Joseph Allen Skinner Museum, Mount Holyoke College
MH SK 2006.249.INV
This meticulously constructed model of a two-masted ship with the name Cabot etched into the stern is constructed almost entirely of delicately carved and shaped bone and ivory held together by copper pins. All the ship’s details are reproduced in miniature, including the cannon carriages, the ship’s wheel, and the impossibly small pulleys and other hardware that make up the masts and rigging. The origins of this style of model can be traced to the long period of warfare between Great Britain and France in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). French soldiers (many of them skilled tradesmen) who were captured by British forces were often imprisoned in English prisons and prison-ships. Some of them spent their time in captivity (often of long duration), painstakingly constructing models of ships out of the animal bone left over from their diet rations. Many of these pieces were subsequently sold to the British public, and demand for this type of artwork rose. The Skinner ship was constructed in the style of the French prisoner-of-war models. The object stylistically represents a vessel from the period and was created in a technique most common during the first years of the 19th century. The original label displayed within the wood and glass case reads: “U.S. 12 Gun Brig ‘Cabot’ of 1775. One of the finest four American man of war”. This brigantine of the Continental Navy was commissioned in 1775 and had a short but successful career, taking part in various operations and claiming a number of British prizes. In 1777, Cabot, outmatched in a skirmish, was ultimately seized and recommissioned by the British. One discrepancy with the model representing the USS Cabot is that instead of the 12 guns boasted in the Skinner label, she was in fact a 14-gun vessel. However, few of these bone models are to scale, so this inconsistency is not necessarily cause to doubt the attribution.