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Unique scrimshaw donated to Lahaina Restoration Foundation

By Staff | Nov 29, 2018

The scrimshaw works include “A Shoal of Sperm Whale.” PHOTO BY WILLIAM McNALLY.

LAHAINA – It took paradise writer William McNally ten years to identify the scene portrayed on the scrimshaw “Whaling Off Hawaii-1833.” And McNally still doesn’t know who the artist “J.E.” is.

His colleague, Jules Glazer, bought the piece in Lahaina as a January 1968 wedding present for his new bride. Infatuated with the scene of four whaling ships and “Owhyhee’s” volcanoes in the background, McNally bought the scrimshaw in 2007 from Glazer’s estate and began his search.

A Bishop Museum historian claimed the scene was “all in the artist’s imagination.” No one had a clue.

In 2016, browsing in a thrift store’s book section, he picked up a clean copy of “A History of Hawaii” (copyright 1926), and as he thumbed through the definitive history of Hawaii, a photo on page 190 of an old marine print caught his eye.

His query to the New Bedford Whaling Museum revealed the scrimshaw image was a copy of the famous “A Shoal of Sperm Whale,” an aqua tint by marine artist Thomas Birch created in 1838.

“Whaling Off Hawaii-1833” is Hawaii’s oldest whaling image attributed to an actual event. PHOTO BY WILLIAM McNALLY.

Librarian Mark Procknik said, “The scene was a real whaling event on Dec. 16, 1833; the ships didn’t return to New Bedford until summer of 1835.”

A one-armed sailor made it his passion to get the scene memorialized, and finally Birch and other artists made versions of the provocative event.

Michael Dyer, curator of maritime history at New Bedford Whaling Museum, said, “‘A Shoal of Sperm Whale’ by Thomas Birch is the second oldest formal print of American whaling.”

Dr. Susan Lebo, an expert on Hawaiian whaling and chief of the Archeology Branch at the Hawaii Historic Preservation Division, said, “The 1833 scene is Hawaii’s oldest whaling image attributed to an actual event.”

McNally feels there is a good chance someone on Maui knows “J.E.” or his work.

“I also realized the koa woodwork is so sophisticated, it probably means there were two artists – scrimshaw and koa woodworker,” he added.

The scrimshaw gift includes “A History of Hawaii,” an eight-inch by ten-inch copy of Thomas Birch’s 1838 print “A Shoal of Sperm Whale,” and a 1950s postcard printed by New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Lahaina Restoration Foundation invites anyone with information about “J.E.” to contact the organization. Donations of memorabilia relating to all eras of Lahaina’s history are welcome. Contact LRF at info@lahainarestoration.org or (808) 661-3262.