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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

Chapter XXI — navigation and seamanship

page 290

Chapter XXI
navigation and seamanship

Whatever may have been the origin of seagoing ships, the evolution of the outriggered canoe is not difficult to trace. We may imagine a savage in remote antiquity standing on the banks of a river and watching logs of wood from a mountain forest floating swiftly down the current. His home lies down-stream. There is no path, for the banks are overgrown with a tangled mass of thorny creepers. This log will pass his village doors. He wades out and intercepts it. With one arm cast about it he is borne by the current right to his door without an effort. The women filling their jars at the water's edge applaud his originality. But when he next tries the experiment an alligator comes unpleasantly near his legs. He tries to haul himself astride of the log; it turns round with him. A bamboo is floating close at hand; he seizes it, and finds that by holding it athwart the log he can steady himself on his perch. But the bamboo, being too narrow to offer resistance to the water, tends to sink until he rests the end upon a floating branch. But on his next aquatic journey, remembering that the bamboo tired the arms and kept slipping off the branch, he takes a vine with him, and lashes the bamboo to log and branch. This leaves his hands free to use another bamboo to keep the head of his craft down-stream by poling on the bottom. He even punts it laboriously to land at the village, and ties it up for use in crossing the river on the morrow. He has taken the first step towards building a craft of his own. The thin end of the log cleft the water better than the other. He chips the end to a point. There are tribes that stop at this point. The catamarans of Eastern page break
The Thamakau.

The Thamakau.

page 291New Guinea are merely three shaped logs lashed together, and depend for their buoyancy upon the displacement of the solid wood. A chance experiment shows that a hollow log is more buoyant, besides having the advantage of providing a dry resting-place for the feet. The discoverer of this phenomenon widens the natural hollow with fire, lashes his cross-ties to a smaller log, also sharpened at the ends, and he has made a Fijian canoe. The next steps are easy. By trying to propel it up-stream with a bamboo too short to reach the bottom he discards the pole for a slab of bark, and he has invented the paddle. To use the wind in the estuary to the best advantage he props a slab of bark on a stick and steadies it with a stay of vine. On his next voyage he takes a mat with him, staying his mast to the outrigger, the bow and the stern. Going about on the other tack the pressure of the wind bearing on the outrigger sinks it and capsizes the canoe, teaching him by painful experience that he must turn his sail inside out, and keep the outrigger always to windward. He has now devised the most complicated, the swiftest, and in many respects the most beautiful sailing machine in existence —the sailing canoe. The raising of the sides, and the decking of the bow and stern are expedients that need no deductive process.

Four kinds of canoe are used by the Fijians: (I) The Takia—an undecked dug-out furnished with an outrigger, which is used on the rivers and on the calm water inside the reef, and is propelled with poles or with paddles.


The Thamakau—a seagoing canoe with sides raised by planking to carry a deck; with solid outrigger and mast and sails.


The Tambilai—a dug-out with ends cut square, several feet at each end being left solid.


The Ndrua, or twin canoe—which is, as its name implies, made of twin hulls, the one smaller than the other, connected by a deck, on which the mast is stepped. The smaller hull is the outrigger, and is always kept to windward. These vessels being often too large to be made from a single trunk, are put together in sections with a sort of scarf joint, page 292secured by lashings of cocoanut sinnet. The adze and the auger were the only tools used, every plank being adzed from a solid trunk, and, since every joint must fit true, and the planking be less than an inch thick, and one false stroke of the adze might spoil many days of labour, some idea of the skill and patience of the native carpenter may be formed. These vessels were of great size. The Rusa i vanua was 118 feet over all. Her yards were 90 feet long, and she carried a crew of 50 men. Maafu mounted cannon on two of his ndrua, which were capable of making long ocean voyages, and with the wind on the quarter could run from ten to fifteen knots in the hour. Though they could lie close to the wind, being keel-less, they made much leeway, and were bad seaboats to windward or in a seaway, for the play of the twin hulls was apt to work the lashings loose. There is, however, no sea sport so exciting and exhilarating as sailing on a calm sea in a ndrua or thamakau with the wind abeam. A clever sheet-man will contrive to lift the outrigger out of the water until it barely skims the surface, and then the canoe becomes a veritable flying-machine.

