Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

Isles of Hiva: Canoes

Drawing right: A Hivan Canoe



drawing of a Hivan Canoe[From Handy, The Native Culture in the Marquesas, Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1923, pp. 136-7, 154-161, 169.]

Canoes and Canoe-Making Process of Manufacture

The following account of canoe-making is from Atu Ona, Hiva Oa. On the first day of the work the canoe-maker (tuhuna vaka) with his assistants, called ta akau, accompanied by a priest to recite the sacred chants (tuhuna pu'e), went up the valley where sto od the temamu tree that had been selected. While the workers stood about the tree, the priest chanted the pu'e, recounting the growth of the world. Then the tree was felled, fire being used to aid in the accomplishment of it (according to Linton). This wa s all that was done on the first day.

On the second day the bark was removed and the work of roughing out the canoe body was begun and continued all day. A temporary shed (oho au vaka), open on all sides, was erected over the place where the work was going on. This building, like all other fe atures of the enterprise, was sacred. All the workers were consecrated during the labor, sleeping at the oho au.

The whole body of the canoe was completed here. When this work was finished the new canoe body was carried on the shoulders of the workers to the sea where it was placed in another shed (oho au veka), which had been erected for the purpose on the shore. A s the new hull was carried down the valley, the priest followed close behind chanting the pu'e.

The outrigger was made and fitted to the canoe in its house by the sea. When all the work was completed, the canoe and house in which it rested by the sea were decorated with short peeled stakes of fau (koufau), decorated with neatly woven green coconut l eaves (kapiripiri), the reddish cloth made of the bark of the banyan tree, sacred white cloth, and human hair. The human hair was omitted from the decorations of fishing canoes. The crew and warriors who were to go on board were embellished with materials similar to those used in ornamenting the canoe itself and new paddles with small images carved at the upper end of the handle were made.

Certain details of canoe building at Pua Ma'u, Hiva Oa, given to me by Mr. Linton, supplement the above account. Four hundred men were employed in the building of a certain canoe at Pua Ma'u, working under the direction of four tuhuna. The work was done w here the tree was felled and where a decorated house was erected for the workmen. Workmen and tuhuna were fed by the chief, twenty men being employed in this work. The place was tapu to women and to strangers. Any intruder from another valley would be kil led and eaten. "When the canoe was finished a great feast was held at the place of manufacture, the workmen's house being decorated with ferns and wild vines."

In the sacred chant called oho au o Motuhaiki, which is part of the tona pou chant (see Chants), and which was probably used in connection with canoe-building, are mentioned the stages in the construction of a canoe: finding the tree, trimming it, felling it, measuring and cutting out the proper length, and hollowing the hull; then building the shed for it, placing the body on two log supports in the house, thinning down the sides, polishing the body with crushed coral; then naming the various parts attac hed to the hull, side-boards, bow, stern, seats, etc. The first master canoe-maker was, traditionally, Motuhaiki, who noosed the sun, so that he might have sufficient time to finish his work.

Canoes, like everything else, were named. Mr. Linton was told in Pua Ma'u that new canoes were named after old ones that were worn out. Not only was the canoe itself named, but every part, the bow-piece, stern-piece, sideboards, seats, bailers, paddles, a nd so on.


Just before a canoe was launched, the crew and warriors were assembled about it in the oho au, and the pu'e was again chanted. The vessel was then carried into the water with all its paddlers and warriors aboard, the canoe and its crew alike being ornamen ted. Soon after a new war canoe had been consecrated and launched, the chief who owned it sent it to raid an enemy bay and secure sacrifice victims. It was for this purpose that the canoe had been built, and its consecration was not regarded as complete u ntil its mana had been thus demonstrated. A chief would sometimes send his warriors to get victims at the time of the building of the canoe to give it mana. The recitation of the pu'e, a creation chant of the world and nature, made the work complete by uniting the new product of handicraft with creation from its beginnings, right down through the growth of all things to the new canoe. The bedecking of the can oe and its house had this ceremonial significance: the koufau were the sign of tapu; hiapo, the cloth that covered the loins of tapu men symbolized both power and sacredness; and the kopinipini embodied the same sense of sacredness that brought about the use of the coconut leaf as a head and body dress by priests, and as a sign of truce.

