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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Basket Boats on the Gulf of Tonkin

We've written before about woven or basket boats in Vietnam (see, for example, this post highlighting a canoe-form craft, and this one about coracles), but the one in the image below, from James Hornell's Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution, so struck us by its graceful form that we thought it was worth sharing.
Basket boat, Vietnam, from Hornell
Woven boat of the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam. From Hornell, Water Transport. (click to enlarge)
The boat is common on the Gulf of Tonkin. We'll quote Hornell's comments in almost their entirety:
This is a light, graceful craft made of inch-wide strips of split bamboo, closely woven into stiff matting, a material of great strength, resiliency and resistance to strain. 
In plan it is of an elongated ovate form, the wider end being the stern. Both extremities are spoon-shaped like the fore end of a Norwegian praam [sic] and are rounded in horizontal outline. A gentle sheer toward each end carries stem and stern above the level of the midships gunwale, the stem rising the higher. The bent-up sides of the bamboo body are embraced around their margin by several broad bands of split bamboo on each side and bound together into a stout cylinder with rattan strips to form a stout, continuous gunwale. Four or five strong bamboos stretch from gunwale to gunwale to prevent spreading; they are secured partly by lashing and partly by pegging into the gunwales. Along each side above the gunwales and over the ends of the cross beam, a slender bamboo pole is lashed to form a top rail. 
On the floor two long bamboos, spaced some distance apart, serve as inner stringers. One of the thwart beams, usually the second from the stern, is supported below by two short stanchions fixed at the lower ends into a stout bamboo bar, fitted athwart the bottom. Before launching, the interstices in the matting forming the skin of the hull are daubed with a caulking mixture of cow dung and coconut oil [citation omitted], periodically renewed. Strips of split bamboo matting are fitted over the floor to serve as dunnage and so keep cargo and passengers dry against moderate leaking. 
Although very light and easily carried by one man, they are able to carry several passengers together with a quantity of baggage. 
The dimensions of one measured by Nishimura [citation omitted] were as follows: length, 12 feet 7 inches; width, 5 feet; depth, 26 inches: usually they run smaller -- about 6 feet by 4 feet, by about 10 inches deep. 
Nishimura states that this type of craft is very common in Tongking, where almost all families living near rivers and streams keep one or two.
A couple observations on the above:

1. It seems unlikely that the caulking mixture was applied only to the "interstices in the matting." It is almost certainly spread over the entire outer surface of the hull. Road tar and roofing tar have largely replaced cow dung and coconut oil for waterproofing.

2. The purpose of the top rail is not explained. They may serve as the top elements of girders that stiffen the boat longitudinally, with the thwarts or cross-beams serving to create a vertical gap between them and the gunwales. But read on.

The image below, from Ken Foster's Boats & Rice blog, shows what appears to be the same kind of boat in current use on Halong (or Ha Long) Bay, near Hai Phong on the Gulf of Tonkin. This boat has a more elaborate and substantial framework around the perimeter than the light top rails in Hornell's image, but the curve of the bow (?) rising above the transverse end-piece of the perimeter framework seems to identify the boat as the same basic type. Along with strengthening the structure further, the fore-and-aft elements of the rectangular perimeter frame serve to anchor the tholepins. This might have been another unexplained purpose of the top rails in Hornell's image.
Woven boat, Halong Bay, from Boats & Rice blog
Woven boat, Halong Bay, from Boats & Rice

Friday, January 12, 2018

Canoes and Canoeists of Ancient Ecuador

The Inca are certainly the best-known pre-European culture of Ecuador, but they were hardly the only one. In fact, they were latecomers on the scene, invading from Peru less than one hundred years before Francisco Pizzaro arrived from Spain to destroy their civilization. Prior to the Inca's arrival, the land that is present-day Ecuador had been occupied by a succession of regional cultures, several of which used small watercraft.

Dugout canoes played an important enough role in some Ecuadorian cultures to have warranted frequent representation in ceramic miniatures. Although we don't know the purpose of these sculptures, it's probable that they had ritual significance, as is the case with almost all art from almost all ancient societies. In spite of their pleasing aesthetics, it is unlikely that they were made for purely decorative purposes.


With the exception of the anchor, the following photos were taken through glass exhibit cases. The first three boats (six photos), the paddlers without canoes, and the anchor are at the Museo Antropologico y de Arte Contemporaneo in Guayaquil. The last canoe miniature (three photos) is at the Archaeological Museum of the University of Cuenca. Click any image to enlarge.

