Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Double Canoe from the Tuamotu Islands

In 1846, the British Admiralty dispatched HMS Grampus, 50 guns, under command of Capt. Henry Byam Martin, RN, to the Society Islands. The French had just named Tahiti a protectorate, to the chagrin of the British (who might earlier have taken the islands for themselves had they been so motivated) and the violent opposition of the Tahitians. Martin's brief was to observe the French activities (i.e., spy) , and if possible throw a wrench in the works of the nascent protectorate through diplomacy with the Tahitian chiefs, while avoiding anything that the French would construe as overtly unfriendly action.

During his year on station, Martin kept a personal journal in which he made numerous watercolor paintings and sketches, and recorded occasional notes, about native watercraft. 

The only native craft he described in detail in the journal was a double canoe visiting from the Pomatoo Islands (now known as the Tuamotus), some 250 miles to the east of Tahiti. Here are his drawings and his description in full. (The original spelling is unchanged.)
Tuamotu double canoe, by Capt. Henry Byam Martin, RN.
Tuamotu double canoe, by Capt. Henry Byam Martin, RN. (Click to enlarge.)
February 22nd, 1847 
Gardner (A.B.) died of dysentery. I heard today sundry evidences of lurking discontent among the people, but it is too late they are subdued -- for the present at least. 
I walked to Taonoa to see a remarkable double canoe from the Pomatoo islands. It is in fact 2 canoes joined together. Each is about 50 feet long by 5 broad. There is not a nail in them. The logs of which they are constructed are sewn together with bark -- and the joinings are close & neat. The upper works or gunwales are of matting. She is schooner rigged with her masts stepped on the thwarts or connecting boards and I am told these craft stand a great deal of bad weather. Thirty eight persons crossed in her from Pomotoo -- about 250 miles. They seem to be families who have come to see what is to be seen and picked up. The women & children are hideous -- they have thrown up some huts round their canoe, which is hauled up high & dry. 
These people had with them a curious bat or vampire, which I would have bought if he had stunk a little less. The head, in size form & colour much resembled a ferret's. Each foot had 5 claws -- its wings were of great spread & each had at its extremity a claw or hook. I believe this animal is called the flying fox.
Tuamoto double canoe, plan view.
Even aside from its sewn construction, the canoe is remarkable. Most double canoes have their hulls separated by cross-beams, but this one has the hulls right up against each other. Separated hulls impose great stresses on the cross-beams and on the attachments between the cross-beams and the hulls. These stresses are minimized by placing the hulls next to one another, but I suspect this merely substitutes one engineering problem for another. In this configuration, the hulls themselves, and their sewn fastenings, would be subject to great stress as they press against each other. Since it is unlikely that the hulls had internal frames,  it's hard to fathom how these large sewn hulls did not crush one another as the boat worked in a seaway. Evidently, they did not.

On first glance, the larger drawing appears to show the canoe's bow, with graceful double beakheads. But as I pondered the huge, strangely-shaped bowsprit, I realized that we're looking at the stern, and the "bowsprit" is actually a steering oar. On closer examination, the "beakheads" are supporting a cambered wooden deck.

The platform running the whole length of the outside of the starboard hull looks like a fine place to relax when sailing in good conditions. It's supported by numerous timbers which presumably go right through the hull, although they are not shown in Martin's simple plan view. The hulls appear to be covered with draped woven matting (probably of pandanus leaves) which serves for weather protection, in place of a permanent house structure.

Martin says the boat was schooner rigged, and this appears so much the case that it's a little baffling. At that time, Tahitians were adopting elements of Western rigs piecemeal to their canoes (of which, more in a future post), and it's surprising that the even more remotely-situated Tuamotans would be using a schooner rig that any contemporary New Englander would have recognized. In any case, the foremast appears to be shorter than the mainmast, but this may be a trick of perspective and the two might be equal in height. The foremast appears to have a gaff, and the mainmast a horizontal boom.

The baskets and other items hanging from the rigging were probably for food storage, to keep them away from vermin and surreptitious snitching by unauthorized crew.

Images and quotation from: The Polynesian Journal of Captain Henry Byam Martin, R.N. In command of H.M.S. Grampus -- 50 guns, at Hawaii and on station in Tahiti and the Society Islands, 1846-1847.


  1. Interesting. Do we know for certain the captain closely observed the craft himself or relied on the report of someone he sent there? That could explain the odd hull spacing -- a misunderstanding or a weak description, from which the drawing followed. As for "schooner rig," I wonder if the captain meant the boat had two sails (like the Hokulea) of equal size, which was close enough to a schooner rig in Western terms? Even today we sometimes hear about a boat with two equal sails referred to loosely as a schooner (now why we would not equally be likely to call it a ketch, I have no clue!).

  2. Wade: Thanks for your comment. The journal indicates that Capt. Martin observed the canoe himself. Thoughout the journal he tells of making drawings and paintings from life, so it's fairly certain that these illos were made from his personal observation, on the spot. He was a professional mariner, and he would have known the difference between a ketch, yawl and schooner -- her refers to numerous vessels by their type throughout the journal. I agree that different types of sails -- crab-claw, oceanic sprit, etc. -- could be covered by the term "schooner rig" -- not all schooners need have Western-style gaff or marconi sails.

    1. It is cool that this variation turn up to indicate diversity of plan based around the dugout hull. I recently read a book on boat building in the jungle of I think Borneo, where the river canoes could were sometimes joined to form "trimarans" to carry large things (seemed to be usually a funeral barge).