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Vikings of the Sunrise

4. Ships and their Builders

page 27

4. Ships and their Builders

Thread it from inside, it goes outside,
Thread it from outside, it comes inside.
Tie it firmly, bind it fast

When the ancestors of the Polynesians slipped off the mainland and began to venture eastward from island to island, they evolved of necessity an oceanic culture. They learned to extend their fishing operations farther and farther from the coast, and as their horizon lengthened, their fishing canoes evolved into ships capable of transporting explorers and their families over hundreds of miles of open sea. In the realm of mechanical achievement, the construction of the voyaging canoe was the material counterpart of the mental and spiritual development of a sea-minded people who were stimulated by the drive of adventure that knew no fear.

No knowledge is extant of the type of ships used in the early stages of the eastward movement. It may be taken for granted, however, that the vessels used in Polynesia were constructed in principle on early models that had been found to be effective. The Polynesian vessels were of two types, the outrigger canoe and the double canoe. We have to skip space and time to obtain in Polynesia itself some idea of the ships and their builders.

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At first sight the dugout canoe, steadied by an outrigger float, seems a simple affair. But when one considers that the tree must be felled, cut into lengths, shaped on the outside, and hollowed on the inside with adzes made of stone, the making of the simplest canoe commands respect. The tree trunks used for small fishing canoes were so narrow that the tendency to capsize had to be counteracted by the addition of an outrigger to the hull. This consisted of a long spar of light wood, which rested on the surface of the water at a little distance from the hull. It was connected to the hull usually by two cross booms which were lashed to both gunwales (top edge of hull) at one end and to the outrigger float at the other. In order that the float might lie at water level, the booms had either to be bent down to meet the float or, if they remained straight, to be attached to the float by separate wooden connectives. Much variation and ingenuity has been shown throughout Polynesia in the methods of outrigger attachment.

Canoes that went far out to sea in quest of bonito and deep-sea fish were given greater protection from overlapping waves by adding a plank to the top of the dugout hull, which increased the freeboard or height from the water's surface. For the transport of people with food and water supplies, larger vessels were made and still greater freeboard given by additional tiers of planks. For long voyages or the inter-island transport of troops, a second canoe was substituted for the float, and thus was formed the double canoe used by the Polynesians in their conquest of the Pacific.

The small dugout fishing canoes were needed by every family for procuring their food supplies from mother ocean. These could be dubbed out and shaped by unskilled labour, but the planks for the larger canoes had to be split, shaped, fitted, and lashed with meticulous care and expert knowledge page 29 that only the skilled artisan could supply. Once a Samoan expert carpenter was enumerating to me the various types of Samoan canoes. He omitted the ordinary dugout termed paopao. ‘You have left out the paopao,' I said. He gave me a withering look as he replied, ‘Is the paopao a canoe?’

Gradually, as our ancestors spread eastward from the large islands and narrow seaways of Indonesia into the wide ocean, they developed skill and experience in building and sailing ships. By the time they reached the central Pacific, shipbuilding had become vital to the culture, and the expert builders had assumed a high rank in society. In Samoa and Tonga the canoe builders were under the patronage of the god Tangaroa, the first builder of canoes and houses. In central Polynesia the builders took the god Tane as their tutelary deity. They had their own religious gathering places or maraes where they went through an organized ritual before undertaking a difficult task, such as the building of a voyaging canoe. When we consider their stone tools and the work before them, we must admit that they had need of all the assistance they could obtain from the unseen sources.

