Scrimshaw: A Non-Human Atrocity Image of the 19th century?

Kyveli Lignou-Tsamantani

University of York

This paper emerges out of my personal inquiry into how the contemporary literature on the ethics and politics of photographic representations of violence might create a new interpretive lens for the 19th-century artefacts, in this case scrimshaw. My paper focuses on animal ethics, considering the ways in which they might shed light on a significant materiality: the materiality of a dead animal body.

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Waite, Sperm Whale Tooth/Scrimshaw (1833-1835), 18.6 x 5.2 cm, Hull Maritime Museum. Photo: Kyveli Lignou-Tsamantani

Figure 2

Fig. 2: Detail of Sperm Whale Tooth/Scrimshaw. Photo: Kyveli Lignou-Tsmantani

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Detail of Sperm Whale Tooth/Scrimshaw. Photo: Kyveli Lignou-Tsmantani

Figure 4

Fig. 4: Detail of Sperm Whale Tooth/Scrimshaw. Photo: Kyveli Lignou-Tsmantani

Figure 5

Fig. 5: Detail of Sperm Whale Tooth/Scrimshaw. Photo: Kyveli Lignou-Tsmantani

Figure 6

Fig. 6: Detail of Sperm Whale Tooth/Scrimshaw. Photo: Kyveli Lignou-Tsmantani

Figure 7

Fig. 7: Detail of Sperm Whale Tooth/Scrimshaw. Photo: Kyveli Lignou-Tsmantani

Yet, what are the steps that could allow viewers to consider a scrimshaw that depicts a sperm whale hunt as an image of non-human atrocity? To answer this question, I focus on a scrimshaw created by Waite between 1833 and 1835, from the collection of the Hull Maritime Museum (Fig. 1), exhibited, in the autumn of 2017, in the second room of the Turner and the Whale exhibition. In most cases the documentation for scrimshaw is very limited; this sperm whale is one of the rare signed and dated examples. On a ship in the 19th century, the word scrimshaw described various objects that whalers created by cutting and carving into whale bones, teeth, baleen and other parts of the skeletons of the dead animals, which were killed for the whaling industry.[1] Since the Second World War, scrimshaw has gradually been recognised as a kind of folk art.[2] The whalers belonged to an extra crew of the whaleship and the journeys could take sometimes years; therefore, the creation of scrimshaw was a pastime for the whalers, while these artefacts were usually given as presents for their families ashore.[3] All these different aspects are accurately covered in the exhibition labels and accompanying catalogue, especially in Martha Cattell’s essay, ‘Shopping and Scrimshandering: Whales as Commodity and Craft’.[4]

In this paper, I approach this image/object from a more non-anthropocentric perspective. I suggest that this scrimshaw can be analysed as an atrocity image οn three different, but simultaneously interrelated, levels: firstly, through its subject matter; second, through its materiality; and finally through the context of scrimshandering, namely the act of creating a scrimshaw. To define the term non-anthropocentric, I must first explain how the word human (anthropos: Greek) is perceived in this context. As Noreen Giffney has suggested,

despite the careful work that is currently being done by a whole host of scholars, activists and artists, the term Human continues to have a performative power and often signifies a normative space in social and political terms, defined against those who are deemed unrecognisable and thus excluded from its remits.[5]

This idea of the Human as a “normative space”, which has the power to define and name the category of the animal is what Jacques Derrida analyses in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’ (More to Follow)’ (2002).[6] This philosophical text, initially a lecture that took place in the 1997 Cérisy conference, will help to set the theoretical framework for this analysis.

However, before unfolding the three levels of atrocity recognized in this scrimshaw, it is important to make a close visual analysis of the case study. This scrimshaw is a sperm whale tooth, with the decorated surface being approximately the size of a hand palm (18.6 x 5.2 cm).[7] It is decorated on one side only (the one that has the root of the tooth on the left-hand side) while the other is left blank. (Fig. 2) Depicted is a sperm whale hunt, made in black colour with a few parts in red [See Fig. 1]. The image is linear, but made with the use of perspective. The composition consists of two sailing vessels, whaleships, three small rowing boats and finally the whale boats – which attacked the sperm whales.

