This website is a free e-resource, from the book entitled 'Music, Lapita, and the Problem of Polynesian Origins' by Mervyn McLean. The complete text may be read either online or in paginated form as a downloadable pdf here.


Chapter 8 



Haddon and Hornell's classic accounts of the Canoes of Oceania (1975), written as a series of three volumes in the 1930s (Hornell 1936, Haddon 1937, Haddon and Hornell 1938), provide a wealth of detail concerning the distribution of canoe types in the Pacific and their developmental history. Outmoded theories of origin which were current in the 1920s and are given credence by the authors can readily be dissociated from the data itself, which remains invaluable. For present purposes, it is large sailing canoes used for voyaging that are of most relevance. They can be distinguished as either outrigger or double, and in most of Oceania by triangular sails that are typically either sprit or lateen. Sprit sail vessels have a distinctive bow and stern, and sail uni-directionally. Lateen-rigged vessels by contrast have a bow at each end, and are enabled to sail either end forward by swinging the sail from one end of the vessel to the other.



When Europeans first visited the Mariana Islands in the sixteenth century, they encountered canoes of advanced design, later to become known as the "flying proa". These were single outrigger lateen-rigged vessels described by Hornell (1936:303), along with the Fijian thamakau, which itself was derived from Micronesia, as "one of the two finest types of sailing outrigger canoe ever designed." As knowledge of Micronesia increased, and islands such as those of the Carolines, Marshalls, and Gilberts (Kiribati) also became known to Europeans, canoes of lateen type similar to the flying proa were found to be typical throughout the region for inter-island communication, and Micronesians became as famous for their navigational skills as for their canoes. Haddon and Hornell characterise the type of sail on all of these canoes as "the true Oceanic lateen", developed in Micronesia from "the primitive lateen" which in turn originated in Indonesia as "the proto lateen" (Haddon and Hornell 1938:48). Double canoes were absent in Micronesia except for Truk in the Caroline Islands where there is an early nineteenth century report of a paddling double canoe, and a possibility that double canoes were also in former use there, and were of a kind similar to the sailing canoes of Hawai'i (Hornell 1936:340, 408, 440).  



Melanesia is an area of greater diversity than Micronesia. Double canoes were in use for lakatoi and Mailu trading expeditions in the south coast Gulf area of Papua New Guinea. The best known of these are the large sailing canoes (orau) of the Mailu people, described by Haddon (1937:238) as "the only permanent, built-up, double sailing canoe in New Guinea, or indeed in Melanesia, with the exception of New Caledonia and Fiji." The sails were of lateen type, but were rectangular or square, as also were sails referred to by Haddon and Hornell (1938:52) from areas further west:

The square sails of the trading canoes of western New Britain have been introduced from Siassi Islands which have cultural affinities with the neighbouring coast of New Guinea. The square sails of the western Melanesian islands – the Admiralties and other islands to the west – may be due to the same series of cultural spreads that brought the square sail to New Guinea.

Some of the complexity of canoe distribution in Melanesia is the result of influence from Micronesia, the most notable being the Santa Cruz Islands where outrigger canoes of large size are found equipped with lee platforms as in the Caroline f'lying proa' and with outrigger fittings closely related to those of certain eastern Caroline canoes (Hornell 1936:440).

Details of Santa Cruz canoe construction are given by Haddon, who identifies the sail type as crab-claw lateen (Haddon (1937:50).

The Fijian thamakau, was a large outrigger sailing canoe used for inter-island communication. It combined "distinctly Micronesian" structural features with an originally Melanesian design of primitive dugout with Melanesian-type stantion attachment. The sail was a typical Oceanic lateen; the mast was stepped amidships as in Micronesia; the rigging was similarly Micronesian; and the form of the ribs suggested Micronesian influence rather than Melanesian. (Hornell 1936:335-6).

