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  • Hawaiian Outrigger Canoes of the Bonin Archipelago
  • Scott Kramer (bio) and Hanae Kurihara Kramer (bio)

In the nineteenth century, immigrants from many lands came to Hawai‘i and left their mark upon the islands. Equally relevant but less known are the stories of Native Hawaiians who carried their culture to foreign shores. One such group of pioneers settled the uninhabited Bonin Archipelago (Ogasawara Islands) in 1830, where they transplanted Hawaiian customs, language, and technology. Their island colony, situated in the remote waters of the western Pacific, roughly midway between Japan and the Marianas, became a well-known stop for whalers seeking fresh supplies as well as respite from the sea. The comings and goings of people over the years affected the Bonin colony’s makeup as did Japanese occupation in 1875. Despite the dramatic political and demographic changes that befell the archipelago in the late nineteenth century, some of its Hawaiian roots endure. The most manifest example is perhaps the single-hulled outrigger canoe, or wa‘a kaukahi.1 Early twentieth-century postcards and travel literature made it an unofficial symbol of the Bonin Archipelago. In addition to being a source of inspiration for writers, it was a common prop for photographers and a frequent subject for artists. The outrigger [End Page 179] canoe enjoyed widespread use well past the conclusion of the Second World War. Even today it can be seen near water’s edge, 185 years after the first Hawaiians arrived.

Craftsmen in the Hawaiian chain produced a wide variety of double and single-hulled canoes. The Bonin islanders limited their efforts to single-hulled dugouts supported upright by one lateral float held in place by two booms. The islanders largely dispensed with ceremonial aspects of canoe making. A small population with limited needs resulted in vessels of relatively uniform design. The colony was originally comprised of a few dozen Hawaiians and five Caucasian males who had experience with Polynesian cultures before relocating to the Bonins.2 According to the historian Yamagata Ishinosuke, a Dane named Charles Johnson introduced the outrigger canoe.3 Johnson was probably an early maker of Hawaiian-style canoes, but it is far from certain that he was the first. What is certain is that local Caucasians were as enthusiastic about the technology as the Hawaiians. Japanese who moved to the archipelago in the late nineteenth century following colonization embraced the Hawaiian watercraft like their neighbors. Boat builders from Japan’s Hachijō island began making outrigger canoes after spending time in the Bonins. These men even introduced the technology to their families and friends back home, where fishing boats today are still fitted with outriggers to produce an unusual looking construction.4 Canoes in the Bonin Archipelago incorporated Western and Japanese elements, more so over the course of time. Coastal deforestation, access to more materials, and modern techniques eventually made traditional dugouts obsolete, but the Bonin outrigger canoe kept its form and function.

Construction & Design

In 1888, a visitor to the Bonins briefly described how islanders made their canoes. During the summer months, men felled large trees that were then shaved down and carved out. That is, each tree trunk was stripped of its branches and debarked before being hollowed by repetitive ax strikes. The next step was to haul these rough-hewn canoes into shaded areas, where the wood was allowed to cure in ideal conditions for many weeks or months. Commonly used in home construction, the endemic akō (a member of the citrus family) was preferred [End Page 180]

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Figure 1.

The above three postcards were in circulation during the interwar period (1918–1939).

Courtesy of Ogasawara Village’s Board of Education.

[End Page 181]

because of its buoyancy and strength, as were the pan-Pacific species sendan (chinaberry) and hasunohagiri (jack-in-the-box). Following the drying process, each canoe was hewn, chiseled, and carved into its signature shape. Two arched booms, or cross beams, attached a lateral support float to the hull. Cords held everything together. Canoe makers chose pieces of naturally bowed wood for the booms, often from the ichibi, a large hibiscus endemic to the Bonins that was...


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