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The Maori Canoe

Canoes of the Tonga Group

Canoes of the Tonga Group

The Tongans were the most adventurous deep-sea voyagers of Polynesia when the Pacific area became known to Europeans, hence the following description of the double sailing-canoes of that group will be of interest; it is taken from the Rev. T. West's Ten Years in South Central Polynesia:—

"Undoubtedly the Tongans stand foremost among the islanders of the Pacific Ocean in maritime ability and enterprise. Their large double sailing-canoes are beautifully constructed, and are admirably adapted for all ordinary purposes of native navigation…. Each hull is built from forty to ninety feet long. The breadth of beam in each hull amidships is from three to five feet, and this gradually diminishes fore and aft, leaving the two extremities exceedingly sharp. The greatest depth of hold is only from four to six feet. The two hulls are joined together at the gunwales by a strong platform of transverse beams and planking, extending about two-thirds of the length of the canoe from the centre, leaving a space longitudinally between the hulls of from five to twelve feet, according to their size. The planks of which the several hulls are built are cut to the required shape, and are flanged on their inner edges. These flanges admit of holes being bored, through which strong lashings of sinnet are passed, and thus the whole structure is bound firmly together without the use of a single nail or bolt of any kind. The platform, or deck, is fastened to the hull in a similar manner; and in the centre a small house is constructed…. None of the Tongan vessels have more than one mast or sail. The step of the mast is firmly fixed upon the deck, and is, in fact, a pivot on which the foot of the mast works, so as to allow it to move in a slanting direction, towards either end of the canoe, when going about, or according to the setting of the sail. The sail is composed of numerous pieces of light matting, and is in shape what sailors would call a shoulder-of mutton sail. When hoisted the wide part is uppermost, and when tacking the sail and the two heavy yards to which it is attached are lifted by sheer manual strength from one end of the canoe to the other. The top of the mast is cut in the form of a crescent for the purpose of suspending the various ropes required in hoisting the sail. A rude kind of low railing round the edges of the platform, and on the top of the deck-house, is the only protection to the crew and passengers page 332against the chance of being washed overboard…. Accidents of this sort are very rare."

This writer, in speaking of a fleet of fourteen such vessels seen by him, remarks that each of them would carry about a hundred or a hundred and fifty persons. In describing a trip made in one of these vessels he says: "Up went the huge sail, down went the great steer-oars, splashing into the sea, and away we shot like a racehorse. The breeze was strong. Every timber of the canoe creaked again, while the mast bent like a reed and cracked in its socket as if it would split the deck in two…. Owing to the great rate at which we were going, the sea was like a hissing cauldron, on either side of our course, and the vessel, instead of having time to mount over the smaller waves, cut its way right through them…. We reached Lifuka safely in about three hours, having run a distance of thirty-eight miles. There cannot be a doubt that the peculiar shape of the Fig. 159 Double Canoe of Tongan Group, showing Platform Deck, Rude Cabin, and Lateen Sail. From Webber's Views in the South Seas. Sketch by Miss E. Richardson Tongan kalia, or double canoe, and the arrangement of its large and single sail, are conducive to the attainment of great speed in ordinary weather. But in heavy weather and a rough sea these vessels are exceedingly unsafe. They have, however, been known to live through severe and long-continued storms, chiefly owing to the fact that, so long as they hold together and do not upset, they cannot possibly sink, owing to the strong platform joining the hulls together. They are highly adapted for sailing close upon a wind. The formation and position of the sail enables them to go at a good speed within page 333even three points of the wind; so that, in this particular, they have a wonderful advantage over all sailing-vessels of European construction."

In the above account of the construction of Tongan vessels it is interesting to note that the curious method of lashing the planks together by means of holes through flanges or raised edges, such as was done at Samoa, obtained among the Tongans. This usage was probably introduced from Fiji, as also was the big type of double canoe with a lateen sail, described above, as its use was by no means universal among Polynesians. The Maori and natives of the Society and some other groups did not employ it. It is noteworthy that the topmost deep planks that support the deck in the Fijian vessel are not so lashed, not being provided with the rim beading, or flange; they are secured as is the rauawa of a Maori canoe, with an outside batten over which the lashing passes, this join being above the water-line.