The psychology of the old-time craftsmen may be read between the lines of Teuira Henry's account of shipbuilding in Tahiti. When a chief contemplated a voyage for which a new canoe must be built, he commanded his subjects to plant extra food crops to feed the craftsmen he should employ and to make bark cloth, to plait mats, and to collect red feathers to be used as payment gifts. After a sufficient supply of provisions had been laid in, the chief engaged one or more master craftsmen to take charge of the work. With them he went into the forest to select trees suitable for making the various parts of the canoe. If the required tree was not found in the woods owned by the chief and his page 30 tribal group, search was made in neighbouring territory. The suitable trees from the lands of other chiefs had to be obtained by diplomatic advances and the transaction sealed by appropriate gift payments. I use the term gift payment advisedly because the Polynesian approach to business matters was indirect. A chief sent a gift of food and property to a brother chief. If it was accepted, the receiver was under obligation to grant the request for a tree later made by the sender of the gift. If he refused, he lost prestige, not only in the eyes of neighbouring tribes but also among his own people. With but rare exceptions, the Polynesian chiefs went down, if they had to, with the flag of honour lashed to the mast. After these preliminaries, the builders took charge. Each workman had his own kit of tools consisting of carefully chipped and finely ground adzes and chisels made of basaltic rock. These were variously shaped for special uses and were lashed to short wooden handles by coconut fibre or sennit braid. The diversity and complexity of lashing designs shows the tremendous pride of the workman in his tools. On the last night of the moon the craftsmen took their adzes to the temple of their tutelary god and carefully ‘put them to sleep’ for the night in a special recess. At the same time, they offered up an invocation to Tane:

Place the adze in the sacred place
To be charged with divine power,
To become light in the worker's hands
And accomplish work amid flying sparks.

A feast confined to the skilled workers followed on the temple ground. A fatted pig was killed, and, as it was prepared for the oven, tufts of hair were plucked off as an offering to Tane while the craftsmen recited their motto:

Work with alert eyes
And swift-moving adzes.

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Thus Tane received the first part of the pig. The pig was roasted whole and when it was cut up the tail was set aside for Tane. Thus Tane received the last part of the pig. These offerings were laid upon his shrine. The tutelary deity of the craft having received due recognition, his devotees could feast in the firm conviction that they would receive divine strength for the impending work.

At early dawn the still-sleeping adzes were awakened by being dipped in the sea, the element upon which their completed work was to float. As the cold water met the working edges of the adzes, the exhortation rang out,

Awake to work for Tane,
Great god of the artisans.

Before sunrise the artisans girded on their working loincloths and with adzes charged with the same divine spirit as themselves, they sought out the trees already selected. Tane was the god of the forests, and the trees were his children. Before laying adze to trunk, an invocation had to be offered up to Tane to placate him for the taking of his child. Some trees were the property of other gods, and the specific god had to be asked ritually for his consent to take the tree.

All Polynesia knows the tale of Rata, who felled a tree without asking permission. After lopping off the branches and peeling off the bark, he retired for the night. On returning the next day, he found the tree standing erect with no trace of human interference. Though mystified, he felled it again but hid himself nearby. Then came the elves and wood fairies, the henchmen of the divine owner of the tree. They surrounded the fallen giant of the forest and in mournful voices sang in unison:

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Fly hither, fly thither,
O chips of my tree!
Branches, take up your places,
Watery sap, flow upwards,
Adhesive gum, repair and heal!
Stand! The tree stands erect!

Before Rata's startled eyes, the leaves, chips, and branches came together with orderly precision, the trunk rose on its healed stump, and the tree top soared once more above its leafy neighbours. When Rata, unable to restrain his anger at once more having his labour brought to nought, rushed out and upbraided the fairies, he was told fearlessly that he had no right to fell private property without obtaining permission from the divine owner. Rata admitted his fault, and the supernatural beings who had been arrayed against him came to his assistance. The fairies made a wonderful voyaging canoe overnight, dedicated it in a shower of rain, and, sliding it down the arch of a rainbow, launched it in the lagoon before his house.

The trees were felled in the valleys and uplands, and the labour involved in lowering and hauling the trimmed trunks to the carpenter's shed was lightened by singing and chanting. The various timbers were split and shaped to form the keel and planks of the hull and decks. As the ‘fast-flying adzes’ of the craftsmen became hot and brittle through friction, the blades were driven into juicy banana trunks to cool off. Ever and anon, the adzes were sharpened on sandstone blocks. The planks of the hull were fitted edge to edge, carvel-built, wet mud having been smeared over the top edge of the lower plank. Misfits, indicated by mud spots on the upper plank, were trimmed down until the two edges fitted perfectly. Beaten coconut husk and breadfruit gum were page 33 used as caulking along the seams. Paired holes were bored near the edges of adjoining planks with terebra shells, pointed hardwood sticks, or stone chisels. Through these holes was passed the lashing of three-ply coconut husk-fibre which held together the parts of the canoe. Like the planks which it joined, this sennit braid was regarded as a symbol of Tane.