Mr. Linton found that in both Hana Hehe and Pua Ma'u, on Hiva Oa, it was the custom, when a war canoe was being made, for a warrior of great prowess to sleep on or in the log from which the hull was being formed, during the nights of the period of its man ufacture. This was in order that the canoe might have imparted to it the qualities of mana, power, and luck, which the warrior embodied.

All canoes used for war or the work of fishing were tapu to all women except chiefesses or priestesses for the reason that their contact with the canoe would have profaned it, hence made it lose its power (mana).

Canoes that were built for voyaging must have been an exception to this rule, for women accompanied their men on voyages. If a fishing canoe were profaned by the touch of a woman, it was purified by having hair burned on the bow.

Types of Canoes

In the Marquesas there were craft of all kinds varying from those merely large enough for children to play in to the great exploring canoes. Lt. David Porter [A Voyage to the South Seas 1823] gives excellent descriptions of the appearance of different for ms of craft that he observed when he visited Nuku Hiva.

Voyaging Canoes: Of canoes constructed for exploration Porter says, "The canoes formed for the sole purpose of going in search of new lands are of a still larger construction, and are rigged in the same manner." It appears that these canoes for exp loration were frequently double--that is, made by lashing two canoe bodies together, leaving a space of several yards between. On the cross-pieces were laid bars forming a platform. So far as I have ascertained, the Marquesas' canoes never had a house on this platform. In the story of Pohu such a platform is described as having a rail around it. The supplies for a voyage were kept here and in the body of the canoe, and the people on board lived on the platform and below decks. According to a trustworthy F atu Hiva informant, such a canoe would have two sails, the masts being stepped in the usual place in the forward end of each hull. War canoes and canoes for exploration--according to modern natives--were as much as sixty feet long. So far as I know, howev er, there is no record of a canoe of this size, although no limitation in the materials at the disposal of the native nor in his ability to utilize them would have prevented him from making canoes of this size or even larger.

War Canoes: For more elaborate organized expeditions by sea to attack an enemy, many canoes were necessary. A preliminary of such a war was the building of war canoes. These canoes were merely for transportation or for attacking an enemy on shore f rom the sea. There seems to have been little that might be characterized as marine warfare, since attacks were always made at a time when the canoes of the enemy were unprepared to meet those of the attacking party.

War canoes when they were not in use were either entirely taken apart and their parts distributed among different families, or they were placed in a house near the shore or possibly far up the valley on the feast place of the chief who owned the canoe. Po rter describes war canoes as follows:

"They are about fifty feet in length, two in width, and of a proportionate depth; they are formed of many pieces, and each piece, and indeed each paddle, has its separate proprietor. To one belongs the piece projecting from the stern, to another the part forming the bow. The pieces forming the sides belong to different persons, and when a canoe is taken to pieces, the whole is scattered throughout the valley, and divided, perhaps, among twenty families. Each has the right of disposing of the part belongin g to him, and when she is to be set up, everyone brings his piece, with materials for securing it. The setting up a war canoe goes on with the same order and regularity as all their other operations. These canoes are owned only among the wealthy and respe ctable families, and are rarely used for the purposes of war or for pleasure, or when the chief persons of one tribe make a visit to another. In such cases they are richly ornamented with locks of human hair intermixed with bunches of gray beard, strung f rom the stern projection to the place raised for the steersman. These ornaments are in the greatest estimation among them, and a bunch of gray beard is in their view what the feathers of the ostrich, of heron, or the richest plumage would be in ours. The seat of the coxswain is highly ornamented with palm leaves and white cloth; he is gaily dressed and richly ornamented with plumes. The chief is seated on an elevation in the middle of the canoe, and a person fancifully dressed in the bow, which has the ad ditional ornaments of pearl shells strung on coconut branches raised in the forepart of the canoe. She is worked altogether by paddles, and those who use them are placed, two on a seat, and give their strokes with great regularity, shouting occasionally t o regulate the time and encourage one another. These vessels, when collected in a fleet and in motion, with all their rowers exerting themselves, have a splendid and warlike appearance. They were paraded repeatedly for my inspection, and in all the review s they appeared greatly to pride themselves on the beauty and splendour of their men of war. They are not, however, so fleet as might be expected, as our whale boats could beat them with great ease."