Forster noted that Tongan canoes were better finished than those of the Society Isles: "The workmanship of these boats was infinitely preferable, as they were joined together with an exactness which surprised us, and the whole surface had received an excellent polish. Their paddles had short broad blades, something like those of Tahiti, but more neatly wrought, and of better wood."

In his report on the South Sea Islands and their inhabitants, published in 1884, Mr. H. B. Sterndale wrote as follows of the Tongans and their vessels: "It is not too much to say that the Tongans from some very ancient time possessed a civilization peculiar to themselves. They have more moral stamina, energy, and self-reliance than any other existing race of the Pacific. Had they been acquainted, formerly, with the use of metals they would have subdued all Polynesia. Their immense war-canoes, rigged with a lateen Fig. 160 Outrigger Canoe of Tongatapu. Illustrates a first step in the development of the decked vessel, the crew occupying the platform and not the hull of the canoe. From the Voyage of the "Astrolabe." Sketch by Miss E. Richardson page 334 yard a hundred feet long, and crowded with a whole tribe of several hundreds of people, in which they made voyages to Fiji, Samoa, and even to much greater distances, were miracles of patient ingenuity as concerns their construction, and needed indomitable daring for their navigation."

This writer gives some interesting notes concerning the Tongan invasions of Fiji and Samoa, and showing that they would probably have conquered the whole of the former group had not their operations been stayed by European Powers.

Of canoes of the Tongan Group, Forster wrote in 1774: "These people managed their canoes with surprising ability…. Their common trading-canoes were neatly made, and polished like those which I have already described. But those of the neighbouring islands [of the Tongan Group] were of a great size, and some of them contained upwards of fifty people. They always consisted of two large canoes, fastened by a transverse platform of planks, in the midst of which they had erected a hut, where they placed their goods, their arms and utensils, and where they passed a great part of their time. There were likewise holes, which gave admittance into the body of each canoe. Their masts were stout poles which could be struck at pleasure, and their sails were very large and triangular, but not very proper to sail by the wind. All their cordage was excellent, and they had also contrived a very good ground tackle, consisting of a strong rope with large stones at the end, by means of which they came to an anchor."

The previous description referred to above was that of the canoes of Tongatapu as seen in 1773, which is as follows: "These embarkations were of different construction. The common small trading-canoes were sharp-bottomed, and ended in a sharp edge at each extremity, which was covered with a board or deck, because their narrow form frequently exposed these parts to an entire submersion, which would have filled them with water without this precaution. They commonly had a slight outrigger or balancer, made of a few poles, to prevent their oversetting. The body of the canoe consisted of several planks, of a hard brown wood, sewed together with strings made of the fibrous coconut core, and so artfully joined that they appeared to be remarkably tight. The Tahitians simply bore holes in each plank, through which they pass their strings; but by this means their canoes are always leaky. At Tongatapu they dub the inside of the plank in such a manner as to leave a projecting lift or rim close to the edge, and through this they pass their threads. Along the deck or narrow board at each extremity are placed seven or eight knobs, which seem to be an imitation of the little fins on page 335the belly of bonitos, albicores, or mackerels; and I cannot but conjecture that the natives have taken these swift fishes for their models in the construction of their boats. Though these canoes are commonly fifteen or eighteen feet long, yet they are as neatly and smoothly polished as our best cabinet-work, which must appear the more surprising when we consider that the tools of the natives are only wretched bits of coral and rasps made of the skins of rays. Their paddles were equally well polished, of the same wood as the canoe, and had short, rhomboidal, broad blades, like those of Tahiti." In this account Forster deals with the small single canoe furnished with an outrigger. Here also we again note the knobs or projections at the end of the canoe, as seen at Manihiki and elsewhere.

