top of page
Jamaica 17th century Tortoiseshell Colonial Combs by Paul Bennett

An extremely rare Jamaican engraved tortoiseshell comb-case with two combs

Former British Jamaica, circa 1670, inscribed and dated ‘Sarah Henly, JAMAICA 1670’, probably by Paul Bennett of Port Royal

The case of rectangular form, one side with a central panel depicting an indigenous tropical flower, beneath the wording ‘Sarah Henly’ within an undulating indigenous flower border, the reverse with a similar panel with the wording ‘JAMAICA 1670’ within a matching border. The case with an original silver clasp encasing one double-sided fine comb and one single-sided coarse comb, each engraved with various indigenous flower heads and scrolling foliate motifs.

H. 19.5 x W. 12.5 x D. 0.6 cm

Acquired by a lady collector from the Cambridge antiques trade sometime in the late 1950's or early 1960's, thence by descent

After England’s conquest of Jamaica from the Spanish colonist in 1655, Port Royal developed into a large city and the thriving commercial centre of (the then archipelago) Jamaica. However, this all ended when a massive earthquake devastated the city and swept two thirds it under the sea in 1692. Combs made of various materials such as ivory, wood and horn, were quite common in medieval and early modern England and a well-known status symbol. These tortoiseshell combs are objects created from familiar forms to reflect new cultural structures in a quickly changing society.

Taken home after the ‘colonial adventure’ as mementoes of Jamaica, they proved their owner’s worldliness and newly gathered fortunes by being a perfect balance between the ‘exotic’ and the familiar, thus being a tool to obtain a higher social status upon arrival. The narrow-toothed comb probably was intended for extracting lice and the wide-toothed comb for fixing wigs but was perhaps not to be used, but to be placed in a kunstkammer or some room alike.

The Institute of Jamaica in London has eleven tortoiseshell combs, one large box with combs and one powder box. The first comb for the Institute of Jamaica in London was purchased by members of the West India Committee in 1923. It was described by H.M.Cundall in the West India Committee Circular (1923) as “probably one of the earliest art objects made in the British West Indies displaying European influence.” The tortoiseshell works in the Jamaica Institute’s collection are thought to be from the hands of two craftsmen working in Port Royal between circa 1671-1684 and 1688- 1692, respectively. The present case with combs, dated 1670, is the earliest recorded, dated example and is linked to the first group. Philip Hart, in his article Tortoiseshell Comb Cases, for the Jamaica Journal (November 1983), reveals that recent research found an Englishman called Paul Bennett, in Port Royal, listed in 1673 as a comb maker. Therefore it’s likely that Bennett was the maker of this first group and an apprentice or assistant of him was the maker of the second group. Other works supposedly by Paul Bennett include the Sir Cuthbert Grundly comb-case, dated 1672, a round powder box lid and comb case in a private U.S. collection, dated 1677, and the ‘Lady Smith’ casket, which is considered the artist’s masterpiece.

The Hawksbill Turtle’s shell was a widely used material and can be regarded as plastic avant la lettre, having the ability to bend when heated. These turtles were common in the oceans until hunted down almost to extinction, only to be (successfully) protected in the 20th century.
This set is a beautiful but poignant expression of a painful cultural moment. Bought with wealth generated by enslaved Africans, it embodies the English appreciation of Jamaica’s glorious natural history and the simultaneous savaging of it.

For a comparable circular powder box with a domed lid inlaid with a few pieces of mother-of-pearl, three silver mouldings around the box and the lid, and engravings of indigenous flower heads and scrolling foliate motifs, see: Uit Verre Streken, June 2012, no. 4.

For a comparable set in the V&A Museum see:

Philip Hart, ‘Tortoiseshell Comb Cases: a 17th century Jamaican Craft’ in Jamaica Journal, the quarterly journal of the Institute of Jamaica, Vol 16, No 3 (August 1983)

Jamaica 17th century Tortoiseshell Colonial Comb Case, Jamaica 1670
Jamaica 17th century Tortoiseshell Colonial Comb Case
bottom of page