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Canoes in the Society Islands

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Like other peoples of Oceania, the Maohi peoples of the Society Islands were highly skilled canoe builders and navigators. However, by the time they came they first came into contact with Europeans in the 1760s, Maohi had come to restrict their voyaging to the seas between the Society Islands and the closest atolls of eastern the Tuamotu archipelago - distances no greater than about 330 kilometres (Douglas, 1974: 194; 212).

Like many other peoples of Oceania, Maohi built vessels of various sizes and degrees of structural complexity based on the dug out canoe. The earliest craft were made of the islands’ hardest woods, such as the Tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum), a large tree indigenous to southeast Asia found throughout Polynesia. However, over time these trees became hard to procure outside of inland mountain forests and tended to be reserved for the construction of larger ceremonial and war vessels (Oliver, 1974: 200). Smaller canoes for everyday use were made from the trunks of mature Breadfruit and Coconut Palms.

The basis of all Maohi vessels were tree trunks that were hollowed out by variously sized stone adzes. The smallest vessels, known as pu’ho’e, were made from softer woods and were commonly between 2 to 5 metres in length. They were usually paddled or moved by using a small sail.

Bigger vessels of up to 25 metres in length, known as va’a, were constructed by fitting together two or more hollowed out tree trunks. They had flat bow pieces and a high upward-curving carved stern. Larger va’a also had sides made of planks fashioned by splitting timber along the grain with wedges after it had been heated. The planks were drilling at the ends using a drill made of pig or human bone and then tied together with rope. The holes and joints between boards were waterproofed by being sealed with a mixture of cocoanut husk fibre and gum extracted from the Breadfruit tree.

Va’a were propelled by sail or by paddles and used for deep-sea fishing or travel between islands. Some had an outrigger, while others were built using two hulls. However, Maohi appear to have preferred single hulled vessels when ever practicable, because of the ease with which they could be righted on capsizing in heavy seas.

The third type of Maohi vessel was the Pahi. It had a centreboard or keel and rounded planked sides. Pahi observed by early European voyagers ranged from 10 to 30 metres in length. Like va’a they had upward-curving carved stern pieces, but also commonly had raised bows decorated with carving.

Pahi were propelled by two sails and paddling. They were used for ceremonial journeys by leading title-holders or high priests, and for carrying bulky trade goods between islands. They had structures offering shelter from the sun and rain, and spaces for sleeping and cooking. Pahi were the least manoeuvrable of Maohi vessels and were ill designed to weather strong winds and rough seas. However, as Charles Bechtol and Douglas Oliver note, they were still able to sail within 60 to 80 degrees of the wind (Bechtol, 1962, cited Oliver 1974: 209).

Whereas Maohi ordinarily built their own pu’ho’e (small canoes) for day to day lagoon fishing and local travel, the building of larger va’a and pahi was the preserve of specialist canoe-builders.

These men were known as tahu’a tarai va’a or tahu’a tarai pahi - literally men skilled in building va’a or pahi. According to E.S.C Handy, they were artisans comprising a ‘sort of guild having its own regulations, rites, and places of worship. The chiefs had tahu’a attached to their establishments, and there were also canoe builders who worked for hire (Handy, 1932: 59).’ However, Douglas Oliver suggests that if, as Teuira Henry states, canoe builders had their own marae, it seems logical to assume that each district had its own institution or ‘guild’ of canoe-builders (Oliver 1974: 201).


Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Created: 12 May 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000422

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