Tomako – War Canoe: E23373

Headhunters’ canoe from the Solomon Islands.

Tomako Canoe, Prow B: E23373

G. C. Clutton © Australian Museum

Nusa Roviana in New Georgia - a larger island in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands - was the regional centre of political power, demoted by British colonial intervention in the late 19th century. ‘The natives of these islands’ - says an anthropological study – ‘have for many centuries been in the habit of making raids upon neighbouring islands for the purpose of taking human heads and capturing slaves.’ The main instrument of these raids was the large war canoe called tomako – one of the biggest and most graceful indigenous watercraft of all times.

‘Their canoes are very well made and very light ... shaped like a crescent, the largest holding about thirty persons. ... Their speed in rowing is marvellous,’ this observation was recorded by Alvaro de Medeña, a Spanish navigator who visited the Solomon Islands in 1568 during his unsuccessful search for Terra Australis. ‘The canoes of these islands are constructed with great good sense, and finished with much skill: they are not formed of a trunk of a tree, made hollow by stone implements or fire ... but are made of pieces put together’ observed Jean-François-Marie de Surville - a French explorer in 1769. He described how the canoe was built of thin planks of timber ‘tied strongly with rattan to ribs of wood, bent in the shape of the boat, and serving as its frame. ...the joints are stopped with a black mastic, ... which renders these ... vessels impenetrable to the water.’

‘The bow and stern of all the war canoes’ – reads a 19th century report – ‘are beautifully patterned with an inlay work of mother-of-pearl and a string of porcelain cowries is secured all the way to the great prows. On the top of the prow of the war canoes there is usually a carved figure, the commonest being a kesoko’ - a bird or sea spirit.

With the arrival of Europeans, traders, missionaries and British colonial administration (in 1893) the stage was set for changing cultural traditions. In 1909 Charles Morris Woodford, Resident Commissioner reported that headhunting had become largely ‘a thing of the past’. He also reported a disruption of ‘the last’ headhunting raid in which the canoe was confiscated and subsequently used, for several years at the Government Station at Gizo - now capital of Western Province and the second largest town in the country. Woodford attempted to sell the canoe to the British Museum, but in the end sold it to a German collector. ‘It is an extremely fine specimen of a New Georgia tomako and I think it unlikely that such a fine example will be built again,’ he reflected.

But he was wrong. A canoe of comparable quality was built, probably at that time or not long after Commissioner Woodford was writing his, above quoted, article on 'Canoes of the British Solomon Islands.' The canoe was built for, and probably commissioned by, Harry Wickham, a local resident at Rovaina, a member of a highly respected and influential family in the area. This canoe was carefully crafted according to the best original practice and it took part in the boat races organised for Christmas at the Methodists Mission Station at Roviana Lagoon, probably in around 1910-12. Eventually Harry Wickham presented this impressive 14 metres long canoe with 19 original paddles to the Australian Museum in 1915.

The canoe races in the early 19th century can be seen as an attempt to preserve the tomako building and usage tradition outside the headhunting context. It succeeded: at the 11th Festival of the Pacific Arts held this July in the Solomon Islands, several magnificent war canoes were featured in opening ceremony. Adrian Wickham, inheritor of Harry’s passion for war canoe showed his support for the event and described it as ‘the Tomako culture renaissance’ - reported by the Solomon Star - daily newspaper on 6 July 2012.
 


Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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