Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

The Encyclopedia of Wayfinding

Story by Peter von Buol. Photos by Jenny Sathngam.

In celebration of its 125th anniversary, Bishop Museum Press has reprinted one of the most influential titles in its catalog, Canoes of Oceania. Originally published in three volumes between 1936 and 1938, the book spanned nine hundred heavily illustrated pages, in which authors Alfred Haddon and James Hornell shared their encyclopedic knowledge of the canoe-building materials and methods used by the many distinct groups of Pacific Islanders. They described the forms and functions of voyaging canoes as well as navigational and sailing techniques.

Three decades after its publication, the book served as a major inspiration to the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society—Ben Finney, Tommy Holmes and Herb Kawainui Kane. In the early 1960s, while Kane was working as a commercial illustrator in Chicago, he found himself increasingly drawn to the idea of designing an accurate replica of a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe—but at the time there were no known examples of such a vessel. Fortunately, the library of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History—of which Kane was a life member—had all three volumes of Canoes. Kane used it as a source to design what would eventually become the famed voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a, which sparked a cultural renaissance in Polynesia.

“I set out to uncover everything I could about the actual dimensions and seaworthiness of the Polynesian canoes, beginning with the most comprehensive work on the subject, Canoes of Oceania,” Kane wrote in his 1991 book Voyagers, in which he also noted that the volume’s coauthors were a perfect team. “James Hornell was a British fisheries expert whose work in the Pacific during the early twentieth century had put him in contact with what remained of the canoe culture. Collaborating with him on the monumental work was A.C. Haddon, an Oxford University scholar who conducted a worldwide survey of archival materials.”

Prior to the current edition, Canoes of Oceania has been reprinted only one other time, in 1975. Like the ’75 version, the new edition is a single volume that includes all the pages and formatting of the original set of three. It also includes a new foreword by Hawai‘i-born anthropologist Patrick V. Kirch and Mara Mulrooney, Bishop Museum’s director of cultural resources.