Historic Descriptions of Marshall Islands Canoes

compiled by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

Canoes at Mili Atoll (1788)--by Thomas Gilbert
Canoes at Mili Atoll (1876)--by James Lyle Young



(by Dirk H.R. Spennemann)

This document tries to compile historic observation on the nature, consrcution and sailing abilities of Marshall Islands canoes. The texts reproduced here have been extracted from other documents mounted on this site. This page will be added as time and opportunity permit.



Canoes at Mili Atoll (1788)
(by Thomas Gilbert)

While Thomas Gilbert's account of the first European contact with the southern Marshall Islands does not contain any descriptions of the appearance of Marshall Islands canoes, he furnished an illustration.


Impression of a canoe seen at Mili in 1788 (Thomas Gilbert 1788)



Canoes at Mili Atoll (1876)
(by James Lyle Young)

The canoes here are of a different character to any of those of the people South of the Equator; they resemble those of the Gilbert Islanders in having the side furthest from the outrigger viz. the side which is always to leeward - flat, while that next the outrigger is rounded, but they are not like the Gilbert Island canoes, built of narrow planks of uniform width, but large irregularly shaped pieces of wood (breadfruit timber) like the Fijian or Tongan canoes. Their sails are like those of Polynesian canoes and are made of pandanus matting, in narrower breadths than those of the latter; their mast is stepped in the usual manner; but it is supported by a number of stays, (in the large canoes 10 and 12) leading from the masthead to the sticks which connect the outrigger and the hull. (The Southern canoes have generally only one stay to the outrigger from the masthead). The small spars which connect the hull and outrigger, do no as in the canoes of the Southern groups, project horizontally from the hull and fasten at right angles to short uprights driven into the outrigger, but are curved and insert directly into the centre of the outrigger proper.

But the most noticeable difference between them and the ordinary Polynesian canoe, is the remarkable platform which is raised in the centre of the canoe some two feet above the hull and projects 3 or 4 feet to leeward and nearly the same distance to windward, the mast being stepped in the centre. This arrangement gives the canoes the appearance of a Malay "prod" and raises the mast and sail at least two feet higher from the water than it would be in a Fijian canoe of the same size.

On the whole, although these canoes are not so handsome and do not draw so much water as the Gilbert Island canoes, and are never made of so large a size as those of Fiji, they are probably safer and faster and better adapted for sea voyages than any I have seen; they have one great advantage which I am surprised has never been adopted by Southern natives, viz. a system of reefing a brailing up their sail, by means of a line from the masterhead to the lower boom; by hauling up on this they can at once reduce their sail by half (or more if necessary) in a squall, or, when running dead before the wind, and by keeping it fast, when they let go their halliards [halyards] the sail is held up clear of the deck. The people are very careful of their sails having covers for them, made of matting, and on the approach of a shower they lower away and cover them up until it has passed over.

They make voyages to the Northern and Western Islands at intervals and it is quite wonderful how they manage to find these low coral atolls, considering the squally weather and strong currents of these latitudes.




Gilbert, Thomas (1789).
Voyage from New South Wales to Canton in the Year 1788, with Views of the Islands discovered By Thomas Gilbert Commander of the Charlotte. London: Printed by George Stafford, for J. Debrett, opposite Burlington House, Piccadilly.

Young, James Lyle (1876)

Private Journal, 6 January 1875 - 31 December 1877. Pacific Manuscripts Bureau, Microfilm no 21. Entry for XXXX 1876.

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Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.
e-mail: dspennemann@csu.edu.au

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