Explorers and others who were concerned about the slave trade in the 19th Century thought that regularizing the trade in elephant ivory could help to curb the slave trade. By engaging locals and traders in ivory trade, the profits would be quite high and would, according to this argument, decrease interest in the slave trade. The numbers of elephants were huge. As Livingstone mentions when upcountry on the Zambesi River, in what is now Zimbabwe,
“In passing the Elephant Marsh, we saw nine large herds of elephants; they sometimes formed a line two miles long.”
Source: David Livingstone, A Popular Account of D. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambesi and its Triputaries…1858-1864.
One difficulty with this approach, is that ivory had to be carried back to the coast – and it was by capturing slaves and marching them to the coast with ivory that it was, in most cases, possible to engage in ivory trade. Nevertheless, the demand for ivory worldwide was enormous, and so it was a scheme that continued to be explored. As explained by Mr. F.D. Blyth in Livingston’s Last Travels:
…England imports about 550 tons of ivory annually,–of this 280 tons pass away to other countries, whilst the remainder is used by our manufacturers, of whom the Sheffield cutlers alone require about 170 tons. The whole annual importation is derived from the following countries, and in the quantities given below, as near as one can approach to actual figures:
Bombay & Zanzibar export 160 tons.
- Alexandria and Malta 180 “
- West Coast of Africa 140 “
- Cape of Good Hope 50 “
- Mozambique 20 “
The Bombay merchants collect ivory from all the southern countries of Asia, and the East Coast of Africa, and after selecting that which is most suited to the wants of the Indian and Chinese markets, ship the remainder to Europe.
From Alexandria and Malta we receive ivory collected from Northern and Central Africa, from Egypt, and the countries through which the Nile flows.
Immediately after the Franco-German war the value of ivory increased considerably; and when we look at the prices realized on large Zanzibar tusks at the public sales, we can well understand the motive power which drove the Arab ivory hunters further and further into the country from which the chief supply was derived when Dr. Livingstone met them.
- In 1867 their price varied from £39 to £42.
- ” 1868 ” ” ” ” 39 ” 42.
- ” 1869 ” ” ” ” 41 ” 44.
- ” 1870 ” ” ” ” do. ” do.
- ” 1871 ” ” ” ” do. ” do.
- ” 1872 ” ” ” ” 58 ” 61.
- ” 1873 ” ” ” ” 68 ” 72.
- ” 1874 ” ” ” ” 53 ” 58.
Single tusks vary in weight from 1 lb. to 165 lbs.: the average of a pair of tusks may be put at 28 lbs., and therefore 44,000 elephants, large and small, must be killed yearly to supply the ivory which _comes to England alone_, and when we remember that an enormous quantity goes to America, to India and China, for consumption there, and of which we have no account, some faint notion may be formed of the destruction that goes on amongst the herds of elephants.
Although naturalists distinguish only two living species of elephants, viz. the African and the Asiatic, nevertheless there is a great difference in the size, character, and colour of their tusks, which may arise from variations in climate, soil, and food. The largest tusks are yielded by the African elephant, and find their way hither from the port of Zanzibar: they are noted for being opaque, soft or “mellow” to work, and free from cracks or defects.
The tusks from India, Ceylon, &c, are smaller in size, partly of an opaque character, and partly translucent (or, as it is technically called “bright”), and harder and more cracked, but those from Siam and the neighbouring countries are very “bright,” soft, and fine grained; they are much sought after for carvings and ornamental work. Tusks from Mozambique and the Cape of Good Hope seldom exceed 70 lbs. in weight each: they are similar in character to the Zanzibar kind.
Tusks which come through Alexandria and Malta differ considerably in quality: some resemble those from Zanzibar, whilst others are white and opaque, harder to work, and more cracked at the points; and others again are very translucent and hard, besides being liable to crack: this
latter description fetches a much lower price in the market.
From the West Coast of Africa we get ivory which is always translucent, with a dark outside or coating, but partly hard and partly soft.
The soft ivory which comes from Ambriz, the Gaboon River, and the ports south of the equator, is more highly valued than any other, and is called “silver grey”: this sort retains its whiteness when exposed to the air, and is free from that tendency to become yellowish in time which characterises Asiatic and East African ivory.
Hard tusks, as a rule, are proportionately smaller in diameter, sharper, and less worn than soft ones, and they come to market much more cracked, fetching in consequence a lower price.
In addition to the above a few tons of Mammoth ivory are received from time to time from the Arctic regions and Siberia, and although of unknown antiquity, some tusks are equal in every respect to ivory which is obtained in the present day from elephants newly killed; this, no doubt, is owing to the preservative effects of the ice in which the animals have been imbedded for many thousands of years. In the year 1799 the entire carcase of a mammoth was taken from the ice, and the skeleton and portions of the skin, still covered with reddish hair, are preserved in the Museum of St. Petersburg: it is said that portions of the flesh were eaten by the men who dug it out of the ice.]
Source: David Livingstone, The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to this Death. 1866-1868. Vol 2 of 2.