Culture
Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesian Material Culture - Nukutavake Canoe - British Museum

Polynesian Resource Center

The collection of this canoe is rather strange and probably relates to Captain Samuel Wallis, its collector's admiration for the ingenuity of its construction. As Steven Hooper points out at 3.87metres it must have been considerable nuisence strapped upside down on the deck of the Dolphin on the long journey back to England. It was collected in June 1767 at Nukutavake in the Tuamotu Islands archipelago; the Tuamotus being low-lying islands with few forests, or trees large enough for a hull to be crafted from a single trunk, which explains its remarkable construction from forty-five wood sections bound together with continuous lengths of plaited coconut coir.

Allthough bizarre looking it needs to be remembered that on Polynesia Atolls the rarity of good timber must have meant that canoes like this must have been fairly common. Aithough this canoe is ugly it is certainly shows the considererable skills of its makers. From an art historian's point of view the loss of the figure whose flattened legs are carved on either side of the stern is frustrating. It is an interesting and unique object but the addition of the original prow figure would have added a whole new dimension.

Because this canoe was part of the original Pacific Encounters Exhibition Steven Hooper included it in his book based on this show. He quotes George Robertson the Master aboard the Dolphin as saying the islanders abandoned the island shortly after the ships arrival leaving three large canoes under construction, and presumes this smaller canoe was used along with the ships boats to transfer water and fodder and then simply kept. Wallis records leaving gifts in atonment for the distubence the ship had given them, but says nothing about helping himself to their canoe. Below is a detail view from an etching by W Palmer of A Draught Plan and Section of the Britannia Otaheite War Canoe in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. It this drawing we can see the construction methods of the Nukutavake Canoe repeated on a grand scale in the hull of a giant double hulled Tahitian war canoe.

We can see why it is thought the boat builders of the Tuamotus were thought to be the specialist carvers who constructed these Tahitian double hulled canoes.A single plank seat survives, there is no step for a mast, and it is likely to have been an outrigger paddling canoe. Missing are the head rails, which would have reached from the gunwales on each side to the ends of the prow and stern. On the upper edge of the left side there are burn marks made by fishing lines, which surely suggest it was used to catch very large species such as sharks and sword fish.

Polynesian Resource Center

In the detail above can be seen the coir or coconut husk bindings that hold the whole construction together. This technique is common across Polynesia even when they had access to huge trees as in New Zealand. Then in constructing a single hull from large species such as Totara or Kauri, the prow was an intricately carved add on, as was the high stern, and top strakes were added to increase the free board on the sides. In committing themselves to deep water voyages experience had taught them to have complete comfidence in this construction method, but such a construction was only as good as its maintainence. Although the timber was probably good for many voyages, the coir binding would have needed to be replaced regularly.

For readers who get to visit New Zealand the Auckland, Otago and Te Papa; the National Museum in Wellington all have large single hull wakas of this construction. The Canterbury Museum, my local museum also has one, but as discussed this museum prefers to keep is treasures hidden from public view. I presume the Nukutavake Canoe is also not on display, but the British Museum has the excuse of being so rich in the world's treasures we cannot expect that every object no matter how interesting can be displayed. However, to make up for this the British Museum has a very good website and is generous in supplying large file images at three working days notice and never once have I found them tardy in replying to email requests for information. In this regard the museums that hold Polynesian material are a mixed bag, but as I work my way through reviewing all the museums that have Polynesian collections I will continue to hand out the brickbats and bouquets, with the British Museum and Te Papa being by far the best. However, as a pointer to collectors and students of Polynesian Art and History there always seems to be a co-relationship between the quality of a museum's website and their generousity with their time in dealing with the public.

 

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