Monday, January 26, 2009

Belief Systems Concerning the 5-Part Hull

This is (probably) the last post that I'll derive from Outrigger Canoes of Bali and Madura, Indonesia, by Adrian Horridge.

The "five-part" hull typical of the outrigger canoes of Oceania is an interesting construction unlike any Western design. As shown in the illustration (from Horridge), the five parts consist of the hull bottom, two upper planks that form raised gunwales, and fore and aft "crotches" that form the ends of the raised gunwales and serve somewhat like a stem and sternpost. Fastening methods differ, with the pieces either pegged or sewn together (pegged in Bali and Madura). In either case, the outrigger booms, which rest atop the raised gunwales, are typically lashed to cleats inside the hull bottom which are left standing proud when the hull is carved. These lashings therefore tend to hold the raised gunwales down against the hull bottom.

Indonesian canoe builders start building on ceremonially auspicious days, and some take care to launch on such days as well. "Like other cultures in the Austronesian tradition, the Balinese have a deep belief in the cyclical nature of life and the world," writes Horridge. "(An) aspect of the cyclical the flow of generations. The son becomes the father and generates another son, and every child in Bali is considered to be the same person as an ancestor. This means, in our context, that changes in the design of canoes are not acknowledged," even though the brief historical record shows significant changes, even since the introduction of photography.

"Another Malayo-Polynesian belief is that objects such as canoes must be made exactly in a specified way," he writes. "If a man should adjust the design of his fishing canoe and gain an advantage, it would be attributed to evil magic and he would expect to have to repay the evil spirits in retribution later, possibly by drowning at sea. There are strong forces, therefore, ensuring that all canoes are the same within the village and strengthening the local view that the designs have always been the same."

As to the source of those supposedly immutable design principles, Horridge writes, "The Balinese believe that ideal proportions are represented in the human body. Therefore, an outrigger canoe, being a creation of its maker and having a soul of its own, must always be constructed with every dimension calculated according to a simple rule of numbers." There are elaborate rules of thumb concerning the proper dimensions of every feature on the canoe, and these rules are invariably based on proportions to the builder's anatomy -- for example, his height, the span between his thumb and forefinger, etc. Such rules are based on the belief that the human form is perfect in its proportions (not unlike the belief by Renaissance European artists in the Vitruvian Man).

The association between the human form and the canoe goes deeper yet. The hull bottom is held to be female, while the crotch pieces are held to be male. During construction, the builder bores a hole in the joint between the two (not clear if it's at the bow or the stern), and deposits in it a minute quantity of gold, which Horridge states is symbolic of semen. Put it all together -- man, woman, a bit of jizz -- and you've got that wonderful living thing, a canoe.


  1. I have been wondering with the Bronze Age European boats, carved as petroglyphs with those distinctive double-projections at the stem and stern, was in essence a 5 part canoe. Some people have done reconstructions of them, about which I would like to know more.

  2. Wade: Sorry about the delay in responding. The short answer appears to be that they were not very much like the 5-part canoes. Bjorn Landstrom, in "The Ship," says the original boats like you describe were skin-on-frame. These were followed by stitched-plank wooden boats that followed that design in appearance, but these were not based on dugout technology like the 5-part canoe. I'll try to address this further, with graphics, in a future post.

  3. Dear old Adrian Horridge sometimes got a bit carried away with the sexual symbolism in Indonesian boat building. It is there, and joining parts of the keel is symbolically the sexual, progenitive, act. But one day we were looking at Balinese canoes at Jimbaran and collecting terminology. Adrian was very excited by the name he'd been given for a particular decoration on the stern -- periasan. He thought it was cognate with pria, meaning male or man. Unfortunately periasan is from hias meaning decoration.
    Some Viking vessels did have crotch or forked carved timbers forming their ends, making them 5-part canoe constructions, i.e. Skuldev 5. A five-part canoe, as defined by Haddon and Hornell can have more than five parts.
    Nick Burningham

  4. Thanks for your comments Nick.
    For readers who don't know Nick, he's one of the big guns in research and reproduction of historic boat and ship types, particularly those of the Pacific. See more at and spend some time browsing through his many fascinating projects.

  5. Sorry but the Hjortspring boat is essentially a 5-part canoe. Blocks either end, bottom plank fastened on and then planks either side. Yes, the planks are refined down so that it is almost a semi-circular hull and there are five planks not three as in the "five-part" but then the Polynesians added wash-strakes sometimes.

    see also the guild of the Hjortspring boat and my own entry on my site

    It is the plan I propose to follow in part for my own Bronze Age Boat as I begin to think that pre-stressing the sides in a thin sided "dugout" pirogue is not in our native British tradition.