Two experts worked on each side as the canoe was built up symmetrically from the keel. In the building of the famous Hohoio of Hiro, the great Tahitian navigator, the chief craftsman was Hutu, who worked on the outer side on the right of the canoe, while his assistant Tau-mariari worked on the inside. Memeru, the royal craftsman from Opoa, worked on the outer side on the left, his assistant Ma‘i-hae on the inner side. As they passed the braid through to each other to lash the planks, they chanted:

What have I, O Tane,
Tane, god of beauty!
‘Tis sennit.
‘Tis sennit from the host of heaven,
‘Tis sennit of thine, O Tane!
Thread it from the inside, it comes outside.
Thread it from the outside, it goes inside.
Tie it firmly, bind it fast.

This chant, as translated by Teuira Henry, describes the function of the sennit as holding the canoe together in order that ‘it may go over short waves and long waves to reach near horizons and far-off horizons.’ The canoe itself is referred to as Tane's canoe, which is not only complimentary but enlists the god into protecting his property. The importance of the sennit lashings is again stressed in the final words:

This sennit of thine, O Tane,
Make it hold, make it hold.

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When all the planks were in position, the hull was washed out with fresh water, dried, and painted both outside and inside with a mixture of red earth and charcoal. For very large canoes the roof of the builder's shed had to be removed to make room for the addition of the outrigger booms, deck, bow and stern ornaments, and the deck-house. The lashing of the outrigger booms was an important event, and here again the chant calls in the aid of Tane to strengthen the lashings:

It cannot weaken,
It cannot loosen,
When bound with sacred sennit.
With thy sacred sennit, O Tane.

The completed canoe was given its own personal name and was usually dedicated to Tane. The launching of a large canoe was more important than the launching of an ocean liner or a warship from a European or American shipbuilding yard today. In the West, a few selected guests quietly view the event. In Polynesia, the entire population of the district took part. They prepared various foods for a feast to celebrate the occasion; and, garlanded with flowers and sweet-smelling herbs and clothed in their best garments and ornaments, they gathered on the beach to marvel at the launching of a mighty craft. Skids of rounded wood were placed under the keel and on the track to the water's edge. As the props were removed, men holding the sides began to urge the ship along the skids. The chief artisan invoked the aid of numerous gods who assisted the human efforts in impelling the vessel over the skids until, amidst the deafening shouts of the people, it slid into the lagoon and poised gracefully upon the waves that rose to salute it. Even the western custom of christening a ship by wetting the bow with champagne page 35 suffers by comparison with the Polynesian ceremony of making the new canoe drink sea water (inu tai). The great ocean is metaphorically alluded to as the altar of the gods. Upon this immense altar the ship was rocked up and down until waves poured alternately over the bow and stern. When a sufficient quantity had been thus introduced into the hold, the new bailers, especially made for the ship, were plied quickly in the ejection of the water and so made acquainted with their future function. By the drinking of sea water the ship was consecrated to Tane, and, above all, it received its full introduction to the element which it had been designed to conquer.

The ship was equipped with mast, sails, paddles, bailers, and stone anchors. Some vessels had as many as three masts. The sails were made of plaited pandanus mats sewn together in triangular form with wooden yards and booms to strengthen the long sides of the triangle. They were rigged as sprit-sails with the apex at the base of the mast or as lateens with the yard slung from the mast and the apex forward at the bow. Just as the long ships of the Vikings of the Atlantic were equipped with oars, so were the voyaging canoes of the mariners of the Pacific fitted with paddles. The oars had the advantage of leverage against a rowlock, but had the disadvantage of forcing the rowers to turn their faces toward the wake that lay behind. Polynesian paddlers faced forward toward impending waves and ever-receding horizons, and they gazed open-eyed on the ocean vistas that unrolled before them.