Chorrera dugout canoe with two paddlers
Chorrera dugout canoe with two paddlers. ("Existing in the late formative period the Chorrera culture lived in the Andes and Coastal Regions of Ecuador between 1000 and 300 BC." [Wikipedia]). The canoe has overhangs at both ends upon which the paddlers squat.
Chorrera dugout canoe with two paddlers
With its full-width bow and stern platforms, the canoe is nearly rectangular in plan view. The deep interior may simply represent a real canoe's hold, or the sculture might have been used as a vessel for food or other ritual offerings. Both paddles are held to the same side of the canoe. 
Chorrera canoe paddler miniature
The squatting bowman holds a paddle with a long blade that tapers into the shaft and a square bottom end. There is no end grip on the shaft. The paddler wears decorative ear plugs and a helmet of some kind.
Tolita canoeist and canoe miniature
Tolita canoeist and canoe. More crudely fashioned or "schematic" than the previous one, this canoe nonetheless shows small bow and stern platforms. Although the canoeist lacks a paddle, he is otherwise well-equipped. The Tolita lived on the northern coast of Ecuador from 500BCE to 500CE. 
Tolita canoe miniature
An elaborate Tolita canoe with several notable features, including:
  • a bow platform
  • structures that appear as side decks fastened to the outside of the hull from about midships to the stern
  • an arched shelter amidships
  • a coaming or seat backs aft of the shelter

The seat backs, and possibly the shelter, indicate the boat was used for transportation of people, although carrying cargo in addition cannot be ruled out. These features also appear to indicate a boat for a user of high status, perhaps a merchant who could afford to sit back and relax while others worked the boat.
The "side decks" are a curiosity Did men stand on them to paddle or pole the boat, leaving more room in the hull for passengers and/or cargo? If men stood on both of them simultaneously, the boat would have adequate balance. But if one paddler were to step or fall off, the boat might become highly unstable. Perhaps, instead of decks, they represent sponsons to increase the boat's stability and buoyancy, or simply planks that would provide momentary resistance if the boat were to heel suddenly.
Tolita canoe miniature
This angle shows a clearer view of the seat backs or coaming.
Tolita canoe paddlers miniatures
Two Tolita canoe paddlers. I speculate that in this and the following image, the missing canoes were made of wood, which disintegrated prior to the recovery of the ceramics. Unlike the Chorrera paddles, these have lanceolate blades. The paddlers squat, holding their paddles in a more realistic fashion than the Chorrera paddler, with their top hand nearer the end of the shaft (which, like the Chorrera example, lacks an end-grip). The paddlers appear to be wearing skirts and helmets.
Tolita canoe paddlers miniatures
Three more Tolita paddlers. The middle and rear figures sit with their bodies facing front and their legs extended. The front figure is in a more dynamic pose: his torso is twisted to his "on" paddling side and his onside leg is crossed over his offside leg. All three figures wear helmets but, unlike the previous example, their legs are bare. 
Miniatures of Tolita canoes and paddlers
Another angle showing the two groups of paddlers (and, behind them, the covered boat [left], two pieces of spondylus shell [right], which were used as currency and for decorative work, and the rude canoeist). 
Tolita canoe and canoeists miniature
Tolita canoeists in a dugout canoe. The canoe, which is broken crosswise amidships, has bow and stern platforms and a nearly rectangular plan view. The paddlers' disc-shaped headgear with side flaps is similar to that worn by the aft-most paddler in the group of three above. They hold their paddles on opposite sides of the canoe. Their legs are bare, and the bow paddler's legs are crossed.
Tolita canoe and canoeists miniature
The same item as above. Although simply rendered, the figures have the realistic energy of paddlers concentrating at their work, straining to push forward. 
Tolita canoe and canoeists miniature
Aft view of the same item, showing the canoe's broad stern platform, slab-shaped sides, and rounded bottom.
Stone anchor from the Manteño civilization
Stone anchor from the Manteño civilization, which dominated Ecuador's central coast from 850CE to 1600CE. The Manteño used large sailing rafts of balsa logs to conduct intensive trade along the coast of Ecuador and as far north as Central America. This anchor, however, appears much too small to have been used on an oceanic raft and was probably used with a smaller watercraft. (American currency is for scale. Rope is not original). 

