Indian Figureheads: Carvings from Royal Navy ships built at Bombay

By Clare Hunt, published August 2022


In the first half of the nineteenth century, dozens of ships were built in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, for the British Admiralty. The combination of timber from the Malabar teak forests and a skilled Indian workforce produced vessels of the highest quality. But of the ships built in India, only five original, Indian-carved figureheads survive. Records suggest that most of these ships had their figureheads carved in England and either shipped to India or installed when the ships arrived at the Royal Navy dockyards. Using the evidence of the surviving carvings themselves, along with archival records, this study seeks to address the inconsistency of the nineteenth century Indian-built ship’s figureheads, by exploring why some arrived fully carved from India, while others had considerable time and expense spent on a British version. It discusses what the Indian survivors tell us about the differences between the work of the Indian and British carvers, and what the attitude to Indian craftsmanship was during this period. It explores if this had an impact on the Admiralty’s choice of carver, and if other factors were at work.

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Filed under: Popular Topics
Subjects include: Ship Models & Figureheads

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