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Traditional Banaban Outrigger

Banaban fishing outrigger canoe (Te Waa) taken circa 1920 Banaba


Extracts: "Te Rii Ni Banaba - The Backbone of Banaba"

by R. K. Sigrah & S. M. King

New Ebook Edition Available for download

 First Published IPS, University of South Pacific, Fiji 2001, Second edition Banaban Vision Publications 2019.

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Banabans had a unique outrigger canoe.  It had a raised and ornately-decorated prows, as reported by Captain Mackay, of the Queensland Brig Flora, reported on his visit to the island in 1875.  Here is his detailed description of the Banaban canoes he saw:


Their canoes are beautiful specimens of savage skill and mechanism, constructed wholly of small pieces of wood, neatly sewn together with sennet, made from the coconut fibre; each end is raised, with a curve about ten feet above the deck, beautifully carved and inlaid with pearl and tortoiseshell.  In these frail craft, they venture many miles away from their island home; but notwithstanding their dexterity in managing them, a great number have been lost or blown away.  Mackay (1875, cited in Maude and Maude 1994:89).


In 1900, Albert Ellis also commented on the unique style of Banaban canoes:

The high prows of these crafts and their fine lines made them both attractive and seaworthy.  They were not dug-outs but properly built with small tamana wood boards, laboriously hewn from local timber.  No nails were available, and in any case, the strong coconut sennet neatly laced along the plank edges was more suitable and better able to stand the shock when the canoes were dashed on the reef by the surf, as was inevitably the case at times.  They were of light construction and one capable of holding a crew of five could be readily carried down the beach and across the reef by two men.  A canoe thus manned would make good headway against quite a heavy sea and the strong equatorial current; it was an invaluable item in the Banaban equipment (Ellis 1936:73).

Banaban tewaa traditional canoe

Banaban fishing outrigger canoe (Te Waa) taken Banaba 2004

The high prows were originally designed to cope with the large surf and swell that hit the edge of the fringing reefs.  The prows helped to save the canoes from taking in water as their crew skilfully manoeuvred them through the waves.


By the time of European occupation in the early 1900s, Banaban canoes were slightly different, with lower prows of less than a metre, they were no longer decorated.  By this period, the imported labour force introduced Kiribati canoes.


Today on Rabi, the community has implemented a canoe making programme.  The design is based on flat prows, as Rabi does not have the rough surf found around Banaba.  When the programme started, the canoes were all handmade using traditional tools and fine sennet coil.  Now the demand has increased, and the craftsmen are making the canoes from modern materials such as marine ply and brass screws.


Banaban  Te Waa canoe with sail fishing off Rabi 2004

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