Tortoiseshell combs from Jamaica

A set of two combs with a matching case in the V&A's collection belong to an intriguing group of tortoiseshell objects, made in Jamaica between 1671 and 1690 – a period of British colonial exploitation and profiteering in the Caribbean.

The creator of these remarkable objects remains a mystery: there is only one comb-maker recorded as working on the island at the time, but the engraved combs are thought to be among the earliest surviving works of art made in Jamaica that reflect a European influence, revealing the rising colonial mindset.

Combs and case, possibly by Paul Bennett, 1673, Jamaica. Museum no. 524 to B-1877. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The English took control of Jamaica in 1655. British adventurers journeyed to the Caribbean with ambitions to make their fortunes from the emerging sugar industry and slave trade. Those who found success as plantation owners commissioned luxury objects from exotic materials like tortoiseshell to demonstrate their elevated status back home. Tortoiseshell – a common name for the shell of the hawksbill turtle – was unavailable in Britain at that time, except through import from the West Indies. Highly prized for its colour, translucency and brilliant shine, the material was popular for furniture inlays and luxurious accessories, like snuffboxes, jewellery and combs.

Tortoiseshell and silver snuffbox, 17th-century cabinet on a stand with tortoiseshell veneer
Left to right: Tortoiseshell and silver snuffbox, about 1680, England. Museum no. M.716-1926. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Cabinet veneered with tortoiseshell, about 1970, France. Museum no. W.1:1,2,3-1963. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Exotic materials were valued so highly because they could enhance or confirm the social status of the returning traveller. By the 17th century, tortoiseshell was recognisable as a 'new world' commodity. Jamaica was centrally located to three major turtle hunting grounds, making it a primary source of tortoiseshell for the English market. Hunting hawksbill turtles required a very specialised set of fishing skills and much patience, increasing tortoiseshell's value in Europe as a luxury commodity which reflected both the wealth of the owner and the exotic origins of that wealth.

The case and combs in our collection were purchased by the museum from Jane F. Thornhill for £20 in Britain in 1877. However, their origins lie in Port Royal, Jamaica. The combs may have been made by a European, Paul Bennett, the only registered comb-maker on the island, who purchased a tenement house in Port Royal and may have continued working there up until the 1692 earthquake which devastated the city. Sometime in 1673, a craftsman, probably Bennett, bought the shell of a hawksbill turtle, steamed it flat and skilfully separated its plates into workable portions. Taking up an array of tiny saws and picks, he carved a double-sided comb that, in its form, had been part of his cultural heritage for centuries. Not satisfied merely with the comb, however, the craftsman decorated it by engraving floral patterns inspired by the new world plant life he saw around him. Still not finished, he crafted an intricate case for his creation, embellished with palm trees and the same lush floral designs inspired by the Jamaican landscape. When it was time to sign the piece, the artisan chose to remain anonymous, simply engraving "1673" and "JAMAICA" into the opposing sides of the case.

Comb case, possibly by Paul Bennett, 1673, Jamaica. Museum no. 524 to B-1877. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This process is similar to that of traditional English comb-making, in which cattle horn is steamed or boiled to make it flexible enough to work. The Jamaican combs were only made possible however, by the unique cultural and craft interactions taking place in the Caribbean during the second half of the 17th century. Double-sided combs like this, in-which the finer teeth were used for removing lice and dirt, and the coarser teeth for separating and styling the hair (or wig) were rich with cultural meanings. Throughout the medieval period, ornately decorated double-sided combs were used in religious ceremonies and by the 16th-century, secular versions signalled social status. The examples produced in Jamaica, however, were wrought from an indigenous material, tortoiseshell, which supplied strong colonial connotations for Europeans and were almost certainly produced in the colonial context.

Double-edged comb, possibly by Paul Bennett, 1673, Jamaica. Museum no. 524 to B-1877. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These objects are representative of cultural hybrids, combining a new world material with familiar old-world form and social meaning. They combine the traditional double-sided comb shape with cutting-edge cultural values involved with travel abroad and the colonial world. The decoration on the case relates directly to Britain's seizure of the island. The newly awarded coats of arms of Jamaica are engraved on one side, hearkening back to traditional iconography, alongside scenes of Jamaica itself: sugar cane – the most important plant in the Jamaican economy – an alligator, native people, and other plant motifs reflecting the colonial environment. The shield, containing five pineapples within a cross, showcases one of the island's most valuable fruits. While the comb's form would be familiar to Europeans as a traditional status object, the decoration indicates a new type of status or authority: the wealthy merchant or the colonial magistrate.

Comb case, possibly by Paul Bennett, 1673, Jamaica. Museum no. 524 to B-1877. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The combs and case may have been displayed in a country house along with the owner's other exotic objects and shown with pride to visitors and guests. Gift exchange was an expected part of return voyage from the far reaches of the world, and it seems likely that the combs were meant as small mementos of Jamaica to be sent as gifts, brought back by visitors, or returning residents to England. Portable items which were kept close to the person were especially suitable as love tokens, and combs were often owned and exchanged by ladies. These examples may have been commissioned by Lady Lynch, wife of Sir Thomas Lynch, Governor of Jamaica. A letter indicates that Lady Lynch sent to lady Arlington "400lb. of the best white sugar from Barbados, and a tortoiseshell box from here with combs, and some vanillas". As an amateur artist who was herself interested in painting local trees – coconut, cocoa, cashew and cactus – it has been speculated that she may have even influenced or supplied the designs from which the craftsmen worked.

As objects, the Jamaican tortoiseshell combs were just familiar enough in form, décor, and material to allow them to be accepted in the English cultural milieu – and exotic enough to support their possessors' efforts to advance their social position. They helped those who made their fortunes in the new world enter into the cultural elite of the old world: by couching the material trappings of their newfound wealth in a familiar yet exotic form, colonial merchants and planters were able to display their newly attained social status. These objects demonstrate how the process of colonisation was commemorated in material goods that were used as social capital in England. They represent the cultural compromises that allowed the colonial world to become an avenue for social advancement in the 17th century.

See more Caribbean objects in our Britain and the Caribbean gallery trail.

Background image: Double-edged comb, possibly by Paul Bennett, 1673, Jamaica. Museum no. 524 to B-1877. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London