The art of the whaler
Before we migrated from the Mainland to the Cowichan Valley, we usually headed for Hawaii for a welcome break. We had a flimsy connection over there, because one branch of our family had created a successful coffee business in the early 19th century, by developing plantations on the Big Island, high above the Kealakekua Bay beach where Captain Cook had been butchered by natives in 1779.
Greenwell Coffee has been exported all over the world since then and we still send away for a few pounds of their best beans every year.
But the big attraction for us was Maui, because that’s where the hump-back whales were, and on most trips we chartered a sailboat to go out and see them. In those days the little town of Lahaina was the centre of all this activity and that’s where we spent a lot of our time. Its original charm was built on its days in the 1800s as a boisterous port for Yankee whalers.
Being keen on whales, we wanted to know more about the history of the maritime industry that had come so close to wiping out so many of the different species.
That’s when we discovered scrimshaw, the art of the seamen who manned those sturdy, stinking sailing vessels which followed their quarry north and south to the Poles. And our interest was primed by Herman Melville’s classic, where Captain Ahab pursues his enemy the great white sperm whale, which eventually destroys him and most of his crew.
And Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the obsessed skipper merely whetted our appetites to learn more.
The local Lahaina museum and little artists’ outlets helped by showing us the lovely folk art of engraving on ivory, particularly on sperm whale teeth and walrus tusks.
We couldn’t afford the antique originals that were on display, but the little colony of scrimshanders in town were still selling carved teeth at affordable prices. So we bought a couple and at the same time I decided to try my hand in this style of engraving by picking up a few raw teeth before heading home.
Those were the days when such purchases were permitted. But in the 1970s the implementation of the U.S. Marine Mammals Act regulated the import, export and sale of original ivory from all such sources, and this was followed by international compliance. So since then, scrimshanders all over the world and particularly in Lahaina, have had to rely on fossil ivory for their work.
A big boost for demand of original scrimshaw teeth was fostered by President Kennedy’s love of the art and his family connections with the historic whaling centres on the U.S. east coast. We often saw pictures of him in the oval office with a large engraved whale tooth sitting on his desk and a couple on the credenza behind him.
This spurred the market in original work but encouraged a number of companies to create fakes, molded from original teeth, but made in their thousands from poured resin. So a great deal of phony junk ended up on the market and regularly resurfaces on eBay.
Today original scrimshaw teeth are rare and expensive, particularly those produced nearly two centuries ago by lonely seamen who were wretchedly crammed into vessels reeking of whale oil and bound to three and four year voyages to bring home more of this precious cargo. They fashioned all sorts of trinkets – napkin rings, canes, pie-crimpers and even bird cages from the ivory of the animals they slaughtered – but the memory of their art is particularly captured in the exquisite carvings they created on the huge teeth of the legendary sperm whale.
I spent many happy hours with my set of sharpened dental tools, doing my bit on the blank teeth I bought. It was an interesting challenge. My family have some samples of all this activity, but these days I probably wouldn’t have the patience or the keen eyesight to do a worthwhile job on a tooth. But I still have the tools and I certainly have the time.
And somewhere I have a blank tucked away, polished and ready.
(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada.
He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His
wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar
background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had
no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)