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19. James Steuart’s box of oysters at the Museum of Natural History (1868)

By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)

The historians’ job is akin to the detectives’: we ferret out clues, evaluate evidence and make deductions. But what do we do when trails run cold? My doctoral research is on the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar. Sometime between 1820 and 1830, the painter Hippolyte Silvaf made twelve water-colours of the fishery in Ceylon. As sources, these paintings would have offered incredible visual insights into the industry long before the advent of photography. Unfortunately, in 1989, all the paintings were stolen from the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) where they had been held since 1908. No one has been able to track them down since. But perhaps we needed to broaden our search.

On 25 May 1868, Captain James Steuart donated a box of 11 oyster specimens to the British Museum. Although the box is rarely consulted by historians, mounted on the inside lid of the box is a painting of the fishery titled ‘Boats returning from the Ceylon Pearl Banks in March’. * Although it is unsigned, we can compare it with Silvaf’s oeuvre and with the description of his paintings recorded by RCS librarians to deduce that this is a copy of one of the lost paintings, ‘Scene at Silawatorre: boats returning from the Pearl Banks’. The box of specimens, which, bound up with colonial practices of collection and documentation, has ensured that at least one of these remarkable paintings survives today!

*My thanks to Tom White at the Museum of Natural History and Rachel Rowe at the Royal Commonwealth Society for their help putting the pieces together.

Image: Edwin William Streeter, ‘Auction of Pearl Oysters in Ceylon’ from Pearls and Pearling Life (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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