The ndrua is enormously expensive to keep up, and for this reason it will be seen no more. The mat-sail, which costs far more than canvas, rots quickly if it gets wet, and must be unbent and taken into shelter after every trip. The sinnet lashings, both above and below water, soon work loose and become rotten, and the whole structure has then to be rebuilt. To manage the great sail in tacking a crew of from ten to twenty men, all expert canoemen, is required. By the year 1890 the ndrua in the group could be counted on the fingers, and probably the last has now fallen to pieces.

Thomas Williams has given so admirable a description of the building and management of these canoes1 that it need not be again described.

The handicraft of canoe-building was hereditary. Every considerable chief had his matai, but those of Rewa, descended from Tongan immigrants, were the most esteemed in the west and those of Kambara in the east. In 1860, however, the

1 Fiji and the Fijians, pp. 71-76, 88-89.

page 293Fijian matai fell upon evil days, for the chiefs preferred the Tongan craftsmen, who had begun to settle in the group. Besides canoes the matai made lali (wooden drums), kava and food bowls, all cut from the solid timber with the adze. Every stage of canoe-building called for its special feast and presentation to the matai, and in order to test the actual cost of these I once had a canoe built by a Rewa matai and his mate on the Fijian system of remuneration. I was acting as Commissioner of Tholo West at the time, and being in native eyes vested with the powers of a Roko Tui, I could play the part of carpenter's patron with plausibility. The men who hauled in the logs were given the appropriate feast, the matai had his feast at the completion of the hull, at the fixing of the upper works, at the lashing of the deck. I obtained the mats for the sails from Yasawa by kerekere (begging), and sent their equivalent in kind; the neighbouring villages performed the ceremony of rova (and received their reward) after the launching. When I came to reckon up the bill I found that it came to £13—a little more than the contract rate for building canoes at that time, which was £2 a fathom; or, to put it in another way, as the canoe was two months in building, about £3 a month for each man besides rations. But since my carpenters were on their mettle, the canoe was better built than it would have been by a contract builder.

Forward and abaft the deck both in the ndrua and the thamakau are open wells, in which a man stands baling with a wooden scoop, for the joints and seams of the planking let in a good deal of water when under sail. Beyond these wells some fluted work is left by the adze, and a line of beading is left along the 1ee side both to afford footholds to the men who carry over the foot of the yards in tacking and to carry fixed blocks for the tuku or mast-stay. A remarkable feature about these carvings is that they never vary, though some of them have no object but that of ornamentation, and they are sufficiently elaborate to have been only arrived at after a long period of evolution.

If the Fijian canoe is so carelessly handled as to bring the outrigger to leeward she immediately capsizes, for the page 294pressure of the wind drives the outrigger under water. In order to keep the outrigger to windward when tacking it is therefore necessary to make what was formerly the bow become the stern, the sail must be turned inside out, and the mast, yards and steer-oar must all be changed over. This complicated manœuvre is accomplished with extraordinary skill. Instead of luffing up into the wind as in a cutter the steersman keeps away until the wind is abeam, the sheetman slacking the sheet simultaneously until the sail is flapping. Two or three men then run out to the prow, seize the foot of the yards and carry them bodily amidships. During this operation they have to bear the weight of the mast, which is sloping forward at an angle of 45 degrees, and to relieve them of some of this extra weight a man is hauling on the running stay, which runs through a block astern. As they pass the mast with their burden the lower yard is let go, the sheet is passed round their legs, and the sail turns inside out. They tramp forward, and the mast again begins to incline, throwing its weight upon them. A man now seizes the other stay, and in obedience to their loud cries of "Tuku!" begins cautiously to pay it out. If he is too quick the weight of the mast precipitates the men and the sail into the water; if he is too slow he holds them back. At last the foot of the yards is planted with a thud into its nest in the carving and lashed secure, but before the sheet can be hauled in the heavy steer-oar, which takes two men to lift, has to be dragged inboard and carried aft. All this time the hull is heaving in the trough of the sea, and the mat sail is thrashing itself to pieces. Sometimes the yard-carriers slip on the wet deck, and tumble overboard, sail and all, in inextricable ruin, but if all goes well the canoe is gathering way on the new tack in less than sixty seconds, and though to the spectator on board the moment is full of excitement and risk, to those watching it on shore it is the most precise and beautiful manœuvre known to seamanship.

