The Nut And The Shipwreck

Who would want to paint on, and inscribe, a sliced Tagua Nut? And why? This was the question I set about answering after acquiring a "scrimshaw" nut for a few pounds at a market. 

My Tagua Nut (also known as an ivory nut - the seed of the ivory palm)  has a picture of a sailing ship painted onto its surface together with the inscription "Peruvian stranded at Seaford, Feb 8/99". The seller knew nothing about the object and so I set about  researching it. 


The Peruvian, a barque sailing ship built in 1875, was en-route between Cuba and Hamburg when it came ashore in Seaford Bay (Sussex) during a storm on 8th February 1899. Local people were awoken in the early morning by the sound of distress rockets fired from the troubled  vessel which beached in the Bay opposite the Esplanade Hotel. A lifeboat, The Michael Henry, was launched to assist the ailing ship. Captain Norholm and members of his crew were rescued but two crew members were inadvertently left aboard and a later rescue was attempted. One of the men was saved but the other lost his grip of a rope and was washed away beyond the reach of a human chain formed from the beach by local men. His body was given up by the sea some days after the storms had subsided.

The Peruvian, battered by further storms,  broke up on the beach and spilled its cargo into Seaford Bay. And the cargo? This was an organic  inedible nut used in the Victorian button making industry; the Tagua Nut.


The nuts washed up onto the beach and were collected by locals and visitors to the wreck site. HH Evans, a  local one-armed artist, painted images of the wreck of the Peruvian onto sliced surfaces of the Tagua nuts, inscribed them, and sold them as souvenirs.

It seems likely therefore, that my nut once occupied the hold of the Peruvian on its ill-fated journey from Cuba and spilled onto Seaford Beach in February 1899 before being painted by Mr Evans a local one-armed painter before being sold on as a souvenir. So when I look at this tactile object in the palm of my hand I see more than just a non-edible seed from a far away place used for making buttons. And, if you happen to walk on the beach at Seafood, make sure to look down at your feet. The small ivory nuts, the cargo of the Peruvian, are still being found some 115 years after that stormy night.