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Solomon Islands canoe

Early European visitors to the Solomon Islands remarked on the beauty and grace of the canoes found there. They were constructed from hand-hewn planks attached to each other by cane ties, the whole framework then being mounted and lashed onto ornate internal spreaders or ribs. The gaps between the planks were plugged with natural putty from the tita nut (Parinarium laurinum). Both prow and stern carried designs of inlaid shell, and no two canoes were decorated in the same way.

Large, ocean-going canoes, or tomako, in the western Solomons had high prow and stern posts, each of which was surmounted by a pair of figures. Those on the prow looked fore and aft, while others looked to port and starboard at the top of the stern post. The spirits looking after the welfare of the canoe and its crew could see in all directions.

Perhaps the most remarkable figure was the nguzunguzu, a carved head with protruding jaws, painted black and decorated with inlaid nautilus shell. It was mounted near the waterline on the prow so that it dipped in and out of the water, on the lookout for hostile water spirits.

The pictured vessel was a head-hunting canoe from Roviana Lagoon, New Georgia. Santa Isabel, immediately to the north, was a favourite destination for raiding. It was on a trip there in the search for heads in 1901 that the museum’s canoe was seized by the colonial administration, which had prohibited the practice. At 14 metres long, the canoe would have held about 18 warriors.


  canoe ornament


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Canoe (19th century), wood and shell
Dimensions H 52.5 x W 110 x L 1380 cm
Registration No. X 8042
Image source: Museum Victoria

© Museum Victoria Australia