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Orthon of the Azores

scrimshawSunday Essay

Orthon Silveira: Scrimshander

by Geoff Crocker

Huddled together in the Atlantic Ocean, some 760 nautical miles South-West of Lisbon lies Portugal’s fascinating volcanic islands, the Azores.

These nine islands are believed by some to be the remains of the legendary Atlantis. That’s as may be but the archipelago certainly is, however, a veritable bastion of old-world European-style architecture, customs and charm. As though time has passed them by, the Azoreans maintain a lifestyle similar to that of their ancestors in centuries bygone.

It was during the mid 1980s that I first saw, speckled about the steep slopes, clumps of small fieldstone cottages. Their crumbling mortar and aging stones were scarred by tempests and had long ago fallen victim to the ravages of time. Sprawling green meadows lay vividly fertile and terraced in a profusion of pastel pinks and blues so typical of the prolific hydrangeas that formed hedgerows and borders to the crosshatch of paddocks.

Throughout the town, streets are narrow. They dart willy-nilly between tall tenements and I can hear the echo of horses hooves resonating sharply as they pick their way over cobblestones polished to a dark sheen by centuries of traffic.

Mounted sidesaddle upon the beast’s sagging back, an old man journeys.

Although late summer, the morning air is already crisp as it transports and mingles the salty tang of sea and other heady aromas that give hint to the freshly made cheese and crusty bread still browning in wood ovens. This earthiness escapes the world of modern confusion and remains commonplace to the people of the Azores.

Because of its geographic location, the island of Faial is the popular crossroad for Atlantic voyagers; a place to rest, undertake repairs and provision with food, fuel, wine and water.

The colourful bustling port of Horta was a welcome landfall on my first trans-Atlantic crossing by sailboat and it was there where I first came to hear of the scrimshander, Orthon Silveira.

The neat little terrace house where Orthon lived is near a kilometre from town. The entrance to his workshop is down through a small trapdoor in the middle of the hallway floor. In something of a dungeon is a jumble of tools, books, whalebone, and ham radio equipment. Standing room is limited to maybe three people—small people, although it’s common to see a dozen or more shoehorned in together.

Orthon was gregarious and loves having people around him; the very nature of the artist graced him with a keen insight into people making him more than astute at judging character.

In a far corner, hunched over a scarred wooden desk, cramped and cluttered, sat Orthon. The mute glow of a sole dusty lamp caused me to squint. I watched silently as he plied his talent, the rare and almost extinct art of scrimshaw.

All but forgotten now are those whalers of yore who, sometimes at sea for years at a stretch, brought scrimshawing to an art form. Those cheery huntsmen whilst in search of the whale would scrape, sand, scribe, and polish an ivory whale tooth into a masterpiece. They were tough, weather-beaten men with callused and split hands that matched the long, wooden shafts of their lethal harpoons.

I was alone this visit as I watched Orthon work. In an area before him among the jumble lay an ivory tooth, already smoothly buffed with sandpaper. Perhaps six inches long, this curved cuspid had once belonged to the now protected great sperm whale.

Orthon’s working tool, a needle-like instrument of scalpel keenness, began deftly scribing on the white tooth that had first been blackened with India ink. Minute scratches from the tool began to appear; depicted was a mast, some rigging and then a hull. Details of sails, waves and whales were born in a myriad of tiny white etches. Blackened once more, the tooth is then polished, leaving behind a work of scrimshaw art.

From 9 till 5 the doorbell rings and people arrive. “Be careful of the hole!” warns Orthon as his head pops up in the middle of the hallway. Some folk will simply visit to pay their respects, while others mill around waiting to buy a carving or to ask questions. Patiently, the man tends to all as he continues to etch his work onto an ivory medallion or tooth.

Meanwhile, back at the port of Horta is a disorder of fishing craft of all sizes, ferries and island traders coming and going, where they refuel, load and unload. The sheltered port also serves as a safe refuge for those needing urgent repairs, respite and re-victualling.