Of the double canoe of Tongatapu Forster writes: "The planks were sewed in the same manner as in the common canoes; but they were covered all over, and had a kind of elevated stage or platform like the Tahitian war-canoes. Some of them may carry one hundred and fifty men; and their sails, which are latine, are made of strong mats, in which the rude figure of a tortoise or a cock, &c., is sometimes represented…. It appears probable from the good construction of the sailing-boats that the inhabitants of these islands are more experienced mariners than those of Tahiti and the Society Isles."

Labillardière speaks of Tongan canoes as seen by him in 1793, when a member of the d'Entrecasteaux expedition: "Several canoes with outriggers came out to meet us…. Each had two or three natives on board, seldom four. One of them coming towards us with too much speed, her outrigger gave way, and we had the sorrow to see the three rowers fall into the water…. These canoes are so slight that they must frequently be exposed to such accidents; and, indeed, their countrymen, who passed close by, seemed scarcely to notice it."

When another of these small canoes had its outrigger carried away dy a ship's boat, two girls remained on board, while the men jumped overboard, two steadying the canoe while the third fixed up the outrigger. When these Europeans embarked in these frail craft they generally capsized them—"not being sufficiently careful in preserving our equilibrium"—hence they took to the use of double canoes.

The above writer continues: "The General received as a present a little canoe with an outrigger…. It was near ten feet long, a foot wide, and capable of carrying only two persons. These canoes are decked for about a fifth part of their length at each end, which is page 336sufficient for them to navigate with security within the reefs; but their double canoes, being intended for the open sea, are decked throughout their whole length, except towards the middle, where a little opening is left for a man to go down and bale out the water when it is necessary. I saw with admiration that these people had consulted nature in constructing their canoes for speed. The bottom nearly resembles the under part of a fish of the cetaceous kind—the Delphinus delphis, the dolphin, which swims with the greatest swiftness."

The small canoes alluded to were those used within the sheltering reef; this writer has little to say concerning the seagoing vessels. At one place he saw a double canoe, 40 ft. long, under a shed; and in another shed "a war-canoe, 80 ft. long, the inside of which was strengthened by very stout knees, placed about a yard distant from each other." This latter was a double canoe captured at the Fiji Group.

Of the sailing-qualities of Tongatapu canoes the above writer remarks: "We soon got ahead of the canoes that were paddled along; but those with sails were obliged to slacken their rate of going to keep at a short distance from us, and we had an opportunity of observing that they would have taken the lead of our vessels considerably if they had availed themselves of the whole force of the breeze; this advantage, however, they would have soon lost if the wind had been stronger and the water less smooth."

The accounts of these Tongan deep-sea vessels, furnished with stout knees, decked over, and propelled by big sails, show the Ton-gans to have been the most advanced ship-builders of Polynesia. Adventurous navigators in big decked double canoes that could sail thirteen miles an hour would command all the ara moana (sea-roads) of the Pacific.

Many of the Tongan canoes, especially the double canoes, were very large—80 ft. or 90 ft. long—and carried two hundred men. The style of Tongan canoe that was sailed with either end foremost is said to have been borrowed from Fiji.

Mariner speaks of a force of five thousand Tongan warriors, and a thousand women, being conveyed to Vavau in fifty canoes.

Mr. Fenton has the following in his Suggestions far a History of the Origin and Migrations of the Maori People: "The Rev. Mr. La wry, in his Visit to the Friendly Islands (1851), says that he measured a canoe and found it to be ninety feet long, with a sail ninety feet high and sixty feet wide at the top; adding that the canoes sail very fast and near the wind. He mentions the arrival at Tonga of a fleet of double canoes."

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Of the Tongan canoes Angas writes: "Their largest canoes are all built in the Fijis, and are some of them upward of a hundred feet in length. These are termed 'double canoes' by Europeans, although the second or attached body is merely an outrigger, composed of a tree hollowed for the sake of buoyancy, like the canoe itself." D'Urville's illustrations of Tongatapu outrigger canoes show both ends decked over, and three booms connected with the float by means of short rods. One shows a top-strake extending along the side as far as the hold is open, and one has a lateen sail. Another form shows the hold decked over with the exception of two comparatively small openings; a platform extending out on the booms serving, no doubt, to accommodate some of the crew. An illustration of a double canoe shows a platform extending over both canoes and the space between them, upon which a cabin is erected. The lateen sail has two yards (or yard and boom), as was usual in this region, and is shown both set and furled. Unlike the Maori form of sail (ra kautu), this lateen sail could be furled without unshipping and lowering the mast.

