Friday, April 10, 2015

Sewn Canoes of the Society Islands

Capt. Henry Byam Martin, RN, was stationed in Tahiti in 1846-47, observing the French takeover of the island. Our most recent post looked at the dugout canoes of Tahiti that he observed, while the previous one examined a large sewn double canoe from the Tuamoto Islands that he saw in Tahiti This post will focus on native stitched boats that Martin illustrated in the Society Islands, of which Tahiti is one.

sewn canoe, Society Islands
Titled "Cleopatra's barge: a free translation, Utaroa, 27th October, 1846." Utaroa is a community on Raiatea, one of the Societies, where Martin visited Pomare, the queen of Tahiti who had self-exiled herself while attempting to reestablish her position and authority in the face of the French takeover. Although Martin doesn't explicitly identify this image with Pomare, I believe the sketch's title is an ironic reference to her. The stout, seated, cigar-smoking figure in blue beneath the palm-leaf sunshade matches his description of her essential characteristics. (Click any image to enlarge.)
The previous image is from the cover of a published version of Martin's journal, while this one is from the book's interior. The color and detail are better here, but unfortunately the page gutter obscures the middle of the image. Between the two, one can make out the following: 
  • Stitched upper strakes, attached to (probably) a dugout base. The stitches are discontinuous.
  • There appears to be a square transom. The long, probably flat "bowsprit" extension is in keeping with the design of Tahitian dugout canoes. 
  • Two paddlers in the bow provide propulsion, while one aft, apparently female, steers. It is remarkable that there are only two power-paddlers for such a large and heavily-burdened boat, and also that they are seated on the bow's overhang, not further aft where the hull's buoyancy would provide greater support.
  • The paddles have large, rounded blades and probably no grip at the top of the shaft. 
  • The curved, mostly-horizontal boom is a mystery, for there is no outrigger on the visible port side, and no indication of a second outrigger boom aft of it that might support the aft end of an outrigger float on the starboard side either.
Capt. Martin relates the following tale concerning canoes and royalty on Raiatea:
"Mr. Barff [a Christian missionary on the island] told me with reference to the ceremonies at Opoa point -- that formerly the Kings & Queens of Raiatea were inaugurated there. On those occasions the new sovereign landed from a canoe of state, which was hauled up the beach on the bodies of 6 victims -- one from each island. Hence it became a cant term to send for a roller -- which meant a mauvais sujet [lit: "bad subject," i.e., troublemaker] that the chief wished to dispose of." 
Although this sounds like a fantasy conjured by the prejudice of European cultural imperialism, many of the earliest European visitors to Tahiti -- those who visited before the onslaught of Christian missionaries -- observed and confirmed that human sacrifice was indeed practiced, and that those sacrificed for ritual purposes were typically -- and conveniently -- those very individuals who had made themselves inconvenient to the society.

sewn canoe, Society Islands
It is unclear at which of the Society Islands Martin observed this fascinating boat. It appears to be entirely of stitched planks: at least, the extreme rise of the stern would be difficult to form from a straight tree trunk, although carving it dugout-style from a curved tree is not out of the question. In any case, there are at least two courses of strakes, and the stitches appear to be continuous. The shield-shaped, square transom is unusual and eye-catching. Other features:
  • The spritsail rig is probably indigenous, but the square topsail may be an adoption of a Western type. There is a sheet to the upper end of the sprit.
  • The topsail has both both upper and lower yards. The whole topsail rig is mounted on a topmast that is lashed to a lower mast and overlaps it by a few feet. 
  • One can just make out an outrigger boom to port. 
  • The spar sticking out to starboard serves to anchor the lower ends of three shrouds, which all meet the mast at the same point, just above the spritsail's head. Presumably there are similar shrouds to the forward outrigger boom to port. Since there are no lines holding the starboard spar down, the man sitting on it may serve more as a mast support than as a hiking counterweight against heeling. One assumes that on the opposite tack, the man would scramble to the forward outrigger boom before the helmsman allows the sails to take any pressure of wind.
  • The attachment of the plank bowsprit to the uppermost strake is unclear and one wonders how it could be fastened securely with no visible supporting lines or brackets.
  • Steering is with a single paddle held surprisingly far forward from the transom (but fairly close to the aft end of the waterline, given the long stern overhang).  
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.
Also: Early Tahiti As The Explorers Saw It, 1767-1797, Edwin N. Ferdon