Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Ethnology of Tongareva



In the absence of the pig and dog and of cannibalism fish form an even more important flesh food in Tongareva than in the Polynesian islands where there are other flesh alternatives. The supply in the lagoon, in the reef channels, and in the sea outside the reef is varied and abundant. Besides the rockfrequenting fish, flying fish, shark, and porpoises are taken.

Fishing methods are affected by the lack of material for lines and nets The hau (Hibiscus tiliaceous) and the oranga, which provide the best fibers used in most islands, are absent from Tongareva, and coconut sennit fiber is used instead. Self-acting traps and walled fish traps are not used. There is a form of shark noose, but no squid lure. Fish are caught by groping, snaring, sweeping, driving, spearing, and angling.


Groping with hands in the crevices of the rocks is practiced by members of both sexes who are expert divers and can remain under the water for some time. The method used in the daytime when the fish can be seen as well as felt is termed nono (Rarotongan, naonao). At night, when the sense of feeling alone is relied upon, the method is distinguished as haha (Maori, whawha).


Sharks are snared with a slip noose made of a two-ply twisted sennit cord (hau ato). The ruhia shark, which comes into the lagoon after the marau fish when they are plentiful, are caught by diving down and placing the snare over the tail. Sharks termed mango moc awa (sharks that sleep in the channel) that at certain times sleep with their heads in rock crevices are also snared by the tail while they are asleep. The same method of snaring sleeping sharks prevails in Aitutaki. It may be stated that the species of sharks snared are not voracious maneaters and are regarded merely as ordinary fish without any of the fear prevailing among Europeans, who regard all sharks as dangerous. It is quite safe for the expert to dive down and slip a noose over the tail. The snare is termed sele; the method of snaring a shark, sele mango.

page 198

The coconut leaf sweep (rau) receives its name from the leaves (rau) of the coconut from which it is made. The leaves are split (sasae); and the half leaves are tied together (sere), twisted round and round to make the leaflets stick out in different directions (viri), and some of them may be braided together (hiri) to get extra thickness. A long sweep is drawn around (taki) so as to inclose the fish and drive them ashore. As the curve decreases the slack ends are doubled in to strengthen and thicken the sweep. The sweep is used by day and by night.


The drive (aroaro) method of fishing consists of driving shoals of flying fish or porpoises onto the reef, or turtles into the shallow water. When a shoal of flying fish is seen outside the reef canoes paddle to the outer side of them, stretch out in a semicircle, and drive them in toward the reef. Paddles are beaten against the canoes, and stones are thrown at the fish to urge them toward the reef. Escape back to the sea is blocked by the line of canoes and by swimmers, or, where canoes are not available, by swimmers only. Such methods have been abandoned, but Lamont (15, pp. 217–218) gives a good description of a drive:

On the third day we sat chatting in the usual quiet way, when a shout at a distance set the whole household in commotion. As Opaka started excitedly to his feet, I asked him, in his own language, what was the matter. “Eia ha?” said I. “No, te maroro,” he replied; and, without waiting to give me further explanation, he seized a “toto,” or bag-net, from the roof, and darted along the beach, calling the rest to follow. Fully as excited as himself, and shouting at the top of their voices, “Maroro! maroro!” each seized a mat-basket of some kind and rushed wildly off in the same direction. I followed them as quickly as the rough ocean shingle, with its burning stones, would permit. With their long hair streaming, and their eyes gleaming with excitement, I saw them diving into the hollow curve of the breakers that raised their white heads aloft, soon to appear again some distance off beyond the force of the waves. Men, women, and children alike fearlessly plunged beneath the foam, seemingly as much at home as on land. The multitudes in the sea, at first scattered over a considerable extent, now began to concentrate towards a point, not only keeping up an incessant noise with the voice, but jumping halfway out of the water, and, as they descended, striking their elbows to their sides, and clapping their hands, producing a report like a pistol-shot. I now observed shoals of flying-fish skimming the water in terror in every direction, often rising beyond the nets of the circle of men, who raised their arms to catch them, and often escaping in their flight the baskets of the outer guard of women and children. When the circle was sufficiently contracted to concentrate the fish in a mass, the men dived amongst them with their nets, which, soon becoming too heavy for them to support, were emptied into the baskets of the women behind, who proceeded with them ashore, riding behind the crest of a breaker that would dash an ordinary swimmer headlong upon the rocks, and returned again after they had emptied them. In about half an hour the shoal was all dispersed or caught, and each family had a bountiful supply of flying-fish, or “maroro.”

page 199

The toto hand net and baskets of the tupono type are used to scoop up the fish.

Porpoises are driven into the shallow channels on the reef where men seize them and drag them up out of the water. Much ceremony is observed to ensure success; women are not allowed out of the houses, and children are instructed not to cry, as that would render the operations unsuccessful. Handy (9, p. 176) records a similar method in the Marquesas.

Turtles in the lagoon are driven into shallow water by men in canoes. Men jump overboard and dive down to keep the turtles swimming in the right direction and to prevent their doubling back into deep water. During the drive the men make as much noise as possible by shouting and beating the water with their paddles. As they reach shallow water the noise subsides and the turtles rest on the bottom. Men dive down and, seizing the front flappers from behind, lift up the front of the shells and force the turtles to swim up to the surface.