Many of the working craft appear dubious as they are badly scraped and chafed. In their design they are completely open to the ravages of nature—deck structures reduce cargo space. One such trader rides ominously low in the water. Awkwardly perched atop sacks of grain is its cargo, an automobile awaiting delivery to an outer island.

Overlooking the harbour with a commanding view of the distant Mt. Pico’s 1800 metre peak is Peter’s Cafe Sport. This is an obligatory watering hole where all visiting sailors meet, exchange stories, drink beer and eat their fill. It is also where one obtains the mandatory permit to purchase fuel. Known for decades as the “sailors friend,” is Peter, a slightly proportioned man then in his mid-fifties sporting a smooth and youthful face, with eyes that radiated enthusiasm.

The cafe was mindful of a western trading post as it held forwarded mail for yachtsman, acted as an exchange banker and sold various souvenirs and fine scrimshaw.

Above the cafe was Peter’s private museum, elegantly displaying his collection of magnificent carvings and scrimshaw art. Those artefacts had been fashioned and worked into masterpieces, mostly by the past inhabitants from local and surrounding islands.

A short stroll around the harbour is guaranteed to stir anyone, even the uninterested.  Depending upon time of day or night, one can watch fishermen preparing their nets, nimbly baiting thousands of hooks or hoisting ashore their hard earned catch.

Further on, tied to dock walls and anchored off, are the boats of visiting sailors. Some are splendid craft of movie opulence, teak decks, gleaming brass fittings, and lavish interiors fit for royalty. The full-time crew members of those yachts can be seen in their personalised uniforms, dutifully scrubbing decks, buffing bright work and otherwise catering to their fastidious owners.

In contrast, hitched to the same dock only metres away, will be at least one and often more untidy-looking craft. A closer look reveals broken rigging, split masts, and shredded sailcloth—the debilitating wounds of Neptune’s wrath.

It was there on that side of the harbour in particular, that Orthon was revered. To the yachtsmen of the larger, and well-founded vessels he was noted for his fine scrimshaw. For a reasonable price he would carve and etch a facsimile of your yacht onto a whale’s tooth. So often those works end up adorning a mantelpiece or a curio table in some far-off land.

Travelling our vast oceans are many small craft carrying a lone mariner or two. Those brave adventurers sail great distances on their boats; their affinity for this kind of lifestyle, all too often, is rarely based upon solid financial planning.

Diet for those folk largely depends on fish caught and all boat repairs are effected with materials at hand, which, of course, is limited when far at sea. Those adventurous souls frequently arrive in port with no working motor, broken masts and twisted rigging, little food and usually broke. Should the harbour be Horta and their plight genuine, they are fortunate, because sooner or later they would come to know Orthon.

From a prior visit I learned of the aid Orthon brought to an older Swedish sailor. The Swede’s battered yacht was found early one morning, wallowing helplessly, not far off the harbour entrance, all sails were tattered and hanging limp; he was becalmed. A fishing boat returning to port took a line and towed him to safety. A seized engine, shattered mast, the rudder gone and no money placed this poor fellow in dire straits indeed. Orthon was his Good Samaritan.

I read a few letters at random from the reams he had tucked in folders. Each was of a personal nature, sent from all corners of the world. Most proclaimed their author’s heart-felt thanks for help given. Many a yachtsman, down on his luck, owes the homeward passage to Orthon Silveira.

Portugal’s entrance to the European Common Market banned whaling and the once whaling industry of the Azores has ceased to be and a previously ample source of whales’ teeth has all but vanished.

At that time the only supply came from local fishermen who, on occasion, encounter dead whales, either beached or floating at sea. Orthon had begun transferring his talents towards jewellery making. Not often enough in this turbulent world do we find people of Mr. Silveira’s calibre. I believe he passed away some years ago—but never the memories.

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