Mahogany and the slave ships

 

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The ships which worked the slave and spice trade between England, Africa and the West Indies sometimes came back to England without a cargo; however, ballast was needed to keep the ship on an even keel, and this was made up of readily available mahogany tree trunks: Swietenia mahogani, also called Spanish or Cuban mahogany.

Furniture makers had their workshops in the industrial part of town close to the docks, and seeing this timber mounting up on the quayside as a waste product, arranged for some of it to be cut. It was then discovered that not only was this timber good to work, but it was also very decorative.

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Once the timber was popular it began to be brought in as a cargo, and high import duties were paid, making it very expensive; then in 1725 the tax was lifted, and for the next 150 years mahogany became the predominant cabinet timber used by makers such as Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton.

For the cabinet makers of the time, used to working in oak and walnut, mahogany was a revelation: the tree’s girth allowed for wide boards with a straight, fine, and even grain. Its reddish-brown colour darkens over time, and displays a beautiful figure and sheen when polished. It has excellent workability, and is very durable – craftsmen could achieve fine, delicate carving and fretwork, as well as sturdy joints. Mahogany also resists wood rot and, unlike oak or walnut, is never attacked by woodworm.

 

 

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