The World's Worst Job

London Commercial Report, January 9, 1905.

Scrolling through the financial tables listed on January 9th, I came across a chart detailing ivory deliveries to London. In the midst of reflecting on what 39 tons of elephant tusks would look like, I noticed an odd source of ivory mentioned in the chart: “Sea Horse Teeth.” This piqued my curiosity, as I had no idea that sea horses were a source of ivory. I immediately began to scheme–I could open the first sustainable sea horse ivory farm. But in the midst of this, a problem arose. How does one extract sea horse teeth? Tweezers and a magnifying glass? That sounds like a painstakingly miserable job. Also the chart mentioned that 10 cwt. 1 qrs. 14 lb. (about 144 pounds) of sea horse teeth were delivered! How long would extracting that many teeth take? It might be a venture perfectly suited for the British Colonial project, but I realized I had much less capital to work with (also less forced native labor). It dawned on me that there is no earthly way that this chart is talking about the same sea horse that I am familiar with. A google search revealed I was not the first person to be puzzled about the true source of this ivory. This link describes a writer’s journey though old trade documents to discover what animal exactly is being referred to after encountering a similar reference to sea horse teeth, before finally realizing that sea horses don’t even have teeth!

Misinformed Propaganda

His conclusion was that it depended on the source of the shipment. If from the polar areas, it would be walrus, but if from Africa, it would be referring to hippopotamus teeth. I admit, in this context hippopotamus teeth makes a lot more sense. The word hippopotamus originally comes from Greek, and translates to “river horse,” while the genus of the seahorse, hippocampus, comes from the Greek words for horse and sea monster. It would seem perhaps that these animals were named a bit backwards. I haven’t been able to find official data on seahorse attack fatalities, but what I have read of hippopotamus’ make them seem far more monstrous, with one article quoting a statistic provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation that the animal causes upwards of 500 fatalities a year. This chart also provides a snapshot of the global ivory trade before it was realized how much environmental damage was actually being done. See this link for a short documentary on the subject. So while my hopes for a sustainable ivory business might be dashed, I suppose the sea horses can rest easy for now.

Will Hanley
Will Hanley
Associate Professor of History

I study the legal history of the Middle East and teach at Florida State University.