1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ebony

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EBONY (Gr. ἔβενος), the wood of various species of trees of the genus Diospyros (natural order Ebenaceae), widely distributed in the tropical parts of the world. The best kinds are very heavy, are of a deep black, and consist of heart-wood only. On account of its colour, durability, hardness and susceptibility of polish, ebony is much used for cabinet work and inlaying, and for the manufacture of pianoforte-keys, knife-handles and turned articles. The best Indian and Ceylon ebony is furnished by D. Ebenum, a native of southern India and Ceylon, which grows in great abundance throughout the flat country west of Trincomalee. The tree is distinguished from others by the inferior width of its trunk, and its jet-black, charred-looking bark, beneath which the wood is perfectly white until the heart is reached. The wood is stated to excel that obtained from D. reticulata of the Mauritius and all other varieties of ebony in the fineness and intensity of its dark colour. Although the centre of the tree alone is employed, reduced logs 1 to 3 ft. in diameter can readily be procured. Much of the East Indian ebony is yielded by the species D. Melanoxylon (Coromandel ebony), a large tree attaining a height of 60 to 80 ft., and 8 to 10 ft. in circumference, with irregular rigid branches, and oblong or oblong-lanceolate leaves. The bark of the tree is astringent, and mixed with pepper is used in dysentery by the natives of India. The wood of D. tomentosa, a native of north Bengal, is black, hard and of great weight. D. montana, another Indian species, produces a yellowish-grey soft but durable wood. D. quaesita is the tree from which is obtained the wood known in Ceylon by the name Calamander, derived by Pridham from the Sinhalee kalumindrie, black-flowing. Its closeness of grain, great hardness and fine hazel-brown colour, mottled and striped with black, render it a valuable material for veneering and furniture making. D. Dendo, a native of Angola, is a valuable timber tree, 25 to 35 ft. high, with a trunk 1 to 2 ft. in diameter. The heart-wood is very black and hard and is known as black ebony, also as billet-wood, and Gabun, Lagos, Calabar or Niger ebony. What is termed Jamaica or West Indian ebony, and also the green ebony of commerce, are produced by Brya Ebenus, a leguminous tree or shrub, having a trunk rarely more than 4 in. in diameter, flexible spiny branches, and orange-yellow, sweet-scented flowers. The heart-wood is rich dark brown in colour, heavier than water, exceedingly hard and capable of receiving a high polish.

From the book of Ezekiel (xxvii. 15) we learn that ebony was among the articles of merchandise brought to Tyre; and Herodotus states (iii. 97) that the Ethiopians every three years sent a tribute of 200 logs of it to Persia. Ebony was known to Virgil as a product of India (Georg. ii. 116), and was displayed by Pompey the Great in his Mithradatic triumph at Rome. By the ancients it was esteemed of equal value for durability with the cypress and cedar (see Pliny, Nat. Hist. xii. 9, xvi. 79). According to Solinus (Polyhistor, cap. lv. p. 353, Paris, 1621), it was employed by the kings of India for sceptres and images, also, on account of its supposed antagonism to poison, for drinking-cups. The hardness and black colour of the wood appear to have given rise to the tradition related by Pausanias, and alluded to by Southey in Thalaba, i. 22, that the ebony tree produced neither leaves nor fruit, and was never seen exposed to the sun.