Another hybrid with Micronesian affinities was the Fijian ndrua (drua in modern orthography), which displaced the thamakau. Unlike the thamakau, it was a double canoe, albeit with the windward hull shorter than the leeward, combining this with the Micronesian-derived lateen capability of sailing either end forward, and capable also of transporting large numbers of people and huge amounts of cargo. As will be seen, the influence of this form of canoe was to extend into Polynesia, and it also had impact upon nearby New Caledonia, where there were two forms of double canoe described as follows:  

One of these is unequal-hulled and has certainly been introduced by Tongan settlers or castaways using the Fijian design of the ndrua. The other, more clumsy and equal hulled, represents an earlier and more primitive type, borrowed possibly from the proto-Polynesians (Hornell (1936:344).

In terms of Melanesia as a whole, double canoes are absent with the exceptions noted above, and outrigger canoes are distinguished from those of Polynesia by a different form of outrigger attachment. Multiboom and stantion attachment of the outrigger are general in Melanesia except in the Solomons where outriggers are "all but absent", in contrast with Polynesia where direct attachment of the boom to the float and few or two only booms are also to be found, with the Melanesian type of attachment most strongly in evidence in islands of Western Polynesia closest to Fiji (Hornell 1936:337).


Western Polynesia

Of particular importance, both in their own right and as a result of long-standing associations with Fiji, are the two island groups of Tonga and Samoa.

Tonga had four types of voyaging sailing canoes, two indigenous and two of Fijian origin and design which displaced the indigenous forms in the latter part of the eighteenth century. An indigenous canoe of outrigger type (vaka) was supplanted by the more seaworthy vaka or hamatafua modelled on the Fijian thanakau, and a double canoe (tongiaki) similarly fell out of use after the introduction of the more versatile kalia, copied from the Fijian drua (Hornell 1936:253ff.).  

A similar sequence of events took place in Samoa where an indigenous outrigger canoe, called amatasi, fell out of use and became forgotten (Hornell 1936:238), while an indigenous form of sea-going double canoe, the va'atele, was displaced by a new form ('alia), on the pattern as in Tonga of the Fijian drua. Though clumsy compared with its successor, the va'a tele served until post-European times for the long-distance transport of heavy and bulky cargo and possibly also as a war canoe. It had two equal-sized hulls, like those of the Tongan tongiaki, with a large deck extending over them (Hornell 1936:223). 


Eastern Polynesia

As in Tonga and Samoa, both single outrigger and double sailing canoes are historically attested for Eastern Polynesia, but most famous of them all are the great voyaging canoes that first transported Polynesian ancestors into the area from Western Polynesia and made possible their settlement of the entire region. The vessels concerned were equal hull double canoes rigged with simple triangular sprit sails closely related to those seen in the Marquesas Islands by Cook in the eighteenth century, and subsequently underwent further development in Hawai'i, the Society Islands and elsewhere within the area (Haddon and Hornell 1938:55). Details for Hawai'i, the Marquesas Islands, Mangareva, Easter Island, the Austral Islands, Cook Islands, and New Zealand are included in the first 200 pages of the Haddon and Hornell volumes (Hornell 1936). 


Paddling, rowing, and sculling

Significant areal differences exist between methods of canoe propulsion in sailing canoes when the vessels were becalmed or not under sail. Paddling is the method universally used for small fishing and other canoes without sails, but does not always extend to larger seagoing sailing canoes. In available descriptions from Micronesia (Hornell 1936:354, 372, 382-3; Burrows and Spiro 1957:84) and in Eastern Polynesia generally (Hornell 1936:8), sailing was supplemented by paddling. The same was true of the Samoan sailing outrigger (amatasi) as attested by Erskine (1853:60), who describes the canoes he saw as "capable of holding 14 paddlers," and by Wilkes (1845:2:143), who refers to paddlers sitting two abreast and paddling at a pace which Wilkes calls "very swift." (cited by Hornell 1936:240). With some notable exceptions, paddling was also usual in Melanesia. A form of rowing is reported for the Admiralty Islands (Best 1976:369) and the Mailu of New Guinea (Haddon 1937:237), and an extensive region centred on Fiji and embracing Rotuma (Hornell 1936:282), New Caledonia (Haddon 1937:8), as well as areas of Western Polynesia including Tonga (Best 1976:356) and Samoa (Best 1976:340) after adoption of canoes of Fijian design, where manual propulsion was carried out not by paddling or rowing but by sculling.