On the right-hand side is the port profile of a full rigged ship flying a British red flag (Fig. 3) can be seen, while on the left-hand side another ship is depicted flying an ensign and hanging a flensed whale, with its blubber removed (Fig. 4). In the middle of the composition, there is a whaleboat with six sailors in the foreground, with the one of them ready to harpoon a sperm whale, on top of whose blowhole is painted a red bubble (Fig. 5). Behind that, there is a second whaleboat with six figures, one of which has harpooned another whale on the left-hand side, while another tries to climb on the boat. In the background, there is the third whaleboat with six figures in it. All the whale body parts are depicted with simple triangular shapes. Of course, all these details are not recognizable at first sight, due to the small size of the scrimshaw. The sea is depicted with short parallel wavy lines, while simple lines create the upper part of the composition, with the clouds, the birds and the horizon. Beneath the picture, on the left-hand side the scrimshaw is signed with the word “WAITE”, which was probably the name of the scrimshander who created it (Fig. 6). On the right-hand side is inscribed the date 1833 or 1835 (Fig. 7).

The decoration of sperm whale teeth started around 1825, when the teeth stopped having commercial value.[8] These scrimshaws were made with the use of a sharp point or blade. First the tooth, which initially is very rough, was rubbed with a shagreen or pumice, in order to be edged. Then the scrimshander would engrave the linear composition or sometimes the image was stippled with little dots. The engraved composition was brought out by rubbing ink or carbon into the relief, materials that replaced the soot or tobacco juice which were initially used. Then the scrimshaw was cleaned and polished, either with ashes or with a mixture of oil and whiting. The result would leave the designs black or coloured.[9]

At first sight, and from an anthropocentric point of view, this image represents how nineteenth-century whalers able to dominate the seas and kill these mammals in order to take their spermaceti oil, a crucial acquisition in the human technological evolution at the time.[10] This historical perspective underlies the curatorial approach to the scrimshaws displayed in the Hull Maritime Museum, which treats the composition on the scrimshaw as a “historical source” or “historical trace” of human history.[11] Yet, this approach covers only a partial aspect of such scarcely-analysed artefacts. In his book Whale (2006), Joe Roman suggests that

[t]hese carvings are what remain of the endless time waiting for whales at sea, time that would drag on as whale populations declined and voyages lengthened, and they are almost all that is left of the whales themselves, who lit the night, oiled the first wheels of the Industrial Revolution and vanished into the depths.[12]

Here Roman underlines the controversial issues about the whale hunt and these artefacts. Whale hunting, although very dangerous for the whalers, was a great source of income for Britain and America in the 19th century.[13] Additionally, it was an integral part of the “rise of modern society”.[14] After all, in the nineteenth century, sperm whales possessed huge commercial value due to their blubber being used for lighting and lubrication and to the spermaceti wax from their heads, from which candles, cosmetics and ointments were made, causing whale populations to decline.[15] Thus, the main question raised is: what could be seen in this image if the “normative space” of the human is deconstructed and replaced by a non-anthropocentric point of view?

After having underlined the importance of whale hunting for humans, the same image can now be examined from the perspective of the sufferer: the whale. My aim here is not to analyse the ethical issues raised by hunting (especially non-subsistence hunting) but how by moving the focal point from humans to non-human animals, the latter can be conceived as the sufferer and thus the depiction on the scrimshaw as an atrocity image. According to Derrida “[s]ome will still try (...) to contest the right to call that suffering or anguish, words or concepts that they would still reserve for man”.[16] That animals suffer is undeniable for Derrida; but this undeniable capacity for pain is not a condition that signifies some kind of power against human capacities: “Being able to suffer is no longer a power, it is a possibility without power, a possibility of the impossible”.[17]

In ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, Derrida’s argument attempts to cross the “borders between man and animal”.[18] Yet, can one speak about a single animal? “Animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give (...) in order to corral a large number of living beings within a single concept”, argues Derrida.[19] The “Animal” perceived as a single concept is “without the right and power ‘to respond’ and hence without many other things that would be the property of man”, a view popular among the majority of philosophers.[20] However, for Derrida this is not the truth, because as he suggests: “I have thus never believed in some homogeneous continuity between what calls itself man and what he calls the animal”.[21] By refusing to recognize a homogeneity in the category that defines the word “Animal”, Derrida reduces the normative power that the “Man” or “Human” has on every other living being and, of course, on the way we humans have learned to look upon and analyse things.