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Fishing Canoe from the Ecuador Coast

Continuing our series on boats and related artifacts that we observed recently at museums in Ecuador, we'll look now at a examples from a very fine exhibit of the country's diverse cultures at the Museo Pumapungo in the lovely city of Cuenca. (For the first post in this series, see this article about an Amazonian logboat.)

The first item, the canoe that follows, was built by cholo pescadores -- literally "mixed-race fishermen" -- on the Pacific coast. Like many Ecuadorians, cholo are of mixed Indian and Spanish descent. The more common term for that genetic mixture in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America is mestaje (i.e., mestizo, literally meaning "miscegenation," but used in a nonperjorative sense to mean simply "mixed race"), but the cholo pescadores are considered a distinct culture. What follows is my sadly unfluent translation of the exhibit card, the only information provided about the boat and related items:
Cholo Pescador  
They are so called because of mixed Indian/Spanish ancestry and their primary economic activity. They live at the seashore in small towns or compounds.  
Fishing in canoes and bongos*, using cast nets, trammel nets and other devices, is done at night or at dawn, as a group, and they return at noon. They tend to be organized in cooperatives and are abandoning traditional techniques and boats.  
The mangrove is an important part of the coastal ecosystem; However, in the places where the fisherman lived traditionally, shrimp farms and logging are now causing major alterations in the life of the inhabitants and in the natural balance.  
The cholo pescador's language is Spanish, with unique modalities and tones. It has a rich poetic and narrative oral tradition. (The culture's) main festivals are those of the Virgin of Monserrate, María Auxiliadora, San Jacinto and St. Peter the Fisherman.

*The meaning of "bongo" as a type of watercraft is unknown. Reader input is requested.

Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe
Th cholo canoe on display is small, probably 12 feet long or less. It is plank-built, with a flat bottom that rises at both ends, hard chines, and nearly vertical sides. Given its small size, we conclude the boat is used by a single fisherman in protected waters, possibly amidst the local mangrove swamps that cover much of the coast. The presumed stern is to the right. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe
There are no frames or floor timbers. A single sitting thwart (beneath the religious statue) is the only interior structure. A ringbolt (not visible here, but shown below) near the end at the left of the photo presumably designates the bow. The associated fishing net seems to have a drawstring at the bottom. We believe this is a cast net with a purse-type closure.
Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe - stern transom
Both ends have small, shaped transoms well above the waterline at the ends of the upward-rising flat bottom. The garboard plank is rabbeted into the sides of the transom. There appear to be at least four strakes of varying height per side. The planks are quite thick and the boat is probably too heavy to be carried by one man. We could not make out the method of fastening, but suspect the planks are edge-nailed to one another. Several sheet metal patches have been fastened with nails on the exterior to repair damage, and painted over. 
Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe - bow detail
Ring bolt fastened through the bottom at the presumed bow to secure the painter.
Ecuadorian cholo pescador plank canoe - stern plan view
Plan view of the stern shows that the bottom is made of three strakes, the center one being the widest. The rising ends of the bottom are separate pieces from the central bottom plank, and they are hollowed, dugout-style. This is an interesting, rarely-seen stage of boat development, representing a small step between the extended dugout and the purely plank-built craft.
Also apparent is the substantial shaping of the side planks. (The bow is similar.) Given their thickness, we presume the planks are hewn to the desired curves near the ends rather than bent to shape. The builders may find it easier to build the canoe with a transom than with stemposts and sharp ends, but the substantial hollow of the planking curve just inboard of the transom appears to have no functional explanation, and is probably aesthetic, or perhaps a design holdover from earlier dugout construction. It is somewhat reminiscent of the extended platforms at the ends of many dugout canoes from Ecuador and elsewhere.
Ecuadorian cholo pescador boat model
This model is also part of the cholo pescador section of the same exhibit. It depicts a larger, more seaworthy, double-ended type with sharp ends, probably used by the same people in more open waters along the coast. It shows two sets of internal, sawn frames, two heavy thwarts, and seats at both ends. It is unclear whether it represents a large extended dugout or a boat that is entirely plank-built. The boat would accommodate a larger crew than the small canoe shown above and be capable of taking significantly larger catches. 
Ecuadorian cholo pescador fishing implements
Fishermen's tools. Top: net needles. Bottom: harpoon heads