Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Songhai Sewn Boat

Songhai stitched boat. Bow is to the left. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Living in the semiarid Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, the Songhai people of Mali have limited access to native timber for boatbuilding. But with the Niger River running through their land, boats are an economic necessity. The solution was this narrow canoe built of small pieces of palm wood sewn or stitched together with cord made from palm fiber. Boats like this were used from Lake Debo, near Timbuktu, to Ansongo, near Niger.
A Songhai boat being built or repaired.
Typical lengths were between 6 and 7.5 meters; beams about 3/4 meter, and depth less than 50 cm. The traditional wood was from the dourmier or dum-palm, but other woods have been pressed into use more recently as they became available. Holes were through-bored near all plank edges. Seams and stitch holes were sealed with bourgou grass caulking. One thwart near the stern provided a seat for the boatman, and in some cases one to three additional seats were added. These would also have contributed to the boat's strength.
The center thwart/brace in the foreground boat appears to pass through the sides of the hull. In the background boat, the rear cross-brace is clearly lashed to the top of the gunwale, while the seat-thwart appears to be below it, as in the plans at top.
The boats were used for fishing and general transport, but around the city of Gao their primary use was the transportation of rice from the paddies to the villages for threshing. Propulsion was by both paddle and pole, depending upon the river's depth.
Stitching detail, with grass caulking captured between the stitches.
Around Gao, rice is harvested in December and January. Consequently, the boats  generally underwent maintenance during October and November. This involved tightening or restitching and recaulking the seams.

West of Lake Debo and south of Ansongo, a different kind of sewn boat was used. Called the Kole-Kole, this boat was two half-dugouts, sewn together along a central seam. This boat was preferred in its indigenous regions due to the presence of suitable trees for this type of construction.

All information and images are from "A note on a sewn canoe in use at Gao, the Republic of Mali," by Timothy Insoll, in The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (1993) 22.4: 345-350. This information is now two decades old, and I do not know if these boats are still in use. 


  1. Thanks for posting this. These boats were one of the inspirations for my own thoughts on sewn boats in prehistory. Point is that they were pragmatic craft. The need for a boat was there and the materials to hand were assembled to create them with sewing as with the Chumash of the Americas where short planks had also to be used.

    Sadly planks are so useful that bits of a redundant boat can be re-used and vanish from the archaeological record more easily than perhaps a logboat can.

    I have wondered whether the large sewn boats such as the Ferribys and the Dover Bronze Age boat were attempts to repeat the method and design of "canoes" in much larger vessels with limited success.

    There is always a temptation with ships to build bigger because of the economies of scale in transportation with sometimes catastrophic results until new technologies are developed.

  2. Edwin,
    Thanks for your comments, especially for noting the similarity in construction method to the Chumash boats.
    I think it's indisputable that the builders of the Ferriby and Dover boats were still conceptually in the dugout phase, trying to figure out how to build a dugout bigger than the available trees (more so with Dover than Ferriby). They hadn't yet arrived at the notion of bent planks and were still carving boat shapes out of tree trunks.
    Such attempts may significantly predate Britain's Bronze Age. There is a clay boat model from Osikovo, Bulgaria, 4th Millenium BC, that is so wide relative to its length that it's thought to represent the same kind of construction as the kole-kole: two dugout halves, each carved from a single trunk, joined along the centerline. (Or it may have been three pieces: a bottom and two sides, or "iles".)
    Without finite element analysis, trial and error was the only way to find out how big you could go with a given construction technique. For a long time, the ship/boat owners were the captains, so they risked not only their fortunes and the lives of their crew, but their own lives as well in these efforts. But they were also perhaps the best-situated to assess the success of any modification, provided they made it back to shore.

    1. Very true Bob that the ship's captain was probably at least part owner or maybe acting on behalf of the village. A feel for ancient shipping and trading is very well put in Geoffrey Bibby's "Four Thousand Years Ago".

      Funny how apparent truths can outlast the technical changes that make the given archaological "facts" obsolescent in older books, Leonard Wooley, MortimerWheeler, Vere Gordon Childe and all the rest should still be read for their insights.