About ten years ago I acquired a sea captain’s chest from my friend Stella. She had been given it by the erstwhile Treasurer of the Conchological Society. Prior to that, facts are a bit hazy and it is not known when Cyril Rattray acquired the chest, from whom, or precisely what its contents might have comprised at the time he acquired it.
But it would certainly have contained some shells. Stella kept the sea chest in the Zoology Hut in her Cornish garden for a good number of years. In time she added to the shell collection inside and used the contents for teaching and lecturing purposes.
A sea chest is a type of wooden trunk used by sailors for storage. Historically, a sea chest would have been a sailor’s sacred personal possession, and sailors did not touch each other’s sea chests without permission. All number of things would be held in the chest, including eating utensils, extra clothes, curios from various voyages, and mariner’s papers – papers which detailed a sailor’s skills and official position on board ship. Sailors also kept references from former employers and mementoes of home in their sea chests.
Some sea chests were used for storing natural history objects. These would have been collected and bought by the sailors as they travelled the seas. They were a marine form of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ . Such artefacts emerged in the 16th century. Shells have had appeal for the human eye from the Stone Age, to judge from archaeological evidence. Once the shell is empty and clean it is an easy and desirable object to keep.
Many sea chests were extremely well built, and as a result sea chests have become coveted antiques in some communities, with some families retaining sea chests which belonged to their ancestors. In addition to antique sea chests, it is also possible to find modern replicas, which can be used to store a wide variety of items.
The design of a sea chest varies, depending on the era in which it was produced, and its country of origin. Many sea chests have a distinctive profile, with a large bottom and slanting sides which lead to a smaller top. Some sea chests had curved tops, while others were left flat for ease of storage, and many included drawers or shelves for the purpose of storing small and especially important items. Often a sea chest would have a sturdy lock and heavy handles so that it could be moved easily.
Storage space on a boat is often limited, so sailors would be expected to fit all of their personal possessions into their sea chests which would be kept in bunkrooms, butted against the wall, or in another location which would be as out of the way as possible. Some were quite ornate, with elegant carving and beautiful construction, while others were kept plain and relatively simple.
My sea chest is indeed elegant with a geometric radial ‘sunray’ design on the lid which is convex. I believe it is mahogany with ebony beading and trim. It has four fitted trays with numerous compartments, each laid out in a different design. The trays have rope handles for easy lifting and they stack one on top of another.
Whilst friends were staying with us over New Year we had occasion to look inside my chest and admire some of the shells it contains. My friend Anthea took some pictures including one of the specimen she found to be most appealing. It was a shell of Janthina.