Captain Cook describes canoes with heaps of sling stones in the bow, the crews armed with slings. In the story of Pohu is mentioned a double war canoe made of two canoe bodies with a platform built up between, the platform being surrounded by a rail that was decorated with tapa and ornamental sennit. In this canoe every seat was named. The crew mentioned in connection with it were a steersman, a man in command on the platform (puapua), the paddlers, bailers, and a woman to chant the tribal genealogies. Th e informant who recounted to me the story of Pohu told me that war canoes were always taken apart on their arrival from a raid. Bodies of victims were thrown on the bow piece of the war canoe.

Fishing Canoes: Porter describes Hivan fishing canoes as follows: "Their fishing canoes are vessels of a [large and full] construction, many of them being six feet in width, and of an equal depth. They are managed with paddles resembling an oar, an d, in some measure, are used as such, but in a perpendicular position, the fulcrum resting on the outriggers projecting from each side. With those they proceed to the small bays on the coast, where they fish with the scoop net, and with the hook and line. They have also smaller canoes, which are commonly nothing more than the hollow keels of the large ones, after the upper works are taken off. These hollow keels are furnished with outriggers, and are used for fishing about the harbour."

Materials for Canoes

Woods used most for canoe-making were temanu, hutu (Barringtonia speciosa), and mi'o. The size of the canoe desired frequently determined the choice of a tree. The temanu was the largest of the available trees, and furnished the most durable wood. Accordi ng to Linton, breadfruit trees were used for smaller canoes.

Parts of a Canoe

The main parts of a canoe consisted of the hull, adzed out of a tree trunk; detachable bow and stern piece; sideboards lashed on the edges of the gunwale; and an outrigger.

The main body or hull (vaka, tua, tekee) of the canoe was made of a hollowed single tree trunk. The bow (piha, au'au, kanihi, hopeta), a separate piece, was usually upturned, but both Cook and Stewart describe horizontal bows. Linton aptly describes the s tern (mu'i, hope au'au) as narrowing "rapidly to form the tail, which was a long projection like a thick plank with the edge up, rising from the body of the stern piece at an angle of twenty to thirty degrees." The sideboards (hue tana) consisted of singl e hewn boards (papa) lashed (humu) to the gunwale of the canoe, but it is probable that the sideboards of some canoes were built up with several boards, for Porter described the sides as made of many pieces of the breadfruit tree, cut into the form of pla nks, and sewed together with the fibers of the outside shell of coconut. The seams are covered inside and out with strips of bamboo sewed to the edge of each plank, to keep in a stuffing of oakum, made of the coconut shell also.

Over the seams between the sideboards and the hull, both inside and outside, were strips made of wood or bamboo (teka, vaho, teka oto, ta'i, patua). Caulking of the seams at this place and at the point of attachment of bow and sternpiece was done usually with coconut cord fiber (kaha), or with feathers (hu'u manu). Langsdorff describes caulking with moss over which was rubbed resin from the breadfruit tree. Bulkheads in the body of the canoe are described by Porter. Seats (papa tau) for paddlers rested on an inner strip (teka oto) which covered the inboard seam between the sideboard and the hull. These strips were bound and held in place by sennit. The two rods (kiato, hoa) supporting the outrigger were usually fau poles; Marchand describes rods of bamboo . The supporting rods passed across the top of the canoe, being lashed to the top of each gunwale, or sideboard, by means of sennit that passed around the rod and through holes in the board. These lashings were ornamental and were called teka. The float ( ama) of the outrigger was made of fau and was attached to the supporting rods by four or six small stick (ti'a ti'a) which were inserted into holes on the outrigger float and bound on the supporting rods. The platform (papua, hou'ua) resting on the pole t hat held together a double canoe has been described. On all large single canoes used for fishing or for war there was at the stern an elevated platform (papa'u) on which the steersman stood. Stewart describes "a high platform deeply fringed with the penda nt leaves of a palm," on which the steersman stood on the stern of a canoe. Stewart states that in the bow of this canoe there was another platform made of small sticks covered with a mat on which was seated a man who was evidently a priest.

