Throughout the years of late-prehistory, AD 1400s – 1700s, and through much of the 1800s, the canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawaiʻi. Canoes were used for interisland and inter-village coastal travel.
Most permanent villages initially were near the ocean and at sheltered beaches, which provided access to good fishing grounds, as well as facilitating convenient canoe travel.
As long distance voyaging declined, the need shifted from voyaging canoes to large canoes for chiefly visits and warfare within the Hawaiian Islands, resulting in changes in canoe design.
For these short coastal and inter-island trips, paddling replaced sailing as the dominant power mode. Never certain when hospitality might turn sour, chiefs prudently traveled with bodyguards. On a visit to another chiefdom, they might prepare his food to avoid poisoning.
Their numbers were a silent announcement of his status. At a signal, they could launch a raid, fight a skirmish, or conduct a guarded retreat to the canoe landing. (Kane)
The canoe was used by the chiefs as a means of ostentation and display. On a voyage the alii occupied the raised and sheltered platform in the waist of the canoe which was called the pola, while the paddle-men sat in the spaces fore and aft, their number showing the strength of the king’s following. (Malo)
And for a chief eager to make a quick getaway regardless of wind conditions, his bodyguards could also be put to work as paddlers. No longer need he wait for a favorable wind, or beat upwind to a destination on long tacks. Paddling provided great freedom of mobility, the ability to move canoes in any direction despite calms or adverse winds. (Kane)
Royal Centers were where the aliʻi resided; aliʻi often moved between several residences throughout the year. The Royal Centers were selected for their abundance of resources and recreation opportunities, with good surfing and canoe-landing sites being favored.
The Hawaiian court was mobile within the districts or kingdom the aliʻi controlled. A paramount’s attendants might consist of as many as 700 to 1000-followers made of kahuna and political advisors (including geologists, architects, seers, messengers, executioner, etc;) servants which included craftsmen, guards, stewards; relatives and numerous hangers-on (friends, lovers, etc.)
There was no regular schedule for movement between Royal Centers. In part, periodic moves served to ensure that district chiefs did not remain isolated, or unsupervised long enough to gather support for a revolt.
In addition to personal economic support, the king also required tribute and taxes by which to maintain and display his political power.
Structures associated with the Royal Centers include heiau (religious structures) and sacred areas, house sites for the aliʻi and the entourage of family and kahuna (priests), and activity areas for burial, bathing, games, recreation, and crafts.
Religion and politics were closely interwoven in Hawaiian culture. The Royal Centers reflect this interrelationship with residential sites, heiau and sacred sites present within a defined royal compound.
Puʻuhonua (places of refuge) were often associated with these Royal Centers, reflecting the strong association between puʻuhonua and sites occupied by the high-ranking aliʻi.
A ruling chief moved his court as desired, travelling along the coasts by canoe with his attendants and setting up temporary establishments at certain sites for purposes of business or pleasure.
The canoes “have the bottom for the most part formed of a single piece or log of wood, hollowed out to the thickness of an inch, or an inch and a half, and brought to a point at each end.”
“The sides consist of three boards, each about an inch thick, and neatly fitted and lashed to the bottom part. The extremities, both at head and stern, are a little raised, and both are made sharp, somewhat like a wedge, but they flatten more abruptly, so that the two side-boards join each other side by side for more than a foot.”
“They are rowed by paddles, such as we had generally met with; and some of them have a light triangular sail, like those of the Friendly Islands, extended to a mast and boom. The ropes used for their boats, and the smaller cords for their fishing-tackle, are strong and well made.” (Captain Cook’s Journal)
“This village (at Kealakekua Bay) we found to be the residence of (Kamehameha;) from whence, before the ship was well secured, eleven large canoes put off from the shore with great order, and formed two equal sides of an obtuse triangle.”
“The largest canoe being in the angular point, was rowed by eighteen paddles on each side…. (The Chief’s) canoe was advanced a little forward in the procession, to the actions of which the other ten strictly attended, keeping the most exact and regular time with their paddles, and inclining to the right or left agreeably to the directions of the king…”
The Chief “conducted the whole business with a degree of adroitness and uniformity, that manifested a knowledge of such movements and maneuver far beyond what could reasonably have been expected. In this manner he paraded round the vessels, with a slow and solemn motion.” (Captain Vancouver)
Later, “Near sunset, our distinguished guests took leave and returned to the shore on their state vehicle-their double canoe, seated on a light narrow scaffolding which rested on the semi-elliptical timbers by which two large parallel canoes, each neatly carved from a tree, are yoked together, five or six feet apart.”
“Their large canoes are two to three feet in depth, and thirty to fifty in length. The thin sides are raised by the addition of a nicely fitted waist-board. Additional pieces of thin wood, ingeniously carved, are attached at the ends, covering a few feet as a deck turning up some fifteen inches at the extremity, and giving the appearance of greater finish, beauty and utility.”
“The favored passengers on a Hawaiian double canoe sit three or four feet above the surface of the water, while the rowers sit on thwarts in the canoe with their feet below the surface and their faces forward. The steersmen sit in the stern.”
“Their paddles have a round handle from three to four feet long, and a thin blade from twelve to eighteen inches long and eight to twelve wide, and are grasped by one hand at the extreme end, and by the other, near the blade, and are used by main strength.”
“The chiefs, on this occasion, were rowed off with spirit by nine or ten athletic men in each of the coupled canoes, making regular, rapid and effective strokes, all on one side for a while, then, changing at a signal in exact time, all on the other.”
“Each raising his head erect, and lifting one hand high to throw the paddle blade forward beside the canoe, the rowers, dipping their blades, and bowing simultaneously and earnestly, swept their paddles back with naked muscular arms, making the brine boil, and giving great speed to their novel and serviceable sea-craft.” (Hiram Bingham)
The image shows Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Chief of Hawaiʻi, bringing presents to Captain Cook (John Webber.)
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