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On Fiji Islands -- Suva-- Chapter 2.16

The drua had two hulls of unequal size, over which was laid a deck equipped with a collapsible house. The mast, stepped in the middle of the deck, carried a lateen sail of pandanus mat. Steering was done by trailing oars of vesi wood up to twenty feet in length. The largest canoe seen by Thomas Williams (c. 1850) had the following dimensions: length of main hull, 118 feet; deck, 50 feet by 24; mast, 68 feet high with 90-foot yards. She was named Rusa i Vanua, or "Perished Inland," for fear that she would be impossible to launch. Such a craft "would safely convey a hundred persons, and several tons of goods, over a thousand miles of ocean." In the last years before the Pax Britannica some Fijian war canoes were mounted with light cannon.

The outrigger, or lesser hull, was always kept to windward. Good sailors 

applied just enough sail to keep it skimming the surface. They could tack into the wind by reversing the entire sail assembly, so that the bow of the canoe on one tack became its stern on the next. The early anthropologist Basil Thomson described this as: "the most precise and beautiful manoeuvre known to seamanship." Any canoe of more than forty feet in length could not be hollowed from a single tree. A hull was made of several large planks, built up from a keel in two or three sections. The pieces were cut and curved to fit perfectly, then joined by means of bindings sewn through mating flanges pierced with holes. Ribs were not used; even the largest composite hulls imitated the dugout form. From the outside the joins were almost undetectable.

Before 1800, this work was done with polilihed stone chisels, abrasive shells, and saws of animal teeth. The finest craft took years to build and were not considered finished without sacrifice. The first launching was over human rollers, while decks and spars were splashed with blood.

 "When are you boys leaving for Nadrau?" Fergus had reappeared while I was admiring a tanoa four feet in diameter, carved from a single block of wood.

 "Two or three days," Derek said. "Senitiki said he'd come with us on Sunday to try and find Aseri at his village. I'm hoping Aseri will come along and be our mata ni vanua. Apparently he's not doing much since you fired him."

 "A good lad that, but don't let him drive anything." (Aseri's misfortunes with the museum Land-Rover had cost him his job.) Fergus grinned. "Looking forward to all that country food?"

"I can still taste it," said Derek. "Cassava and tinned fish." He shuddered.

Historian, novelist, and essayist Ronald Wright is the award-winning author of nine books of nonfiction and fiction published in 16 languages and more than 50 countries. Much of his work explores the relationships between past and present, peoples and power, other cultures and our own.  On Fiji Islands, was published in 1983 to critical acclaim. He has graciously allowed to serialize his work for your enjoyment. We welcome your comments. (For more information visit

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