Monday, 7 January 2008

THE CANOE BUILDERS OF NUGURIA

The American whaler, Abgarris, first reported the atolls in 1830 and located them, not quite accurately, 120 nautical miles off the east coast of New Ireland, and 200 miles south of the equator

Nuguria Atoll. Satellite Image


Fead was the name given by cartographers to the larger one of the two island groups, but the original inhabitants knew it as Nuguria


Tekani, the Home Island,

There are two separate atolls with a deep-water passage between them. Both wear a thin necklace of low islets perched only a few feet above sea level on the outer rim of the lagoon. The highest point on every island is only a few feet above the high tide mark and, in common with other low-lying atolls in the Western Pacific, Nuguria, the larger of the two, is experiencing a disturbing rise in sea level: whether this caused by global warming or by subsidence of tectonic plates on the seabed is currently being disputed by a myriad of experts, most of whom have yet to actually set foot on these, or any other atolls.


Tekani Island boat harbour with dugout canoes

Before the arrival of European sailors, Nuguria's only contact with the rest of the world had been the occasional arrival of sail-driven canoes from Kapingamarangi, 600 miles to the North, and other arrivals from Nukumanu, Nukutoa and Luainia to the East. Some visitors remained, and infused Polynesian and Micronesian genetic material into the Indo-Asian DNA of the original arrivals.

Nugurian girl. Busuria Village

Fishing was, and still is the Islanders' main source of food, supplemented by Taro which is cultivated in excavated pits in the coral sand of the larger islands. The fertile soil in these artificially created food gardens has been laboriously built up over many years with organic vegetable material which replaces the nutrient-poor coral sand and rubble of the atoll.

******************

There are no large trees anywhere on these islands and traditional canoe builders were entirely dependant for suitable material for canoes on the infrequent arrival of drifting logs from the rain forests of New Ireland 120 miles to the West. The canoe-building skills of the craftsmen of Nuguria are legendary: they transform a raw tree trunk into a hollowed-out, graceful canoe using hand tools only.

Canoe from Busuria Village en route to fishing grounds in the lagoon.

Before the discovery of the atoll by European sailors, hafted adzes with sharpened clamshell blades; the hardest available material on these stone-free islands, were used after deliberate use of fire, to remove all but a thin outer shell of timber in the hollowed out hull with a thickness at the gunwale of only two centimetres, gradually increasing to ten centimetres or more at the bottom for added stability.

When finally finished, this huge log canoe was powered by an inboard Diesel engine and was used as a plantation work-boat in the lagoon. She made regular open water voyages to Nissan and to Malekolon Plantation near New Ireland from Nuguria.

Canoe sails were originally made of woven tapa cloth using traditional looms. Rigging to support the single mangrove pole mast and sheets for the sails came from coconut fibre. A species of tall mangrove supplied the mast and was also used for the outrigger which was attached to its booms by sharpened bamboo spikes and split cane lashings

20th century canoe with traditional rig near Tekani Island

The canoe builders of Nuguria now use imported sailcloth and power tools, but the final finishing cuts are still delivered using hand adzes with frequent pauses to guage the thickness of the hull by listening to the sound made by a gentle tap from the wooden handle of the adze; the same method used by their forebears here on these lonely islands at the edge of the world.

********************


1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Brian - brings back some memories !!

    ReplyDelete