For a substance that is often dubbed as ‘whale vomit’, ambergris has an unexpectedly interesting history that spans different cultures and continents.
Historical records from the 9th century onwards indicate that the Arabs valued it for its medicinal properties and they knew it was always found along the seashore. The famous physician Ibn Sina wrote that a fountain in the middle of the ocean spouted ambar, while another physician, Yuhanna ibn Sarabi, insisted it was a marine mushroom that periodically got washed ashore. In later times, the Arabs believed that when whales consumed this substance, it scorched their innards and made them throw up. Perhaps its lumpy greyish white appearance reminded them of the embers of a fire and stoked this explanation. Despite its dubious origin, the Arabs believed that when ambergris was given to people in medicinal doses, it strengthened the body, heightened the senses, and acted as an aphrodisiac (of course).
Moreover, they probably introduced it into the Indian mainland in the 8–9th century, where it was known as sugandhi dravya (an aromatic product) or matsyika (a product from a fish). In addition, we know from a precise account by an Arab merchant, Sulaiman of Basra, that ambergris was found along the island shores of the Bay of Bengal during the south-west monsoon and that the Nicobaris bartered it with outsiders, in exchange for iron.
In the European world, ambergris was known to the Greeks and Romans through their trade links with the Arabs and Indians. However, they believed it was the resin of a tree. It is likely that during the Crusades (11–13th century), the use of ambergris became known to a larger number of European countries, such as Spain, Italy, England, and France. In fact, the word ambergris itself comes from French— ambre gris means grey amber. The colour differentiated it from real amber, which is a yellow fossilised plant resin (ambre jaune).
The Arabs sold ambergris to the Chinese too—records from the 13th century indicate that the Chinese valued its medicinal properties, although they had a different explanation for how it was formed. They believed that the Sea of the Arabs contained many dragons and when these monsters slept with their mouths open (like guileless children), their spittle formed hard lumps in the sea water and got washed ashore as ambergris.
The European appetite for trade had increased considerably by this time and naval expeditions were sent to different corners of the world. For instance, the explorer Marco Polo’s travelogue mentions that many ships called at the islands of Socotra, Zanzibar, and Madagascar to obtain ambergris. He also notes that the Nicobaris harpooned the whales, dragged them ashore, and disembowelled them to extract ambergris and spermaceti oil. By the 14th century, ambergris was well-known to Europeans as gemma marina, the treasure of the sea. However, most Europeans unimaginatively believed it to be a type of bitumen that oozed up from the sea floor. The Chinese Ming emperors also sent out naval expeditions in the 15th century. Explorers such as Fei Hsin wrote that Sumatra was a major collection and trading post for ambergris, and its rulers sent back some to the Ming emperors as tribute.
Another novel theory about ambergris emerged in the 16th century: a Portuguese pastor and traveller Duarte Barbosa (brother-in-law of the navigator Ferdinand Magellan) reported that his informants in the Maldives had told him that ambergris was the marinated guano of large birds that roosted on cliffs along the seashore. The Maldivians classified ambergris into three types: the brown, worthless minabar which had been eaten and vomited by whales, the grey puambar that had been weathered by exposure to sea water and the white ponabar which was the freshest and the most valuable. The Mughal record Ain-i-Akbari written by Abu’l Fazl in the same era, also describes various theories including that it might be the dung of the sea cow. Like the Maldivians, Fazl noted that the cream-coloured variety, ashhab, was the most prized and it was used to make a perfume, ambar-i-ashhb. He mentioned three more grades of ambergris in decreasing order of value: the pale greenish ambar, the yellow khash khashi, and a black variety that was considered to be dross.
Also in the 16th century, a Portuguese physician who lived in Goa, Garcia da Orta, reported finding ambergris along the south Indian coast and observed that it contained the ‘beaks of birds.’ By then, the Portuguese were selling ambergris to the Chinese and complaining that in European markets, the ambergris was adulterated with benzoin, beeswax, aloe shavings, musk, and civet scent. In 1574, while translating Garcia da Orta’s work on Indian pharmacopeia, a botanist from Belgium, Carolus Clusius, identified ambergris as a type of whale excrement and surmised that the beaks reported by da Orta must have been those of cuttlefish.
A century later, the Spaniards were obtaining ambergris by trading with the Araucanian people in western South America and English whaling ships occasionally reported finding it in the intestines of whales hunted near Greenland. Wealthy English households of the 17th century consumed ice creams flavoured with nutmeg, orange-flower water, and ambergris. At the other end of the world, the French physician Francois Bernier, who spent over a decade traveling around India, wrote that India sourced ambergris from Maldives and Mozambique. Despite widespread trade and consumption, speculations about its origin continued.
In 1667, the Royal Society of London sent out a survey, comprising 38 questions, to different parts of the East Indies, to gather more information on ambergris. As before, its nature exercised—and eluded—many great minds of the day, such as Nicolas Lemery (who described acid-alkali reactions), Robert Boyle (who formulated Boyle’s law), and Robert Hooke (who articulated the cell theory). In fact, Lemery and some others believed ambergris was made of honeycombs. However, this theory was methodically disproved by a Dutch physician, Englebert Kaempfer, who was posted in Japan during the same period. Further, he reported that the Japanese considered it to be whale dung, which was congruent with the accounts of European whalers.
Finally, in 1783, a German physician, Dr. Franz Schwediawer, interviewed “two captains of ships, men of good sense and veracity” and carefully examined many pieces of ambergris. In addition, he marshalled all the available facts and wrote a report that was read out to the Royal Society by his friend, the famous botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks. His report persuasively argued that ambergris was the hardened dung of sperm whales (thus confirming the Japanese accounts) and that the embedded material was indigestible matter, such as cuttlefish beaks.
Even after its coarse origins were explained, ambergris continued to be popular in elite circles. For instance, it was consumed by the Medici court and features in the recipes compiled by Princess Anna Maria Luisa in the 18th century. In fact, to compete with the splendour of the Spanish court, her father the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici ordered his physician, Francesco Redi, to create a special secret recipe for hot chocolate: it was jasmine-flavoured and required expensive spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, and “2 scruples of ambergris”.
Today we know that ambergris is a waxy secretion produced by a sperm whale’s intestines, when they are chafed for a long time by chitinous cuttlefish beaks and, therefore, it is not dung in the strict sense of the word. In other words, this highly prized substance is found only in whales with serious indigestion. Ambergris gets released into seawater when the whale manages to excrete the waxy lump in its bowels or when the whale dies and decomposes. Fresh ambergris is black and odoriferous, but it becomes more aromatic with oxidation and weathering. Or as Dr. Schwediawer put it, “The older it grows, the more it seems to become agreeable”.
Dannenfeldt, K. H. 1982. Ambergris: The search for its origin. Isis 73(3): 382–397.
Schwediawer, F-X. 1783. An account of ambergrise, by Dr Schwediawer; presented by Sir Joseph Banks, P.R.S. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 73: 226–241. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1783.0015
Srinivasan, T. M. 2015. Ambergris in perfumery in the past and present Indian context and the Western world. Indian Journal of History of Science 50.2: 306–323.