Left alone for years at the beginning of the 19th Century, French soldiers taken captive during the Napoleonic Wars found an unusually hobby — fashioning ornate replicas of British ships, out of beef and human bone.
The soldiers made use of any bone they came across, to create these fascinating models. These rare "bone ship" models tend to sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction, as collectors go nuts for these macabre historical relics. But how on Earth did prisoners of war create such accurate ship models, out of such bizarre materials?
The top image is a bone ship model created by a 19th Century French prisoner of war auctioned by Heritage Galleries in 2006.
So much time, so many bones
French prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars held as prisoners of war by the British were treated exceptionally well. These prisoners, however, needed something to do with their spare time. Because these skirmishes went on for such a long time, some French prisoners of war spent over a decade in British care.
The French prisoners made models of elite British Navy ships to pass the time, and to earn money for additional necessities. This is vastly different from the actions of English prisoners of war in French camps during the ongoing battles between Napoleon and King George III. English POWs passed the time by playing sports.
Using pigs to find supplies
French prisoners of war obtained beef and mutton bones from the food rations issued to them by their English captors. After gathering bones for use in model building, prisoners boiled the bones and bleached them in the sun, to make the bones easier to shape and carve.
Pigs around the POW camp also helped to supplement the prisoners' bone supply. Pigs roving the camp often uncovered human skeletons that were buried in shallow graves. The soldiers used any bones they found, regardless of what — or whom — they might have belonged to.
Prisoners used the larger bones they found to carve the body of the ship models, moving on to smaller pieces and sometimes wood scraps for the finely detailed cannons and masts. Many of these artists in shackles built mechanisms into their models. Popular mechanisms allowed for the sails of the models to be raised with ease and retract the cannons into the ship. The prisoners attempted to make the ships to scale, but often failed. Their craftsmanship, however, far exceeds this inability.
In addition to human, cattle, and mutton bones, prisoners made use of their own hair to fashion sail rigging, and tissue paper to create sails. On several occasions, visitors to the camp from nearby villagers and British officers would smuggle in pieces of turtle shell, silk, tools, and metal foil for the Frenchmen to use.
A very bizarre craft fair
British Naval Officers clamored for the opportunity to buy the largest and finest models. As time passed, civilians living near the POW camps created an even more flourishing market for these ships.
The prisoners' ship-carving habits did not bother British officials. The British felt the hobby kept the prisoners happy and busy, plus the extra income boosted morale. British officers commonly organized civilian markets within the camps — bizarre craft fairs set in the middle of an actual POW camp where the captured soldiers sold their items. Soldiers who did not make model ships often made other items to sell to the villagers, including tapestries and ornate wooden furniture.
Getting one now
The 200 year-old models often cost more than a nice modern boat, when a prized specimen turns up at auction. In 2007, Bonhams, a British auction house, sold a twenty-eight inch bone model of he HMS Victory for over $55,000. The actual HMS Victory sallied as the flagship of the Royal Navy on several occasions.
If you don't want to spend the equivalent of a down payment on a house on a centuries-old ship made of bone melange, the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland is home to one of the largest collection of bone ship models in the world, and you can see them for yourself there.
HMS Victory bone model image courtesy of Bonhams. Detailed images of a 19th Century Prisoner of War model are from Heritage Auction Galleries. Tip of the hat to Caustic Soda for their very entertaining podcast on POW Camps. Sources linked within the article.