And now we come to a remarkable paradox. The Tongans were the great navigators of the Pacific; the Fijians are not known to have voyaged beyond their own group. The Tongans were so expert with the adze that they rapidly page 295displaced the Fijian canoe-builder in his own country. And yet the Tongan counterpart to the ndrua was the tongiaki, a craft so clumsy and ill-finished that it did not survive the eighteenth century, when the Tongans learned the art of canoe-sailing from Fijians. The tongiaki was like the ndrua in build, but its mast was immovable and it tacked like a cutter. To make this possible the mast was stayed on both sides from a clumsy transom which protruded many feet beyond the deck. It could lie close to the wind on one tack, but on the other the sail was broken up into pockets by the mast, which held the wind and stopped all headway. Consequently it was the practice to wait for a fair wind, and set the sail on what would be the 1ee of the mast, and if the wind changed there was nothing for it but to change the course. It was, no doubt, this fact that led to so many Tongans being cast away on remote islands, and to the mixing of Polynesian with Melanesian blood. From 1790 to 1810 it had become the custom for Tongan chiefs to voyage to Fiji in their clumsy tongiaki, join in the native wars, and take as their portion of the loot Fijian ndrua, in which they beat back to Tonga, and in a very few years the tongiaki1 was extinct.

There were two ways of propelling a canoe in a dead calm —the vothe and the sua. The vothe is a leaf-shaped paddle cut from one piece of vesi hardwood, five feet long and eighteen inches across the widest part of the blade. Adapted for propelling light canoes on the rivers, it is ineffective against the dead weight of the heavy thamakau. In shape and size the sua resembles the oar of a ship's cutter. Thrusting it down perpendicularly into the water between the hull and the outrigger, and using the cross-tie as a rowlock, the sculler describes short, semicircular sweeps with the blade, throwing his weight against the handle in front of him as he stands upon the deck. When two are sculling they swing in time, but in opposite directions, and there is no exercise that displays the grace of the human body in action to better advantage. A speed of three miles an hour is the maximum that

1 A full description and diagram of the tongiaki is given by Captain Cook.

page 296can be attained with the sua, but the scullers can maintain this speed for a long time without fatigue. The stroke is as difficult to acquire as that of the gondolier, but when you have once acquired it you wonder wherein the difficulty lay.

The craft of seamanship was hereditary, and every considerable chief had his fisher tribe to man his canoes. In war time they were his navy, since many engagements were fought at sea. Manœuvring to windward of the enemy was even more important in a war-canoe than in a frigate, because by getting within striking distance of his outrigger you had him at your mercy. While he could not venture out upon his outrigger without capsizing himself, one stroke of a hatchet at his mast-stay brought the whole of his rigging down about his ears, and you could club his head as it bobbed up under the sail. A body of etiquette grew up about the canoe. The high chief's canoe was marked by a streamer or a fan floating from the tip of the lower yard. It was an insult to cross her bows, or to sail to windward of her. The custom which required the serf to stoop in passing or approaching a chief was extended to canoes passing or approaching chief villages such as Mbau. All had to lower their sails, and toil past with the sua, however fair the breeze.