The Tongan Double Canoes

by Peter Suren (Author)
©2018 Monographs 178 Pages


The double canoe constituted the backbone of Polynesian culture, since it enabled the Polynesians to enter and conquer the Pacific. In Tonga, a center of Polynesian navigation, two types were known: the tongiaki and the kalia. Contrary to most contributions, the author argues that the Tongans were not only the Western Pacific masters of navigation, but also of canoe designing. Typical of Polynesian canoes was the sewing technique which can be traced back to ancient India but was also practiced in Pharanoic Egypt and southern Europe. The legend of the magnetic mountain is to be viewed in this context. Oceanic navigation, which declined during the 19th century, had developed its own means of orientation at sea, including astronomy and meteorology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Part One: The Tongan single canoes, and the sewing technique
  • First Chapter: The popao
  • Second Chapter: The tafa′anga
  • Third Chapter: The hamatefua
  • Fourth Chapter: The sewing technique
  • Part Two: Tongiaki, kalia, and the essentials of Oceanic navigation
  • First Chapter: The early descriptions of Tongan double canoes
  • Second Chapter: The tongiaki
  • Third Chapter: The kalia
  • Fourth Chapter: The decline of Polynesian navigation
  • Fifth Chapter: Tongan boat-houses
  • Sixth Chapter: Meteorology and orientation at sea in Oceania
  • Seventh Chapter: The origin of the double canoe in South Asia
  • List of illustrations
  • References

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Part One: The Tongan single canoes, and the sewing technique

Of all objects of the material culture of the Tonga islands their discoverers and explorers, first of all James Cook and his companions, were most impressed by the huge double canoes. These consisted of two single canoes connected with each other by a platform. They had enabled the early Polynesians to discover and settle upon almost all islands in the Pacific Ocean and to maintain a regular traffic between the numerous island groups. Thus, in a certain sense, they form the backbone of Polynesian culture. It does for this reason not seem to be amiss to give a detailed survey of what has been passed on to us about the Tongan double canoe.

Its most important components were the two connected canoes. To understand the phenomenon of the double canoe as a whole, one has to understand the single canoe first. Let us therefore start with historic descriptions of the single canoes in Tonga! Captain Cook notes on the occasion of his 1st visit to Tonga in 1773 about the Tongan people: “… nothing shows their ingenuity so much as the manner in which their canoes are built and constructed; they are long and narrow with outriggers…”. His Officer Charles Clerke writes: “The canoes of … all this group of islands are by far the best I have met with. They are put together with as much nicety, and their seams are as fine, as any cabinet work – they are a strong well proportioned good boat”. His colleague Richard Pickersgill says about them: “Their canoes were the neatest I ever saw”, and astronomer William Wales exclaims: “No canoes that we have seen in these seas can bear the least comparison with these in point of neatness and workmanship”. Naturalist J.R. Forster adds in his journal (vol. 3): “Their canoes are very neat and better shaped than those at Tahiti; they work them with amazing skill and agility”; “The structures of their canoes, both of the common and those intended for war, are monuments of their skill, and ingenious contrivance”. Members of Cook’s next, and last, expedition were not slow to chime in with these judgments; thus, William Ellis writes in 1777: “The canoes of these islands are without exception the best ← 9 | 10 → we ever saw…”. It was only the Hawaiian canoes that were praised in a similar way – at least by George Gilbert who notes in 1778 at Hawaii: “The small single canoes here are nearly like those at the Friendly Islands [Tonga] with outriggers to them, in the same manner; and both in their form and workmanship are the neatest we have ever seen”.

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First Chapter: The popao

Even though there was a considerable variety of single canoes in Tonga, one may roughly distinguish between three types. All of them had an outrigger; according to David Samwell’s vocabulary, an outrigger was called in Tonga “laupapa” (“Law baba”). The narrow shape of the Tongan canoes was the reason of their permanently being in danger of upsetting, wherefore outriggers were needed to keep their equilibrium; Pickersgill remarks in 1773: “… [they] have out layers the same as the canoes of the East Indians to prevent them oversetting”. Spanish Captain F.A. Mourelle, who watched some in 1781 at Vava′u, has referred to this necessity in his “Digresión escrita después de concluído el viaje”1. Thus, the Tongan single canoes had an outrigger – but only one. Canoes with two outriggers, one on each side, have been common off the shores of New Guinea and in East Indonesia2. We fancy that the Polynesians, respectively their forefathers, had been aware of this option but had finally abandoned the idea – after many experiments. Such canoes with two outriggers were certainly well protected from capsizing, but their deficiencies when being maneuvered made, so we presume, the early Polynesians neglect them soon.

