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THE MAHOGANY TREE.
THE uses of Mahogany are too well known to render it necessary to mention them further than to say, that almost all our valuable furniture is made of it, and that it is peculiarly adapted to such purposes, in consequence of its great beauty, hardness and durability, by means of which it may be carved into splendid ornaments, and will take the most exquisite polish. It is said, too, to be almost indestructible by worms, or in water, and to be bullet-proof, burying the shot without splintering it; hence the Spaniards used to make their vessels of Mahogany, and Captain Franklin took with him to the shores of the Arctic Sea, boats constructed in England of that wood, as being the lightest (in consequence of the thinness of the planks), and the most portable, combined with great strength. Although the Spaniards were in all probability the first to bring this wood into use, and although the French must be allowed to produce the most highly finished and ornamental work from it, it is into England that by far the largest importations of it are made, and where it is most extensively employed. Jamaica formerly yielded the greatest quantity of this wood, and the old Jamaica Mahogany is still reckoned, more valuable than that afforded by other countries. The quality depends much upon the situation where the tree grows. In an elevated spot, where one would imagine there was scarcely soil to give nourishment to the roots, the wood is found to be of a superior grain and texture, whereas, in low alluvial situations, however vigorous and luxurious the plant may be, the quality of the timber is always inferior, more light, porous, and of a pale colour.
A very large portion of the Mahogany now imported into Great Britain is derived from the Honduras, where it is unquestionably produced in the greatest abundance, and where it is an important article of trade.
The first discovery of the beauty of Mahogany wood is attributed to the carpenter on board Sir Walter Raleigh's ship, as the vessel lay in some harbour in the Island of Trinidad, in 1595. Dr. Gibbons brought it into notice in England. He was an eminent physician about the end of the 17th or beginning of the 18th century; a box for holding candles, and then a bureau, made of a block of Mahogany, having been given to him by his brother, a West Indian captain.
At Honduras, a period of 200 years is considered to be necessary from the time of the plant springing from seed to that of its perfection and fitness for cutting, an operation which commences about the month of August. The gangs of labourers employed in this work consist of from 20 to 50 each. They are composed of slaves and free persons, without any comparative distinction of rank; and it frequently happens that the conductor of such work, here styled the Captain, is a slave. Each gang has also one person belonging to it, called the Huntsman, who is generally selected from the most intelligent of his fellows, and his chief occupation is, to search the woods, or as it is called in this country the bush, to find employment for the whole. Accordingly, about the beginning of August, the Huntsman is dispatched on his important errand, and, if the owner be employed upon his own ground, this is seldom a work of much difficulty or labour. He cuts his way into the most elevated situation, among the thickest woods, where he climbs the tallest tree he can find, and thence carefully surveys the surrounding country.
At this season the leaves of the Mahogany tree are invariably of a yellow-reddish hue ; and an eye accustomed to this kind of exercise can, at great distances, discern the places where the wood is most abundant. To such a spot are his steps directed ; and without compass, or any other guide than that his recollection affords, he never fails to reach the exact spot at which he aims. On some occasions no ordinary stratagem is necessary to be resorted to by the Huntsman to prevent others from availing themselves of the advantage of his discoveries, for if his steps be traced by those who may be engaged in the same pur