Traditional Massim canoes drawn and documented
We wanted to document the size and scale of the remaining traditional canoes …
“Our objective was simple enough,” says David Payne, curator of historic vessels at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.
“We wanted to document the size and scale of the remaining traditional canoes used by the Massim people of the Louisiade Archipelago, Trobriand Islands and adjacent regions in Milne Bay province,” he tells Paradise.
Payne embarked on the project with Dr Harry Beran, 82, a world authority on Massim art and culture, and his Adelaide-based colleague, John Greenshields, a Massim art enthusiast who had spent many years working in Papua New Guinea as an architect.
“Five other friends came as well to help pay the charter cost of our motor boat, the MV
Curringa,” Payne says.
“I wanted to measure and record the details of the different outrigger canoes we encountered and then draw them accurately, as they are a major part of the Massim art and culture,” Payne, himself a yacht designer, says.
The outcome of Payne’s work is 22 large plans showing the shape and construction for 10 large canoes and eight of the smaller ones, a canoe hut, a detailed research report, along with many pencil sketches of the scenery.
These Massim canoes have never been recorded and drawn to this level of detail, although a celebrated English artist, Oswald Brierly, sketched and painted some of the canoes during a survey of the area 170 years ago aboard HMS Rattlesnake.
“Brierly was probably the first person to record these canoes, but his stay was short. He possibly had to fill in sketches from memory, at times by candlelight, having earlier in the day drawn a quick outline and made notes.”
Payne and the team went in search of the major types of traditional trading canoes including the big nagega, the sailau (a contemporary development of the traditional canoes), the gebo (war canoes now used in festivals) and a typical fishing canoe.
The group visited 30 islands over 27 days and struck it lucky just as they arrived by plane at Alotau on the first day.
“We headed out to a village where we had permission to inspect and measure up a gebo.
It is a 20-metre long dugout with stunning decoration and carvings at the bow and stern.
“We were off to a good start and, as it turned out, we never looked back.
“The carvings are a key part of the documentation. The principal area decorated is at the two identical ends of these double-ended hulls. The washboards and prows carry intricately carved symbols and shapes on their flat panels,” Payne says.
“Each boat is different and each carver has his own symbols. John and Harry focused their attention on these, capturing the meanings and local terms used, including the words for the parts of the canoes.”
By hand, Payne documented 10 outrigger canoes and numerous village canoes, all in enough detail to do large-scale line and construction drawings back in Sydney, adding colour and shading to bring them to life.
One of his primary aims was to document a
nagega, the biggest of the trading canoes. Early on they found an older one at Ole Island in the Louisiade Archipelago and, although it was in poor condition, it was worth recording.
They soon discovered there were others around and still working. At Kwaiawata Island, just hours before their arrival, the island’s canoes had left on a kula exchange passage to Woodlark Island. (The traditional kula exchange involves trading valuable armbands and necklaces between the island communities.)
Their disappointment was short-lived. That evening, at nearby Gawa Island, they found one in perfect condition.
“Just ripe for documenting,” says Payne. “Both the owner and builder were happy for me to come ashore the next day to measure it up.”
He says their best experience was finding one specific canoe, an epoi from Fergusson Island, the largest of the D’Entrecasteaux Islands.
“This particular canoe was a personal mission for John. He had met the owner with this new
epoi a couple of years earlier in Alotau, and knew roughly where it might be.”
By searching one afternoon in Curringa’s skiff, he tracked it down at Waluma East village – not far away, but with its difficult rocky shoreline, the surf landing was difficult.
“So it was another dawn visit. It was a
beautiful craft, in its own shed, and the pride of the owner, the carver and the village.”
Payne emphasises the success of the venture lay in seeking permission from the village headman and explaining the project.
“Our crew were locals; they knew the widely spoken Misima language and often knew people on the various islands where we had stopped. We always followed a practice of letting our skipper, Obedi, first seek out the head of the village, explain the purpose of our visit and request permission to come ashore.
“There was never a problem. They were just as keen to come out to Curringa to meet us and inspect our boat.”
Fine lines ... some of the drawings from David Payne’s recent expedition, which visited 30 PNG islands (opposite page); a single-outrigger canoe moves smoothly through the water near Kitava Island (above).
In the islands ... traditional canoes lined up on the beach.
David Payne ... documented outrigger canoes and numerous village canoes in the islands of PNG and then went back to the city to do large-scale line and construction drawings.