The simplest type of canoe in Tonga was not mentioned in the earliest accounts: it consisted of a hollow trunk only, had space for one or two persons and was mainly used, as we see it, for fishing within the reefs and on the lagoons and inland lakes. Such canoes, which are called popao3, may still be found in today’s ← 11 | 12 → Tonga. John Twyning, in the 1st half of the 19th century, refers to them as follows. “I do not think it necessary to give any description of the small canoes, for everybody has seen either the canoes themselves or models of them, as they are used by every uncivilized people throughout the globe. Those used by the Fijis and Friendly Islanders, are somewhat like every other. They are dug, if I may use the expression for chopping, hacking, and burning, out of a whole tree, shaped both ends alike, are of all conceivable sizes, and are propelled with a paddle”. As to the procedure of burning, C.F.G. Cumming gives more details: “… a good-sized tree could thus be felled in 3 or 4 days… Once down, fire could be better used to divide the tree into useful lengths; if a canoe were required, a long narrow line of fire was allowed to burn the whole length, its progress being regulated by the slow dripping of water”. Gunnar Landtman gives some interesting hints at the building techniques applied in New Guinea: “Only shallow cuts could be made with a stone axe, so the operation principally consisted in bruising the wood into rough splinters and removing them one by one. The interior of the hull was afterwards burnt smooth, and the outside was also treated with fire in order, it is said, to make the wood harder and less perishable. Water was kept handy to prevent the fire from burning through the wood”. A record from the Chuuk Islands, Micronesia, states that months were needed to thus dug out a tree4.

We think that among the popaos, too, there were different standards to be found and that F.E. Pâris’ description, like the sketch reproduced in the following, referred to a comparatively sophisticated version. James Hornell (1936) distinguishes from the popao another type called tuingutu, a “larger and more valuable craft”. But it seems to have only been a variant of the popao, namely one with built-up sides, as may be gathered from C.M. Churchward’s dictionary – accordingly, “tuingutu” may be considered but an abbreviating expression for “popao tuingutu”. Pâris, who had occasion to study the Tongan canoes in 1827, describes the popao in the following way: “[It] is much less cared for than the other types. Its length does sometimes not exceed 5 meters and its body is formed by the trunk of a tree roughly rounded, covered at the extremities by boards rather ← 12 | 13 → badly sewn together with small cords. The middle is raised and embraced by planks fastened in the same manner (namely sewn), upon which three poles are attached serving as seats5. These canoes are little solid, neither polished nor oiled and serve for fishing on the reefs where their rounded bottom saves them from being damaged by the sharp points of the corals. It seems that they are only used by the lower classes of the people”.

Figure 1: A Tongan popao tuingutu, painted by L.A. de Sainson and published in Jules Dumont d’Urville’s “Atlas historique”. Corresponding sketches are to be found in F.E. Pâris’ “Essai”. The original sketches were made on the occasion of the Astrolabe’s visit to Tongatapu in 1827.6


The information about the various species of wood applied by the canoe builders gathered by J.D. Whitcombe in the 1st half of the 20th century apparently refers to the popao; he points out: “The Tongans make their canoes from anyone of several trees: the pukovili, the toi, the pipi, the fotulona, and the vi. A large tree of one ← 13 | 14 → of these species is cut down, shaped, and the center scooped out. The outrigger (hama) is then made from the wood of the tou tree, and the outrigger sticks from the wood of the pipi tree (pipi failolo). The joins are made from the tutu′uli, and the hama bound with kafa…”.

1 “… éstas son las más pequeñas, y de una construcción que sin la ayuda de un equilibrio que le ponen, sería dificultuoso conservarla sobre el movimiento de las olas, sin que a cada instante zozobrasen; pero ellos suplieron este notable defecto, atravesándole sobre las bordas dos cañas o palos floxos, próximos el uno a la popa, y el otro a la proa, ambos dirigidos por el mismo costado; de suerte que la canoa, los dos dichos maderos, y una caña gruesa que está atravesada y afianzada en sus extremos, forman justamente un cuadrilongo que le sirve de poyo cuando la canoa se inclina sobre aquella parte, y se sostiene sobre la caña gruesa paralela a su costado; pero cuando la embarcación cae sobre el lado opuesto, le contrapesa el cuadrilongo por la larga distancia de las dos varas y el travesaño de sus extremos”.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Polynesia navigation history kalia sewing India
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 178 pp., 51 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Peter Suren (Author)

Peter Suren obtained his doctorate in philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. He has been traveling in Polynesia and was teaching in Tonga philosophy and international law. The result of his subsequent studies in the history of Tonga and Polynesia was a series of papers which were published in Tonga.


Title: The Tongan Double Canoes
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180 pages