During his visit to the Tongan Isles in 1774 Cook examined the big double canoes propelled by sails, and gives us the following description:—

"I had now an opportunity to verify a thing I was before in doubt about, which was, whether or no some of these canoes did not, in changing tacks, only shift the sail, and so proceed with that end foremost which before was the stern. The one we now saw wrought in this manner. The sail is lateen, extended to a lateen yard above, and to a boom at the foot; in one word, it is like a whole mizzen, supposing the whole foot to be extended to a boom. The yard is slung nearly in the middle, or upon an equipoise. When they change tacks they throw the vessel up in the wind, ease off the sheet, and bring the heel or tack end of the yard to the other end of the boat, and the sheet in like manner; there are notches, or sockets, at each end of the vessel in which the end of the yard fixes. In short, they work just as those do at the Ladrone Islands, according to Mr. Walter's description (see Lord Anson's voyage). When they want to sail large, or before the wind, the yard is taken out of the socket and squared.

"It must be observed that all their sailing-vessels are not rigged to sail in the same manner. Some, and those of the largest size, are rigged so as to tack about. These have a short but pretty stout mast, which steps on a kind of roller that is fixed to the deck near the fore part. It is made to lean or incline very much forward; the head is page 338forked, on the two points of which the yard rests, as on two pivots, by means of two strong cleats of wood secured to each side of the yard, at about one-third its length from the tack or heel, which, when under sail, is confined down between the two canoes by means of two strong ropes, one to and passing through a hole at the head of each canoe; for it must be observed that all the sailing-vessels of this sort are double. The tack being thus fixed, it is plain that, in changing tacks, the vessels must be put about; the sail and boom on the one tack will be clear of the mast, and on the other it will lie against it, just as a whole mizzen. However, I am not sure if they do not sometimes unlace that part of the sail from the yard which is between the tack and masthead, and so shift both sail and boom leeward of the mast. The drawings which Mr. Hodges made of these vessels seem to favour this supposition, and will not only illustrate but in a manner make the description of them unnecessary. The outriggers and ropes used for shrouds, &c., are all stout and strong. Indeed, the sail, yard, and boom are all together of such an enormous weight that strength is required."

Captain Erskine has left us the following account of Tongan canoes as seen by him in 1849: "In one of the lofty canoe-sheds on the beach we inspected the king's great double canoe, as those of the largest class are called by Europeans, although the second or attached body is merely an outrigger, composed of a tree hollowed out for the sake of buoyancy, like the canoe itself. Even the hull of the main canoe is seldom occupied by passengers or crew, excepting one who is constantly (when at sea) employed in bailing, the seams of the planks, which are still lashed together with coconut plait, not being impervious to the water. Beams are laid between the two bodies, on which is erected a house with a shelving roof, the receptacle for provisions. Over this again rises a platform surrounded by a railing, forming the deck or place of general resort. The canoe in question was upwards of one hundred feet in length, and, like all of those dimensions, had been built at Fiji, these islands affording no timber fit for the purpose."

This writer has the following note on the plan adopted by Tongans when they wished to put about with one of these craft: "The operation was effected by throwing the canoe up into the wind, when the rake of the mast, which is stepped on a kind of hinge, and always inclines forward, was reversed, and at the same time a number of men, clapping on the tack of the sail, or the point where the yard and boom meet, hauled it aft; the yard, being nicely poised in the slings and hoisted over a fork at the masthead, then swung round, and the page 339'unwilling tack' was dragged to the loop or becket, into which it was inserted at the other end of the vessel." This writer notes that the canoe spoken of was sailing at about the rate of seven knots.