While examining the marae at Vaiari, we saw a rowboat that had forced a turtle in toward the lagoon reef, but the turtle had stuck on the bottom in fairly deep water and refused to go further in. As the crew of the boat failed to reach the turtle because of the depth, Tupou Isaia of our crew took a hand. In his first straight dive he could just touch the turtle. He came up and noted a high rock on the bottom with a lower one near the turtle. He dived down to the high rock, kicked off from it to the lower rock, and with another kick off from the lower rock he reached the turtle got his hands in position on the front of the shell, and brought the turtle to the surface. He calmly appropriated the turtle as the reward of superior endurance.

Another form of fish driving is termed titoko. Before fish are driven into a channel, loose rocks are placed on stationary rocks and reef projections that are under water. As the fish are driven in, the rocks are kicked off with the soles of the feet by the drivers as they pass. The rocks, as they fall to the bottom, frighten the fish and cause them to go forward (kia soro ki mua). When driven to a confined space, the fish are scooped up with a hand net (ka asu ki te toto).

A method of driving the sikutoto fish is termed toro sikutoto. Thirty or forty men armed with pieces of coconut leaf a span in length and termed usu work around in a semicircle and, by beating on the water, drive the fish into the shallow water. The hand net is used to scoop them up.


Lamont (15, p. 278) saw the people spearing fish in the deep passage between Hakasusa and Vaiari, and he states that it was an exercise at which page 200 the people were expert. Fish spears with metal points are now used exclusively, and no information concerning the spears originally used was available.


The general term for fishing with a line is si or sisi (Maori, hi). Since foreign lines, hooks, and sailing boats have come into use the following native methods of catching fish with the hook have been almost entirely abandoned. Hooks are described on pages 202211.

1. Fishing from an anchored canoe (tukutuku). In tukutuku (to keep letting down) the baited line was lowered from a canoe which was kept stationary by an anchor resting on the bottom. The length of line was therefore not great. A baited circular hook was used.

2. Diving (hakaruku). The U shaped hook (matau si ruhi) was attached to a very short line, the end of which was tied to the middle finger of the right hand. The hook was baited and held in the midst of a handful of ground bait in the right hand. The mouth also was filled with ground bait. As the line was too short to reach the fish near the bottom, the fisherman dived down with the hook. The Tongarevans maintain that fish are not afraid of anyone under the water. On reaching the fish the fisherman opened his hand and let go the ground bait and the baited hook. He removed the first fish that he caught from the hook and placed it under his left arm. If the first fish was caught quickly there was still time to catch a second one. Seeing that his bait was intact on the hook he blew the ground bait out of his mouth, taking care that the baited hook was in the cloud of ground bait. He often reappeared from the depths with two fish. If he had a canoe he placed the fish in it and repeated the diving as long as he had success. In fishing beyond the outer reef it was not always convenient to launch a canoe, so the fisherman nonchalantly walked over the edge of the reef and swam out to sea with a piece of wood which served as a float or a buoy. The float gave him a certain amount of support when he desired to rest, but its main use was to buoy up the catch of fish and the bait. The same method of fishing was used, but on coming up he would thread the fish through the gills with a tari strip from a coconut leaf midrib and tie it to the float. After a catch was secured the fisherman tied the string of fish in a loop over his shoulder and swam ashore.

Although the fisherman had no fear of sharks, sometimes a shark did attack, not the man, but the string of fish. Mr. Wilson, resident Government Agent, and other eye witnesses tell of a fisherman who, swimming ashore with his catch of fish looped over his shoulder, had just such a difficulty. He called for assistance, and two men swam out to help him. Supporting him on either side, they enabled him to reach the reef and obtain foothold, when he walked calmly up on to the dry part of the reef. The man had a shark imprisoned horizontally across his back with its head under one arm and its tail under the other; the shark had a grip on the inner side of the upper arm that held its head. The shark, attracted by the fish, had followed the fisherman in and commenced eating the fish strung from his shoulder. The next thing the fisherman knew was that the shark had gripped him by the arm near the fish. The fisherman thereupon promptly closed his arm, pinning the shark's head against his side, and then coolly reached back with his other arm and brought its tail in under his other armpit. He had the shark jammed helpless, while he himself swam with his feet until assistance reached him. The shark let go when released, but it had removed a large piece of flesh from the arm of its captor. The shark was promptly slain by the fisherman's excited relatives. The hero in this fishing adventure made a perfect recovery, but the scar, which was deprecatingly shown to me, remained as a witness of page 201 that same coolness in moments of emergency which enabled the Polynesians to conquer the Pacific.

3. Anchored hook fishing. The large shark hook was used, and also a short line, one end of which was tied to a stone anchor. The hook was baited with the tentacle (mangamanga) of a squid. The fisherman dived down with the hook and anchor, set it on the bottom and covered the line with sand. He then came up and watched from his canoe or float. When the fish took the bait it was prevented from getting very far by the heavy stone anchor. In the struggles of the fish, however, the anchor could be heard bumping on the ground, and the fisherman dived down and secured his line and the fish. Besides shark, maratea, which may weigh as much as 80 pounds, were caught in this manner.