin argues that the numbers quoted by conservationists are exaggerated, but also acknowledges that data collection is patchy. She also points out that some tusks were taken when an elephant had died, and that not all deaths were because of hunting. This does seem to change in the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of the elephant gun and the trend for hunting big game.

The Born Free Foundation says that a century ago there were 5 million elephants in Africa, whereas today their numbers amount to around 500,000. According to World Elephant Day, a tipping point was reached in 2011 where the world is losing more elephants than can be produced. They estimate that 100 elephants a day are killed by poachers in the illegal ivory trade.

My research led me a fascinating explorer’s account of his mission across Masai Land (available online). Even in the late 1870s, James Thomson recognised the problem of the disappearance of the elephant populations and the links to ‘distant’ countries.

 “The fact that the trade in ivory and slaves now almost entirely depends on the distant countries to which these routes lead, suggests a woeful tale of destruction. Twenty years ago countries between Tanganyika and the coast were rich in ivory. Trade routes ramified through every part. Caravans came laden [from interior outposts]. Now these countries are completely despoiled. Over that vast region hardly a tusk of ivory is to be got.

If only we had taken more notice then.

Ivory and slavery

Objects with ivory were highly desirable in the middle-class Victorian parlour (as the items in our collection would support). It is another example of global economies becoming interlinked (rather like sugar as reported in an earlier blog). The actions (desires) in Britain had an impact on the interior of central Africa. Like sugar, there are close links to slavery. Chaiklin says that ivory and enslaved people were sold in the same ports, in essentially the same distribution routes. Arab traders (the main traders) led caravans further into the centre of Africa in pursuit of the ivory and slaves in order to meet demand. The terrain became increasingly difficult, so men were enslaved to carry the tusks, and at the ports, both were sold, ivory attracting higher prices.

The spread of disease

According to Montana University’s Rob Campbell, the movement of the caravans (which could have up to 3,000-4,000 people) through the African landscape made economic and ecological impacts that extended beyond the decimation of the elephant population. The British had outlawed slavery in all forms by the middle of the nineteenth century, but people were still needed to carry the tusks through the interior of Africa to the coast.

Perhaps it is because we are in the midst of a global pandemic that I am more alert to it, but Campbell’s paper is fascinating because it draws the link between the movement of people and the spread of disease – specifically, trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness. Between 1901 and 1905 nearly a quarter million Ugandans died of the acute form of the disease trypanosomiasis—caused by trypanosoma rhodiense.

The paper explores the ideas of the pre-colonial and post-colonial landscapes in the management of disease. Campbell writes, “relationships between these populations hinged in the pre-colonial period on the careful management of fly habitat, particularly the control of bush growth. Tsetse thrive in bush and woodland environments. European colonial adventures destabilized African societies and unleashed a sweeping expansion of bush growth—miombo woodlands, acacia scrub across vast swaths of central and eastern African. African land management strategies collapsed and epidemic disease followed in the wake of the colonial occupations.”

He goes on to say (quoting another author, Lyons), “Most colonials believed that much of the backwardness they saw in African society was attributable to endemic diseases such as sleeping sickness.” Campbell says that shadow of this colonial view still haunts our present interpretations. Experts in epidemiology have since shown that the indigenous population understood the tsetse fly and how to manage the environment. It seems to have taken a generation of colonial ‘advancement’ to undo.

What conclusions can we draw?

There is the obvious – the devastation of the elephant population. As Thompson wrote in his book written in the late 1800s, that a tale of woeful destruction occurred in the pursuit of white gold. Something that has taken until a hundred years later to begin to correct.

A different point, but as important comes from Campbell’s writing about the sleeping sickness epidemic and the assumptions made about the role that colonialists had in spreading disease. He makes the point that where historians choose to begin their stories says a lot about unstated assumptions.

In 2012 my husband and I visited Vietnam, including various sites connected to the war (museums and the Cu Chi tunnels). We know the war as ‘The Vietnam War’. The Vietnamese refer to it as ‘The American War’. Who is right? It was a real lesson in perspective. This circles me back to one more point, and this is an argument at the heart of the Black Lives Matters movement – that black lives are still adversely affected by the actions and prejudices that have become an unstated, assumed part of our culture today.

Julia Webb-Harvey

Volunteer Researcher

Citizen Curator 2020.

The museum has a number of items of ivory within its collection, all identified within the Victorian era. The items include:

  • A ceremonial trowel (presented to William Trevenen in 1885 for the laying the foundation stone of St Peter’s Church, Coverack church) with an ivory handle.
  • A commemorative walking stick for an 1897 Bob Fitzsimmons fight has ivory worked into it.
  • Two swords with ivory handles.
  • The handle of a hunting whip.
  • A calling card case.
  • A mouthpiece for the Ophicleide (musical instrument)
  • Various needlework related items within The Victorian cabinet (on the first floor)

Picture: Ceremonial Trowel

Photo credit: Nina Verdun

Museum of Cornish Life