A number of early travel and missionary accounts give clear descriptions of the sculling method used in these places at the time of European contact:

In the Fijian thanakau predecessor to the drua, sculls (sua) with handles 11 to 12 feet in length were thrust vertically downwards through spaces between the outrigger supports. In the thanakau of Mbau, "four scullers were the usual complement, two at each end of the platform," standing upright and facing forward (Hornell 1936:318). A description of the sculling method by Thomson (1908:295) demonstrates the high degree of co-ordination that would have been required of the scullers:

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 different directions, and there is no exercise that displays the grace of the human body in action to better advantage.

The positioning of scullers in the Fijian drua form of canoe was necessarily distinct from that of the thanakau because of its different structure and either-end sailing capability, with sculling positions matched symmetrically fore and aft. A photograph of a moderately large Samoan alia reproduced by Best (1976:341) shows two scullers, one at the bow and the other at the stern, sculling simply over the side of the canoe. In Fiji, however, the sculls were typically operated through holes cut fore and aft in the deck midway between the two hulls (Hornell 1936:325), and the larger, heavier sea-going vessels required a number of scullers operating in unison. The missionary Thomas Williams, who obtained his information in the 1840s, refers to a drua with twelve deck holes, six forward and six aft, through which the sculls were worked (Williams 1982:74). The same author (Williams 1982:88) provides further information as follows:

In a calm, the canoe is propelled by vertical sculling. Four, six, or eight sculls, according to the size of the canoe, are used. The men who work them throw their weight on the upright oar from side to side, moving together and raising their feet alternately, so as to give at a distance, the appearance of walking on water.


Slit gongs

In his description of Fijian sculling, Williams (1982:88-9) goes on to say:

Canoe sailing is not silent work. The sail is hoisted and the canoe put about with merry shouts: a brisk interchange of jest and raillery is kept up while sailing over shoal reefs, and the heavier task of sculling is lightened by mutual encouragement to exertion, and loud thanks to the scullers as each set is relieved at intervals of five or ten minutes. . .

If there should be drums on board, their clatter is added to the general noise. The announcement to the helmsman of each approaching wave, with the order to lavi,–keep her away–and the accompanying "one, two, and another to come," by which the measured advance of the waves is counted with passing comments on their good or ill demeanour, keep all alive and all in good humour.

Williams's reference to "drums" is to so-called "wooden drums" or slit gongs, called lali in Fiji, where they take the same canoe-shaped form as in most other areas of Melanesia, and are used in a variety of contexts, but in former times pre-eminently as a signalling instrument. Thirteen named varieties of beat are listed in the entry for lali in Capell's Fijian dictionary (Capell 1968:111), cited mostly from Deane (1921), who provides music notations of ten of them, all but one played using two sticks, one in each hand, by a single player. The exception is the "Lali ni tambua", played on two instruments, and taking the form of the "ordinary Fijian lali beat with an accompaniment" (Deane 1921:200). This use of two instruments rather than a single one appears to have had its origin from use in the Fijian double canoe, and is shown by distributional evidence to have spread from Fiji to other areas which adopted the Fijian canoe type, with subsequent retention of use in pairs in contexts not involving canoes. In Fiji, large lali are commonly reported as paired, and pairing of instruments is on record also from Tokelau, Rotuma, Uvea, and Samoa, (Fischer 1983:35), to which may be added Tonga, in all cases coincident with the introduction of the Fijian slit gong, lali and adoption of the Fijian form of canoe.

Burrows (1937:245) is specific that in Uvea "Two lali were formerly part of the equipment of a double canoe."

Moyle (1988:28), who conducted field work in Samoa, reports that many Samoans recalled seeing lali drums in 'alia canoes they had observed as children.

The lali were beaten variously to entertain the crew and passengers, and to unite the paddlers when the wind dropped.

Significantly also, there is a survival of earlier practice in present-day canoe races held annually in both Western and American Samoa where a man sits in the bow facing the stern and beats on an empty tin can to coordinate and regulate the rowers' strokes, as well as to communicate instructions from the captain (Moyle 1988:29).

Finally, Moyle (1987:65-7), who also carried out field work in Tonga, reports similarly large paired lali of unequal size as present there. As elsewhere, they were played one drummer per instrument, each drummer with two drum sticks, again originating from former use in canoes.