Bearing this in mind, the analysis of the atrocious aspect of this scrimshaw requires a definition of the term atrocity image. This term is mainly used in the literature of photography to describe

an action on the body. Death; massacre; torture; amputation; burning; desecration of a corpse. (...) The etymology or the root of the word of atrocity has the sense of “cruel”, “fierce” (atrox: Latin). Atrocity therefore suggests an extreme violation.[22]

Of course, atrocity in this context is always used to describe something that happens to a human body. But if one bears in mind the undeniable capacity of animals to suffer, then this term can also describe the equivalent (and I use the word with every respect to human sufferers) atrocious conditions in which an animal – here the whale – can find itself. So, the term atrocity can be used under the following premise: “Just because of this distinctness, however, an animal’s life, never to be confused with a man’s, can be seen to run parallel to his. Only in death do the two parallel lines converge”.[23]

At this point, two further aspects should be illuminated. Firstly, the analogy between the suffering, pain and even death of a human and that of an animal raises very controversial ethical issues.[24] Such analogies are highly debatable, as in the case of the Derridean analogy between the Holocaust and the ways that humans treat animals in industrialised conditions. Secondly, it should not be forgotten that the image on this scrimshaw is an artistic composition. Therefore, one could say that it cannot claim the status of “truth” that even nowadays is an integral part of a photograph (although that is another highly debatable opinion in the contemporary scholarship of the field). Yet, the fact that scrimshaws were made by whalers on whaleships, and in the aftermath of the whale hunt, gives them some features of the photographical status of truth. Besides, for such a comparison, one cannot forget the difference between these two artistic mediums, and the fact that scrimshaw, despite the similarities it has with an engraved image, is a sculptural object, with a significantly cruel (at least as a memento) materiality.

The first level of atrocity that can, or should, be recognized in this scrimshaw is the subject matter of its composition, the whale hunt, which was a common subject matter upon these artefacts. Whales, throughout human history, and especially in the 19th century, have been conceived as “beasts” or “monsters”, due to their huge size and the legends of whales deliberately attacking whaleships and boats.[25] (Fig. 8) But these “beasts” were suffering during the whale hunt. The killing of the sperm whale was slow, and thus the suffering of the animal even longer. In looking at the scrimshaw, it is useful to focus on the whaleboat in the foreground on the left-hand side of the composition [See Fig. 5]. If one observes this part of the image, while reading the description of the hunting process, the interpretation will change. According to West and Credland, whaleboats were lowered from a whaleship and

when the boat was almost on top of the whale (...) the harpooner, standing at the bows would try to capture the whale by throwing an iron harpoon on a wooden shaft deep into the flesh. The harpoon was attached to a long line, so the whale could be secured to the boat and was killed using lances, if and when the men could get near enough.[26]

While the description of this atrocious act indicates a sufferer - the whale - the pain of the latter should not be conceived in an anthropomorphic way, an approach created by anthropocentrism.[27]

The treatment of animals began having a serious moral aspect in the 18th century.[28] It is interesting that the first Act for the protection of cattle was taken in 1822 and in 1835 it was replaced by a broader measure for animals.[29] These facts indicate an emerging conscience about animal issues, something that is reinforced by the way that some people in the 19th century perceived the attacked whale, the sufferer. In 1838, the surgeon Thomas Beale wrote the book Natural History of the Sperm Whale, in which he stated his experiences and observations from a voyage with a whaleship. Regarding whale hunting, he claimed that “suffering from suffocation”, the “whole strength” of the whale’s “enormous frame” was “set in motion for a few seconds, when his convulsions throw him into a hundred different contortions of the most violent description”.[30]

Furthermore, in other parts of the book, Beale mentions that after the attack with harpoon and lance, whales “have been terribly frightened, and have made the most violent efforts to escape”,[31] and subsequently he admits that “their fear in all cases is excessive”.[32] These descriptions demonstrate that even Waite’s contemporaries acknowledged the suffering of the attacked whale. Within this frame, the triangular shaped whales of the case study can be differently interpreted, although their design is not realistically descriptive of their suffering.

