A sailor’s take on gift-giving

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Sailor's Valentine, date unknown. Collection of the Southland Museum & Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha. Gift of the Hunter Family, 1944.

IT’S the 19th century. You’re a sailor and your work takes you to all kinds of exotic places, often for long periods of time.

This makes buying gifts for your loved ones rather tricky, as you can’t get away with presenting your special someone with something you hastily picked up at the local department store.

One Southlander, who possibly faced this dilemma, was Captain John Clarke Hunter (1823-1901).

Born in Ireland, Capt Hunter was a sailor by profession, going on to obtain his Master Mariners Certificate in 1854. This certificate enabled him to serve as the master of a merchant ship on any size or type, operating anywhere in the world.

He married a mariner’s daughter, Martha Campbell, in Belfast in February 1851. The couple had two children before immigrating to Melbourne (Australia) aboard the Invincible in 1857. After the birth of their third child, the family set sail once again, settling in Invercargill.

With a growing family to care for, Capt Hunter left the sea and took up the role of town clerk. He briefly found his sea legs again during the West Coast gold rush in the mid-1860s, before taking up the role of stationmaster at Bluff, a position he held until his retirement.

The Southland Museum held a selection of items from the Hunter family estate which were thought to have been acquired by John and/or his father-in-law, James Campbell, during their seafaring days. Among the most fascinating was this shell-encrusted confection known as a sailors’ valentine.

So named because they were designed to be brought home from a sailor’s voyage and given to a loved one, a sailor’s valentine consisted of an octagonal box hinged along one edge, with each half containing an intricate pattern composed of seashells.

The sailor’s valentine belonging to the Hunter family was very typical of the art form, including the prominent use of the rose motif the figure on compasses, maps and nautical charts which indicated the orientation of the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west).

Aww you say. Think of the hours John or James spent collecting and arranging those shells while he pinned away for his beloved during his months at sea. Errmuch.

While the tradition may have been started by a sailor at some point, as early as 1750 it had been transformed into its very own cottage industry centred on Belgraves Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown, Barbados.

Barbados was an important seaport at the time, and was often the last stop on the journey home for many sailors.

Seeing a gap in the last-minute souvenir market, the shop’s owner, Benjamin Hinds Belgrave, organised local women to produce them for sale.

The intricateness of the patterns and the clever use of different coloured shells were a testament to the skill of these women.

If only we could know what the recipient thought about it.

  • Kimberley Stephenson is collections manager at the Southland Museum & Art Gallery
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