Scrimshaws and the fascinating story of Rachel Pringle Polgreen

Rachel pringleI first became involved with Manchester Museum in 2007 when I was on a volunteer programme called “InTouch”. One of the new participants in 2008 on this learning program brought in an object to talk about that they didn’t know much about except that even though it looked quite collectable, although they didn’t like it, and so kept hiding it all over the house!

After a bit of research we were able to tell them that it was scrimshaw work, which is carving or engraving that was practised by sailors of whaling ships; whale ivory (teeth), walrus tusk and whalebone were ideally suited for the task as readily available by-products of their industry that were both easy to work with and in plentiful supply. The term originally referred to the making of these tools, only later referring to works of art created by whalers in their spare time. The making of scrimshaws began on whaling ships in 1745 to 1759 and only survived until whaling was banned commercially.

Further research revealed his particular scrimshaw was of a lady called Rachel Pringle.

Rachel Pringle was born around 1753, the daughter of an African female slave and her master, William Lauder. Lauder was a Scottish schoolmaster who fled England in disgrace after he had written and published some attacks on the great, perhaps the greatest, English poet John Milton. Rachel grew up a slave but was afforded liberty  by a sea captain, Thomas Pringle. At this point Rachel dropped the name Lauder and took the name Pringle. Rachel, it seems, could not produce an heir for Thomas Pringle, so Pringle left her. Rachel overcame her adversity, finding another husband, named Polgreen, whose name she then took.

priRachel’s is an inspiring story. Soon she appeared in the records as a property owner. In 1780 further records can be found on Rachel Pringle which showed she owned a hotel and was the first black woman in history to do so. This was not just a hotel, but a prime hotel and in 1786 and 1789 Prince William Henry, later King William IV of England, visited Barbados while serving as a Navel Captain and stayed in Rachel’s hotel. In addition to her hotel, Rachel owned ten properties on Canary Street, now George Street, Barbados. She was renowned in the 18th Century as an hotelier, entertainer of princes and commoners, sailors and soldiers.

Rachel however died at the age of 38, after her death it was recorded she owned several houses, land and 19 slaves, 6 of whom were to be freed from slavery by the terms of her will.

Scrimshaw work can tell a story and often be related to history. Sometimes the work can have high value for as folk art for its primitive look, but most collectors want high detail and a great subject. On some scrimshaws you can find beautiful maidens, couples, portraits, whaling ships, American eagles, political and whaling scenes, home ports or ports visited, and sometimes a tooth is completely covered with intricate stories, some with named places and dates. Surprisingly, most scrimshaw work is not signed.

Written by Shaun Bennett

Further reading

Information about scrimshaws
Biography of Rachel Pringle Polgreen

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