In relation to the representation of human suffering, Arthur and Joan Kleinman suggest that the “person that undergoes torture first becomes a victim, an image of innocence and passivity”.[33] So, if this quotation is to be “adjusted” to the animal sphere, while these huge animals were thought to be beasts, they become a passive victim in this composition. Interestingly, the term victim, as descriptive of the attacked whale, was even used in the mid-19th century. Describing the whale hunting, Enoch Cloud wrote that the attacked whale was “quivering, dying a victim to the cunning of man”.[34]

The passivity of the victim is highlighted by the fact that from all the figures of the whales on this scrimshaw, one can see only several parts of their bodies and not one of them resisting to this violent action. Furthermore, the flensed whale that hangs from the whaleship on the left-hand side of the composition works as a confirmation of the outcome of the whale hunt.

The question that is yet to be answered is what this image evokes in the viewer. According to Derrida, images of animal’s treatment in the past two centuries can be characterized as “pathetic”, because “they evoke sympathy” and they “pathetically open the immense question of pathos and the pathological, precisely, that is, of suffering, pity, and compassion”.[35] It could even be suggested that the viewer is asked to feel compassion for the depicted triangular whale figures, without however making the mistake of perceiving the animal in a “parental, gendered view of childhood”.[36]

On a second level of analysis, this scrimshaw can be recognized as an atrocity image due to its materiality. The sperm whale tooth, on which the image is carved, is the aftermath of the hunting itself. This is the most obvious indication that this artifact can be recognized as an atrocity image-object. The whale tooth for this scrimshaw functions as a kind of (cruel) canvas; in other words it can be characterized as the surface of a dead animal body on which the depiction takes place. According to Ron Broglio, “most animal, including the biological element of the animal surface, lives on the surface of things”, a surface that for him can be understood as a theoretical space that produces meanings.[37] Even if someone is not able to recognize the atrocious aspect of the depiction, the sheer physicality of the whale tooth works as a relic of the massacre against whales; because “to the whales, it must have seemed a massacre”.[38] So, how might one feel if she comes into physical contact with this atrocious relic?

In his 1991 text, ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger analyses the animal gaze and the borders between animal and human. According to Berger, when man is “being seen by the animal, he is being seen as his surroundings are seen by him”.[39] Derrida also famously discusses the contact with the animal gaze, expressing his discomfort in being naked in front of his cat.[40] At this point he examines what it means to be seen by an animal, thus his focal point moves to the animal. Yet, Broglio stresses this idea of eye contact to propose that the human contact with the animal surface “provides a possibility to think with them [the animals]”.[41] As he explains,

even more pressing than the look from animals is their physicality and surfaces of contact. An actual encounter with an animal means physical proximity and (near) contact with the flesh of the animal Other. Humans consider the raw physicality of contact to be a most animal characteristic and one least intelligible within human cultural codes.[42]

For Broglio, the physical contact with the animal surface, even the surface of the dead animal, can work as a space with positive connotation. That is because material surfaces provide “a means of thinking about humans and animals outside the hegemony of privileged interiority of the human subject”.[43]

If hypothetically one could touch this artifact, usually out of reach in a display case, the physical contact with this scrimshaw would function as a “pressing” factor for the interpretation of the object. In these terms, the whale tooth works as a conceptual space that allows the viewer to recognize the atrocity aspect of this artifact. The surface of this scrimshaw will always function as a reminder of man’s (sometimes violent) dominance of the animal world, but simultaneously (from the anthropocentric perspective) as an indication of how creative human nature can work as a counterbalance to difficult conditions, such as the ones that the whalers were experiencing in the whaleship.[44]

