It was Shark Week on Discovery Channel in August, and this made me think once again about the relationship between sharks and people. This might be an odd subject to be turning over in one’s mind, but I have always loved sharks, and think about them a lot. One of my earliest memories is observing young catsharks in shallow water in some Scandinavian harbour, and when I was ten or so I crept out of bed and stood silently in the living room door as my father was watching a re-run of Jaws (sorry, Dad, I never told you!). Later on, I graduated to cinematic jewels such as Sharks in Venice, Ghost Shark and Sharknado (all actual film titles), while at the same time devouring (no pun intended… well, maybe) everything that came my way in terms of popular science literature on sharks.
Actually, this kind of fear-scination (I congratulated myself on making up this brilliant word, then discovered I seem to have accidentally nicked it from Sharkproject) is very widespread in our society. Many people are fascinated by or afraid of sharks, or both; campaigns and initiatives to raise awareness for shark conservation often achieve considerable publicity and praise, but any ‘incident’– however isolated and unusual – will garner even more attention, and will be labelled an ‘attack’ in at least a few publications: witness the 'Summer of the Shark' of 2001, a true feeding frenzy, though on the part of the media, not the sharks. Even Discovery’s Shark Week, which has been running since 1988 and was originally created to educate viewers about this fascinating fish, has succumbed to the temptation of putting on guts and gore and fake Megalodon documentaries for the sake of viewing figures.
I’m not keen on this development, but projects like Shark Week and other modern documentaries, most notably Sharkwater, have helped to do away with the shark’s bad image, and to raise awareness that it is the sharks who are in terrible danger from people, not the other way round. According to Sharkproject, a staggering 200 million sharks are killed by humans every year. Some of them are caught as trophies, but far greater numbers end up as by-catch or are caught commercially, mainly for their fins. Even eco-tourism such as shark diving, which is by and large aimed at shark lovers and intended to create respect and understanding, may be harmful in that it disrupts the animals’ habitat and changes their behaviour.
Today’s shark hysteria is certainly a twentieth-century phenomenon, but the National Maritime Museum has quite a few collection items which illustrate how the human attitude to sharks has oscillated between fear, fascination and exploitation for at least the past three hundred years.
Let’s begin with the gore and the drama: A print entitled A Youth Rescued from a Shark (PAH7458) shows a young man desperately flailing in the water next to a boat, with an enormous if somewhat ludicrous-looking shark about to strike at him. The boat’s crew are engaged in different rescue attempts or looking on in grief and horror. The print is based on John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark (1778), which in turn is based on a run-in with a shark the then 14-year-old cabin boy Brook Watson had while bathing in Havana harbour in 1749. Watson lost his leg but lived to tell the tale, and to become Lord Mayor of London and a baronet, but this is not obvious from the painting: the boy is eternally suspended between life and death, between the helping hands of his shipmates and the gaping jaws of the shark, and this uncertainty adds to the terrifying effect on the viewer. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the first instance of the depiction of a ‘shark attack’ in Western visual art, and I agree with Dean Crawford that already the shark is depicted as a “malevolent force” or a “creature from Hell”, not simply as a “fish going about [its] business of prowling for and gobbling other marine life” (Crawford 2008, 70-71). The print, which highlights the rescue in its title, does away with the ambiguity of the situation, but the caption takes care to emphasize “the Jaws of the voracious Animal”. Here, we may see the incipient demonization of the shark.
Another item is also a visual depiction: a photograph from the 1920s or 30s of a group of off-duty crew from the Cunard Line passenger ship Carinthia, posing on deck with a captured shark (P83480). Here, the story is quite a different one: the shark is lying on the deck, bound with a rope behind its pectoral fins, with one man pulling up its snout to reveal its jaws; there is not a single tooth in sight. I’m not a biologist or veterinarian, so can’t give a meaningful opinion of whether the shark is dead, but it looks fairly miserable. At least ten men are standing around it in a half circle, with more lingering in the background. The men are mostly smiling or grinning, some are looking slightly apprehensive. I don’t mean to go on about the ethical questionability of posing for fun with a dead or dying animal that has been caught for sport – the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there, and they certainly haven’t heard of shark conservation – but I would really like to know what these men in the photo are thinking. Are they so pleased with themselves because they have conquered a mighty monster of the deep, or are they just grateful for the break from routine?
Then, of course, there are all the items incorporating shark products. On the one hand, there are traditional weapons such as an eighteenth-century shark tooth dagger from Hawaii (AAA3098), two nineteenth-century shark tooth daggers from Tuvalu (AAA2980 and AAA2981) and parts of a shark tooth lacerator from Kiribati (ZBA5530).
Sharks are highly respected, even revered, and extremely significant in all these cultures, and none of them traditionally uses sharks in an exploitative way.
However – there are also items of European provenance that use parts of sharks: two nineteenth-century walking sticks with shark vertebrae (AAA0027 and AAA0028), several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century swords with hilts or scabbards covered in sharkskin, telescopes covered with sharkskin (e.g. AST0938) or in sharkskin cases and, most strangely, a pocket watch adorned with a shark-tooth pendant, once in the possession of Nelson’s Thomas Hardy (JEW0029).
The walking sticks were made by sailors in their leisure time, so probably do not quite count, but sharkskin was a major fashion item in the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries, used for luxury products. Certainly, sharks were not exploited nearly as much as today, but even then, the relationship between them and humans was uneasy. I leave it to you to decide who was the predator and who the prey.
Recommended further reading:
Peter Benchley. Shark Trouble: True Stories (2002) – The author of Jaws turned shark conservationist in later life and wrote this book to make amends for the hideous misconceptions about sharks he had helped to establish.
Susan Casey. The Devil’s Teeth: The True Story of Great White Sharks (2005) – No, the title does not refer to the sharks, but the location.
Dean Crawford. Shark (2008) – Part of Reaktion Books’ brilliant Animal series.
Juliet Eilperin. Shark: Travels through a Hidden World (2011).
Richard Peirce. Sharks in British Waters (2008; 2nd ed. 2011).