Sails (ti'a, moena) which were used on the smaller fishing craft and the large voyaging canoes were of the triangular, or lateen, type, and according to Linton were made of coconut leaf mats. It seems probable that pandanus mats were also used, particular ly for voyages, on account of their greater durability. The mast was stepped in a hole (puti'a) in the bottom of the canoe and passed up through one of the forward seats (pihao).

The paddles (hoe) were made of rosewood. The handle ends were ornamented with a small tiki figure and the blades with designs similar to those used on bowls. The lower end of the paddle blade always terminated in a long rounded point.

The bailers were made of mi'o or temanu wood and were "shaped like a sugar-scoop with the handle reversed--that is, projecting forward over the cavity" (Linton).

The main decoration of canoes was by means of carving and ornamental lashing. Bow and stern pieces were carved with the ornamental adzed designs (tiki) used on house posts. Some modern informants say that tattooing designs were also applied on these parts . This is true at least of canoe models. I believe with Mr. Linton that this type of carving was not used on the large canoes of ancient times. Ornamental lashing (pu'u kaha), the designs of which were taken from string figures, bound the supporting rods of the outrigger to the balancer and to the sideboards and the sideboards to the hull, these lashings being made of sennit dyed red, yellow, and black. There was a conventional figure head, which was apparently always used at the forward end of the bow pi ece, consisting of a flattened conventionalized face. "There was a tendency to decorate the neck of the bow piece with figures carved in high relief or by the attachment of separate pieces." "A small tiki figure was sometimes but not always attached to th e tip of the stern piece" (Linton).

Temporary decoration consisted of coconut leaves, white cloth, and human hair; and "coconut fronds, which were commonly placed along the sides of the bow and stern platforms with their lower edges trailing in the water" (Linton). On the canoe with the two platforms described above, Stewart observed three green coconut leaves four or five feet high, which were fastened erect on the bow piece. It is probable that these were symbols of peace. Lines were run from the stern piece to corners of the steersman's platform and from these lines hung tufts of human hair and bits of white cloth (Stewart). Stewart describes skulls as being lashed on each corner of the platform at the stern of a war canoe. Under the lashings that held the outside binding strip along the gunwale were put white feathers of the tropic bird, so that the plumed ends were visible--these gave the appearance and impression of speed and, doubtless, in the native mind were potent to make actual in the canoe this quality of the tropic bird.


Modern informants say that the crews of large canoes numbered from one hundred and forty to one hundred and sixty men. Garcia, on the other hand, puts the number at forty or fifty. Legends commonly speak of a larger number and relate that, usually, in the Marquesas two hundred and eighty (e fitu touha--that is to say, seven forties) warriors constituted the crew of a war canoe or a voyaging canoe. The captain (ava-ika) had charge of the handling of both fishing and war canoes, and doubtless was usually, i f not always, the steersman--his name indicating that he was a fisher by profession. The captain stood on the stern platform which was also the place of the chief. A large paddle (kapekape, uki) served for steering. In small canoes paddlers sat two on a s eat, in large canoes four abreast, working in shifts, two by two. They paddled rhythmically in unison.

While part of the crew was occupied in paddling, others were busy bailing.

Housing of Canoes

At Pua Ma'u I was told that war canoes were always taken to pieces when they were not in use. Here and at Atu Ona canoes were kept in special houses on the shore. At Atu Ona, the natives relate that a certain traditional canoe used to repose on two stone supports (ano) on the main dance place of the valley. One of these supports, a large block of basalt with a somewhat crescent-shaped concave top, is still on this dance area.

While on Ua Pou, I learned that on that island the chief's war canoe was sometimes, if not always, carried on to the feast place before his house. It seems probable that it was the fishing canoes which were housed by the sea, and that the war canoes, whic h were more occasionally used, were those that were taken apart or that were kept in houses on the chief's dance area. Porter describes a place, which he calls the "public square," which he invaded far up Tai-pi Valley, and says: "Numbers of their gods we re here destroyed, [and] several large and elegant new war canoes, which had never been used, were burnt in the houses that sheltered them."