Modelling culture: An outrigger canoe from Futuna

Guest post by Ross Irving, Assistant Curator, World Cultures, National Museums Scotland

As part of the Pacific Collections review Eve has been steadily working her way through our Pacific collections here at NMS. While studying material from Vanuatu, Eve started looking at the Reverend James Lawrie collection, which came to NMS in the 1890s from a Scottish Free Church missionary who was based on the island of Aneityum in the south of Vanuatu. The collection is quite large, numbering some 370 objects, including weapons, clothing and personal ornaments, objects of ceremonial and magical use and several models. Lawrie collected a number of ‘models’ to bring home with him, many of which survive in the NMS collection. They can tell us a great deal about the objects they represent and are a rich resource for researchers.

One model in particular came to our attention; a boat model from the island of Futuna around 50 miles from Aneityum. This island is not to be confused with the Polynesian island Futuna of Wallis and Futuna. The model represents a small outrigger canoe with dugout hull and sewn washstrakes, panels used to raise the height of the canoe. Models like this were popular souvenirs for European visitors, allowing them to take home examples of traditional craft in miniature (much easier to transport home than the real thing!).

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe made of bread-fruit wood with paddles and baler (A.1895.413.2 + A-C)

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe made of bread-fruit wood with paddles and baler (A.1895.413.2 + A-C)


Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe in the NMS collection (A.1895.413.2 + A-C )

Model of a Futuna outrigger canoe in the NMS collection (A.1895.413.2 + A-C )


‘Collection of Native Models Aneityum (now in Edinburgh Museum)’, courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales

‘Collection of Native Models Aneityum (now in Edinburgh Museum)’, courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales


The Futuna model can be seen at the front in the photograph above, interestingly with a fish hook tied over the stern carving which is still in the NMS collection. There is also a comparable model from Aneityum propped vertically at the back. Other models, also in the NMS collection, shown here include the model fish trap, shell adze and model house.

The Lawrie collection highlights the fact that models are extremely useful, along with other evidence like photographs, as records of traditional craft and constructions that would have been impractical for Europeans to bring home. Often constructed to scale (this model is estimates to be ¼ actual size) and using the same building materials and techniques as the full sized objects they represent, they can tell us much that other records cannot. Looking at this particular model, we can draw on Lawrie’s own published observations as well as his photography to learn more about it.

Having an interest in local culture, Lawrie wrote about and photographed different aspects including: appearance, dress and ornamentation, music and instruments, carving, weaponry, legends and traditional belief systems. Lawrie’s article entitled ‘New Hebrideans’ was published in The Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1892. On canoes, Lawrie observed that:

“The canoes on the southern islands are usually small and rude in construction; they are hollowed out of a single log with an outrigger attached, and are intended to carry from two to six adults”

Lawrie then goes on to discuss Futuna canoes in particular:

“On Futuna they have an ingenious method of heightening the sides of the canoes by building on extra pieces. They bore holes in the wood with a heated iron and sew the slabs to the body of the canoe with sennit, plugging up the holes afterwards with coco-nut fibre.”

This is also documented in one of Lawrie’s photographs:

Man with an outrigger canoe, Futuna, Vanuatu. Photo taken by Reverend J.H. Lawrie from 1891-94. Courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales

Man with an outrigger canoe, Futuna, Vanuatu. Photo taken by Reverend J.H. Lawrie from 1891-94. Courtesy of J.H. Lawrie. State Library of New South Wales


The model collected by Lawrie shows this perfectly. Adding wash strakes to raise the height of the sides of the canoe would allow for travel in more open water. William Gunn, Lawrie’s predecessor who was based on Futuna, also commented on this element in his book The Gospel in Futuna (London, 1914):

“The sides are raised by a row of planks, sewn by sinnet, the holes being plugged with coconut fibre…These Futunese canoes, now used when catching flying fish, were their ‘ships’ in early days, for going to other islands. Then two rows of planks raised the height of the canoe and kept out the sea. The baler is a wooden scoop with the handle raised. The natives never go to sea without a bailer, as their canoes always leak, more or less.” P198

This contrasted with those made on Aneityum which Gunn stated were not built with wash strakes and were intended only for calmer waters. The Futuna model comes with miniature paddles and a baler. The model baler can be seen in 1st photo of this blog post. Gunn also mentions that the carved ornament on the stern is “supposed to resemble the tail of a fowl” (this can be seen on both the model, and in the photograph above).

It would appear that the Futuna model was made using the same techniques as described by Lawrie and Gunn. The washstrakes are sewn to the hull using coconut fibre cordage, with cane strips. There appears to be coconut fibre pushed into the joins, the spaces between the washstrake and the hull, a method of making craft watertight known as caulking.

Close up of the coconut fibre binding and caulking used in the construction of the model canoe.

Close up of the coconut fibre binding and caulking used in the construction of the model canoe.


The model appears to be a miniature version of the canoe both in form but also in construction. Although valuable as a record of larger objects, this focus often leads to other interesting aspects of models to be overlooked. A question that springs to mind is ‘why would a model need caulking?’ A master teaching an apprentice, or just a matter of authenticity?

Forming a part of most ethnographic museum in the UK, model boats are commonly displayed and interpreted simply as ‘boats’ rather than being discussed as models. Although they are definitely valuable as historical record of vessel types (which often are no longer made) their status as ‘model’ is rarely discussed. Early trade in these models between islanders and Europeans showed a mutual interest in watercraft and seafaring. Perfect as souvenirs these models were easily brought home as curios and so are widely represented. I feel the appeal and interest in the models from a European perspective is clear, but what needs further research is the history and process of model making from the Pacific islanders perspective. What role (if any) do models and model making have in local culture and craft? Were they made before European arrival and played some part in passing on knowledge about construction and craft, or are they simply a souvenir used to trade with Europeans? The fact that this model is constructed in the same way as the full sized version does suggest that time and care were taken to make them.

What we do know is that the models form part of Lawrie’s record of New Hebridean culture and allow us, without travelling to Vanuatu, to closely study many of these structures which would otherwise have been impossible.

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