Floating Gold

The Romance of Ambergris

From time immemorial, ambergris has had a fabulous value and, although its ancient uses have with one exception dropped away, it has not, like the bezoar stone or the alchemist’s formula, ceased to be prized by the practical moderns. Ages before its true source was even remotely suspected, it was an important article of trade and a component of cosmetics, medicines, and love potions. Doubtless the exquisite vanity cases of Chaldean queens, recently unearthed and advertised throughout the world, were at one time filled with a derivative of ambergris. When, therefore, we see the contemporary lady of our delight spraying her frock with a mist of Muguet, we can appreciate also the eternal verity in the line of the flippant archaeological parodist:

I learned about women from Ur.

Ambergris and several of its supposed effects are mentioned in some of the tales of the Arabian Nights. The European attitude toward the commodity during the Middle Ages is well indicated in a text published as late as 1691, the Pharmacopoeia Londonensis. The learned author of this treatise on the “Art of Healing and Praxis of Chymistry” tells us that

It is a marine Sulphur, found at the Sea-shore, chiefly in the Indies, which breaks from Fountains and Caverns of the Sea. It is gray, sweet and smooth; pricked with a needle it sweats out fatness, softens in the heat, and when moist appears black.... It is hot and dry, an excellent Corroborative; it is discutient, resolutive, alexipharmic, and analeptic; it strengthens the heart and brain, revives and recreates the spirits natural, vital, and animal. Its sweet Sulphur is an excellent Perfume; it is a good preservative against the Plague, and preserves the Spirits from infection.

This is followed by directions for the preparation of sundry horrible essences, through the mixture of ambergris, musk, and civet, which are to be sealed up in a vessel hermetically, and digested for forty days. The ripened blend, we are informed, perfumes forever what it touches, eases the headache, takes away defluxions from the eyes, comforts cold and aged people, prevents apoplexy and epilepsy, strengthens all parts of the body, and causes fruitfulness. In short, to the ailing individual of that day, ambergris was good for what you’ve got!

Earlier than the date of this profound book, apparently, the correct origin of ambergris had become at least suspected, for in the year 1672 an Englishman revealed the pertinent contents of a manuscript which had been found on board a captured Dutch East Indiaman. This document stated that

Ambergris is not the scum or excrement of a whale, but issues out of the root of a tree, which tree, howsoever it stands on the land, alwaies shoots forth its roots towards the sea, seeking the warmth of it thereby to deliver the fattest gum that comes out of it, which tree otherwise by its copious fatness might be burnt and destroyed; wherever that fat gum is shot into the sea, it is so tough that it is not easily broken from the root, unless its own weight and the working of the warm sea doth it, and so it floats on the sea.... If you plant the trees where the stream sets to the shore, then the stream will cast it up to great advantage.

Layoff hunting for ambergris, boys; all you need to find is the ambergris tree!

When it became more and more evident that ambergris was, after all, indubitably found in the inside of a whale, the die-hards trumped up another explanation. Faced with the stern facts, they assumed that the sperm whale was a hunter, rather than a manufacturer, of ambergris, and that he swam merrily about the broad ocean, gobbling up the treasure wherever he could located it. In 1686, Dr. Thomas Brown wrote, in his description of a sperm whale cast upon the coast of Norfolk:

In vain it was to rake for ambergriese in the paunch of this leviathan, as Greenland discoverers, and attests of experience dictate, that they sometimes swallow great lumps thereof in the sea.

It remained for the empirical Quaker whalemen of Nantucket to settle the question beyond doubt, as related by Doctor Boylston, a surgeon of Boston, about the end of the first quarter of the Eighteenth Century. Reports the doctor:

“The most learned part of mankind are still at a loss about many things even in medical use, and particularly were so in what is called ambergris, until our fishermen of Nantucket, in New England, some three or four years past made the discovery. Their account to me is as follows:—cutting up a spermaceti bull-whale, they found accidently in him about twenty pounds weight, more or less, of that drug; after which, they and other such fishermen became very curious in searching all such whales they killed, and it has been since found in lesser quantities in several male whales of that kind, and in no other, and that scarcely in one of a hundred of them.”

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