The whaleship, as the site of creation, is the third level of recognition of this scrimshaw as an atrocity image. Due to the lack of documentation for these objects, a necessary hypothesis made here is that the case study of this paper was created on a whaleship, as in most of the cases. The connection of the recognition of atrocity in an image by its reference to the context of production is something that has been suggested by Ariella Azoulay in the field of documentary photography. According to her, photographs

picture atrocity by their mere coming into being in disaster conditions, but the atrocity that they picture is not reducible to that which has been established as its visual attributes. The presence – or absence – of such attributes in the photograph does not change the ontological fact that when a photograph is produced in an atrocity, it is part of the picture of atrocity.[45]

In the present case, what must be examined is the context of scrimshandering. Herman Melville gave a very vivid description of whaleships and the whaling industry in his novel Moby-Dick, first published in 1851. There Melville, through Ishmael, his fictitious character, says that the main reason that people do not appreciate the profession of whalemen is because “they think that, at best, our vocation amounts to a butchering sort of business”. Subsequently he admits that “[b]utchers we are, that is true”.[46] Having seen the 19th-century photographs of the whaleships exhibited in the Hull Maritime Museum, one cannot conceive the identification of the whaleship with butchery as an exaggeration. So, after the Derridean shift of the focal point to a non-anthropocentric analysis, the production of this scrimshaw in a floating butchery – or in a “site of suffering” to use Susan Sontag’s terms[47] – can be recognized as a context of atrocity. Another interpretation of the atrocious context of creation that could be made is through the analogy (first proposed by Aristotle) between hunting and war, an aspect that would be very interesting for further analysis.[48]

The interpretation of the whaleship as butchery brings us back to Derrida’s much debated analogy between the ways that humans treat animals (as for example in slaughterhouses) and the Holocaust.[49] For me, this is a very difficult and ethically complex argument, which cannot be analysed here. Yet, what is useful is Derrida’s acknowledgement that “there are also animal genocides: the number of species endangered because of man takes one’s breath away”.[50] That can be the claim for the sperm whales, as 292,714 whales were killed only by American whaleships alone in the period 1835-1872.[51]

Although I am not sure to what extent the Holocaust analogy is historically and ethically proper, hopefully the idea of an animal genocide will be acknowledged in the future. Behind such an acknowledgment lies the impetus for the actions for whale protections since 1980; up to the present day, the majority of whale species are classed as endangered.[52] The data relating to the actions of the “Save the Whales” campaigns are also displayed (since 2011) in a corner of the scrimshaw room in the Hull Maritime Museum. In my view, this might indicate of a new way of interpreting such artifacts.

To conclude, in this analysis Waite’s scrimshaw has been examined as an atrocity image on three levels: on the level of its subject matter, on the level of its materiality, and on the level of the context of its creation. The link between the three levels works ironically, if one thinks that not only humans killed the whales, but represented this action on their dead bodies. Therefore, the Derridean shift of focus towards an inclusion of animals in the discussion signifies what a contemporary viewer is able to recognize in such an object. In my opinion, this new interpretation of such scrimshaws supports the fact that an atrocity image “urges a response from us”.[53] As a consequence, the response that is required is the acknowledgment of this scrimshaw as a memento of a 19th-century non-human atrocity, in order thereby to redefine both the words “Human” and “Animal”.


  1. Stuart M. Frank, Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved (Boston: David R. Godine, 2012), 3.

  2. Janet West and Arthur Credland, Scrimshaw: The Art of the Whaler (Hull: Hutton, 1995), 5.

  3. West and Credland, Scrimshaw, 5, 46.

  4. Martha Cattell, ‘Shopping and Scrimshandering: Whales as Commodity and Craft’, in Jason Edwards, ed. Turner and the Whale (Oxford: Shire, 2017), 93-121.

  5. Noreen Giffney, ‘Queer Apocal(o)ptic/ism’, in NoreenGiffney and MyraHird, eds, Queering the Non/Human (Abingdon: Ashgate, 2008), 56.