. . . there is evidence that a small lali was once part of the equipment carried on board the Tongan double canoe (kalia). Tongans from several parts of Vava'u described this use of the drum, which was beaten to announce the boat's arrival when carrying royalty; the drum was named laliolo.

An eye-witness observation of paired slit gongs on Fijian double canoes is provided by Erskine (1853:171). In a canoe about to sail

two fellows were beating away, each with two short knobbed sticks, on a 'lali' or wooden drum, the same as those of Tonga.

A Fijian precursor to the Tongan usage described by Moyle, in this case involving paired slit gongs, is documented by Hocart (1952:105) who reproduces a Native Gazette account of 1910 referring to a rhythm used solely in canoes on which a high chief travelled, beaten on "two drums", of which one was smaller than the other. One of Deane's notations (Deane 1921:201) confirms this use with a lali beat "played upon a high chief's canoe when approaching a village," in this case on a single lali

In summary, although Haddon and Hornell make no reference to the lali as a canoe accessory, there is no doubt that paired slit gongs were used on the Fijian drua and spread from Fiji to areas such as Tonga and Samoa where this form of canoe was adopted. In all cases where a description is available, the slit gongs were of unequal size with one consequently of higher pitch than the other. It is tempting to suppose that the rationale for this was imitation not only of canoe shape, but also of the unequal size of the two hulls of the canoe in which the slit gongs were carried. Some of the signalling uses to which the lali were put, such as signalling arrivals and departures are also documented. But why two slit gongs if one could suffice? The answer must surely lie with another common feature of the canoes, namely the use of sculling as a means of manual propulsion, and the need to co-ordinate the movements of the scullers. One of the slit gongs could have regulated the scullers at the bow end of the vessel, and the other, with its distinctively higher or lower pitch, their counterparts stationed at the stern. 


Conclusions from canoe evidence

From the above evidence, Micronesia emerges as a primary influence upon voyaging canoes of Fiji and, indirectly, upon Tongan, Samoan, New Caledonian and other canoe types adopted from Fiji. The thamakau outrigger of Fiji was a combination of an originally Melanesian form of canoe, with primitive lateen sail and other Micronesian features grafted upon it, and its successor the drua was similarly Micronesian but more advanced, becoming in effect a double canoe as a result of enlarging the float. The drua and its Polynesian clones is known to have been a late eighteenth century introduction, probably as result of contact from the Marshall or Gilbert Islands (Hornell 1936:344). Its outrigger predecessor can be assumed also to have been a relatively late development, raising the question of where the earliest equal-hulled double canoes of Tonga and Samoa came from, if not from Fiji, which had no known form of double canoe other than the drua. Haddon and Hornell have no doubt that the whole of Melanesia can be ruled out, citing an "insuperable objection" to a Melanesian path for Proto Polynesians in

the fact that there is no trace, in the presence of double canoes or of outriggers with direct attachment of their sojourn in any of the Melanesian islands where they would have halted for lengthy periods in the course of such a migration (Hornell 1936:341).    

With Melanesia out of the running the only alternative, as Haddon and Hornell also conclude, is migration from Micronesia, bringing the sprit sail to Polynesia (Haddon and Hornell 1938:55) before the invention and spread of the "flying proa" in Micronesia. Although Micronesia is currently as empty of double canoes as Island Melanesia, an exception is noted for the double canoe believed to have been formerly present in Truk, the design of which is said to have been similar to that of Hawai'i (Hornell 1936:440).

Of particular relevance for the present book would be to find antecedents of Eastern Polynesian double sailing canoes, which must have been similarly equal hulled and sprit rigged, with auxiliary use of paddles rather than oars or sculls, but no exact match has been found in the descriptions of early observers. As has been seen, paddling is attested for the indigenous amatasi form of Samoan sailing outrigger canoe. But no accounts have been found either of paddling or sculling for either the Tongan tongiaki double canoe or its Samoan equivalent the va'atele. Both are on record as carrying smaller fishing canoes with them on long voyages (Hornell 1936:265-6), so perhaps this sufficed upon arriving at a destination.