Much has been written about drifts to leeward because of the drag of the outrigger float, but the counteracting effect of the deep-sea paddle has not been sufficiently taken into account. The steering paddle took the place of the rudder, and its importance was so recognized that it was given a page 36 personal name. Polynesian legends give not only the name of voyaging canoes but also those of the navigator and the steering paddle he used. Maori legends mention the canoes of the gods themselves, and invariably they give the name of the steering paddle. The god Rehua, who dwelt in the tenth heaven, is thus recorded in an ancient song:

To hoe o Rehua
Ko Rapaparapa-te-uira.

The paddle of Rehua
Was the Flashing-of-Lightning.

In spite of the caulking, canoes leaked so much that men were appointed to bail out the hold as part of the ship's routine. The bailer, in important ships, received a personal name; Rehua's bailer was named Whakawaha-taupata. Stone anchors with holes drilled through to take the rope were carried on long sea voyages. During storms, a bow anchor was dropped overboard to keep the canoes head-on to the seas. Light anchors were also dropped to indicate the run of currents. The anchors of important canoes had personal names. The Arawa canoe, which sailed down to New Zealand in 1350 a.d., had two stone anchors named Tokaparore and Tu-te-rangi-haruru.

The actual details of the construction of the various Polynesian craft have been recorded by James Hornell. In this work I am more concerned with the mental and emotional attitude of the Polynesians toward their ships. Their attitude even transcends the mental and emotional and becomes spiritual. Knowing that the timber, the tools, and the lashing material were associated with a tutelary deity, we may dimly envisage the dynamic force that inspired the Polynesians in their long sea voyages, both of discovery and settlement.

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In Tahiti, the god Tane was represented at one historical period by a piece of finely plaited sennit. When he was forsaken for the god ‘Oro, a priest of Tane placed the symbol of his god in a coconut shell, sealed the opening, and set the vessel adrift on the wide ocean to find another home. Later he followed by canoe to seek whither his god had voyaged. Finally, on the island of Mangaia, he caught the coconut shell in a scoop-net while fishing in the lagoon. As he removed the stopper, the god, as represented by the finely braided sennit, made a chirping noise (kio) and the god, re-established in another land, received the name of Tane-kio. In Mangaia, the god of the artisans was Tane-mata-ariki, Tane-of-the-regal-face. He was represented by beautifully ground basaltic adzes lashed with fine sennit braid in a complicated pattern to a well-carved wooden haft. Thus stone, sennit, and wood, the fundamental materials of the craftsmen, were combined to form a symbol worthy of the deity whose divine assistance inspired the builders in their craft. The wood of Tane, shaped with adzes charged with divinity and lashed together with sacred sennit, formed a vessel endowed with spiritual power. On the canoe itself an altar to Tane was constructed, and by ritual and offerings his daily aid was assured. With such divine backing, the crew had firm confidence in facing unknown horizons. Polynesian seamen were unhampered by the mutinous fears that obsessed the crews of Columbus and later European navigators. If ships and men were lost, other navigators did not blame the gods or the sea. The lost navigator was entirely to blame for not interpreting correctly the weather signs or for overlooking some ritual observance. Later navigators followed to accomplish what others had failed to do. Faith in their gods and their ships and confidence in themselves page 38 led the Polynesians to discover and settle the Pacific.

Though double canoes held more men, provisions, and water, it is evident from traditional stories that outrigger canoes were also used on long voyages. The Hohoio on which Hiro made his last voyage is described as having a float (ama) of tamanu wood soaked in sea water to destroy borers, and then scraped with coral rubbers. The outrigger canoe, by affording less friction in the water, was faster; and with the wind on the outrigger side, the canoe was allowed to keel over so that she sailed with the outrigger float out of the water. Men watched with alert eyes, and if the float rose too high, they clambered out on the outrigger booms to press the float down and so prevent capsizing. Once, when I was sailing on a whaleboat in the spacious lagoon of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, a small outrigger canoe flew past us with the outrigger float high above water and with the owner shouting exultantly at the speed of his craft. He would slow down to allow us to pass and then repeat the performance. Suddenly silence fell upon the lagoon, and, looking back, we saw a capsized canoe. The outrigger float had been allowed to rise too high. In a European community we should have gone back to render aid, but here everybody laughed heartily, and we went on. The owner had merely to stand on the outrigger float, press it down to beyond the perpendicular with a forward kick of both feet, and the hull turned right side up. In a light canoe, a few jerks back and forth emptied the water over the bow and stern, the canoe man climbed in, splashed the remaining water over the sides with the blade of his paddle, and went his way with no hurt save to his dignity. The Polynesians were amphibious and so suffered little damage from capsizing.