  6. Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry 28.2 (Winter 2002), 369-418.

  7. For the description of this scrimshaw, see: “Search Results - Object Record.” Hull Museums Collections, Date of access March 30 2015. <>

  8. Joe Roman, Whale (London: Reaktion, 2006), 95.

  9. West and Credland, Scrimshaw, 17; “What is scrimshaw?/Making scrimshaw”, Hull Museums Collections, Accessed March 30, 2015,

  10. Roman, Whale, 65-66.

  11. Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (London: Reaktion, 2010), 13.

  12. Roman, Whale, 96.

  13. Steve Paszkiewicz and Roger Schroeder, Scrimshaw: A Complete Illustrated Manual (East Petersburg: Fox Chapel, 2005), 3.

  14. Paszkiewicz and Schroeder, Scrimshaw, 66.

  15. West and Credland, Scrimshaw, 10.

  16. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 396-397.

  17. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 396.

  18. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 372.

  19. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 400.

  20. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 400.

  21. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 398.

  22. Jay Prosser, ‘Introduction’, in G. Batchen et al, eds, Picturing Atrocity (London: Reaktion, 2012), 10-11.

  23. John Berger, Why Look at Animals? (London: Penguin, 2009), 15.

  24. For two different approaches to the limits and difficulties of such analogies, see Marian Stamp Dawkins, Animal Suffering (London: Chapman and Hall, 1980), 98-107; and Peter Carruthers, The Animals Issue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 74-95.

  25. Roman, Whale, 66-68, 76-78.

  26. West and Credland, Scrimshaw, 9.

  27. Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals (London: Macmillan, 2000), 4.

  28. Matt Cartmill, ‘Hunting and Humanity in Western Thought’, Social Research 62. 3 (Fall 1995): 781.

  29. Brian Harrison, ‘Animals and the State in Nineteenth-Century England’, English Historical Review 88.349 (Oct. 1973), 788.

  30. Thomas Beale, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (London: John Van Voorst, 1839. 2nd ed.), 166.

  31. Beale, Natural History, 3.

  32. Beale, Natural History, 4.

  33. Arthur and Joan Kleinman, ‘The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images’, in Arthur Kleinman et. al. eds, Social Suffering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 10.

  34. Enoch Carter Cloud, Enoch’s Voyage: Life on a Whaleship, 1851-1854 (Wakefield: 1994), as quoted in Roman, Whale, 80.

  35. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 395.

  36. Simon Bronner, Killing Tradition (Lexington: Kentucky University Press, 2008).

  37. Ron Broglio, ‘Living Flesh: Animal-Human Surfaces’, Journal Of Visual Culture 7.1 (April 2008): 103.

  38. Roman, Whale, 93.

  39. Berger, Why Look at Animals?, 14.

  40. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 372.

  41. Broglio, ‘Living Flesh’, 109

  42. Broglio, ‘Living Flesh’, 109.

  43. Broglio, ‘Living Flesh’, 110.

  44. Paszkiewicz and Schroeder, Scrimshaw, 3.

  45. Ariella Azoulay, ‘The Execution Portrait’ in Batchen, Picturing Atrocity, 251.

  46. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851; New York: Norton, 2002), 98.

  47. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Penguin, 2004), 33.

  48. Aristotle, ‘Animals and Slavery’, in Tom Regan and Peter Singers, eds, Animal Rights and Human Obligations (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 109-110.

  49. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 394-395. The debatable character of this analogy is highlighted throughout J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2001), especially 19-22; and in Singer’s ‘Reflection’ on the same book, 85-87. For an interesting analysis in thirty-nine layers on this analogy, see: David Sztybel, ‘Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?’, Ethics and the Environment 11.11 (Spring 2006), 97-132.

  50. Derrida, ‘The Animal’, 394.

  51. ‘STW-Sperm Whales’, Date of Access 8 November 2017,

  52. “Whale/Species/WWF”, WWF Website, Accessed 8 November 2017,

  53. Prosser, “Introduction”, 9.