When Nuku sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand to fight page 39 Manaia, he had two double canoes and one outrigger canoe. After a voyage of over 2000 miles upon an affair of honour, he finally sighted Manaia's double canoe sailing along the coast, and he gave pursuit. The outrigger canoe, acting as a fast cruiser, came up on the seaward side and forced Manaia's canoe in toward the shore while the double canoes, like battleships, lumbered up behind. Finally Manaia was forced ashore, and the battle was waged on land. After a desperate battle, peace was made between the two valiant warriors. Nuku decided to return to Tahiti, but, as the season was late, he converted his double canoes into outrigger canoes in order to make a speedier voyage.

Though the long sea voyages ceased centuries ago, a rough idea of the size of the ships may be formed from the vessels recorded by early European explorers. Various accounts indicate a general length of from sixty to eighty feet, but vessels were seen that measured a hundred feet and even more. In a sacred grove of trees on the shores of Kawhia Harbour in New Zealand there is a bare patch where legend states that the famous Tainui canoe, after its historic voyage from central Polynesia in 1350 a.d., was hauled up to rest below the shrine of Ahurei. Here it crumbled to dust, but no plants grew upon the soil that had been rendered sacred. Two stone uprights mark the spots where the bow and stern rested, and these give the canoe a length of seventy feet.

Two hulls of seventy to eighty feet with a deck between were capable of accommodating a fair number of people. Some of the war canoes of Tahiti, when setting out on a raid, held as many as a hundred warriors. On voyages for settlement, in which provisions, plants, seed, tubers, pigs, dogs, and fowl were carried in addition to women and children, the large double canoes could readily accommodate page 40 sixty or more passengers. Such a number was quite sufficient to form a nucleus to populate an island, but we know from the traditions of various island groups that the sources of population were not restricted to one voyaging ship.

The sea provisions for the voyage were usually cooked. In atoll areas, the reserve food consisted of ripe pandanus fruit grated into a coarse flour, cooked, dried, and packed in cylindrical bundles with an outer wrapping of dried pandanus leaves. Such packages are still made in the Gilbert and Marshall atolls. Beechey found that some Tuamotuan castaways, who had been blown to the east, had prepared dried pandanus flour and dried fish to provision their canoe ere setting out on their search for home. From volcanic islands, there were greater possibilities. The Samoans told me that preserved breadfruit cooked in fairly large baskets was used on the voyages. The Maoris state that sweet potatoes, cooked and dried, formed the main sustenance at sea. Dried shell fish such as the tridacna kept indefinitely. Fowls carried on the voyage were fed with dried coconut meat, and some were killed for food when required. A fireplace was provided on the canoes laid on a bed of sand, and firewood was carried along. Deep-sea fish including sharks were readily caught by master fishermen. The provisioning of the seagoing canoes offered no problem.

The fresh-water supplies were carried in coconut water bottles, gourds, or lengths of bamboo. The deep-sea fishermen of Hawai‘i sometimes trailed their gourds in the sea to keep the water cool, but such refinements were not necessary on deep-sea voyages. We learn from the traditions of Hawai‘i and New Zealand that the crews of expeditionary ships were trained beforehand in self-restraint with regard to consumption of food and water. With organized discipline, page 41 any voyaging canoe could be rationed easily for from three to four weeks, the time required to cross the widest ocean spaces between the island groups of Polynesia.

The ships and the builders played their parts, but chief, priest, and navigator, with inborn courage and a firm faith in the gods, drove the sennit-bound vessels over leagues of untraversed ocean to make safe landing on distant isles.