Boat & a craft and its meaning, example from Massim Region, Papua New Guinea.

Pacific Voyaging is a blog series consisting of stories related to indigenous maritime cultures in the Pacific Ocean.

“Muyuw people considered their island [Woodlark Islands] and culture formless and infertile until the Creator arrived in an anageg [boat].” The form brings life. As boats move words, things and people, they also encapsulate cosmic vision in which environmental knowledge and social order are unified. The sky and the earth are connected where “boats’ trees” grow out of the ground and reach to the stars.

For the European explorers of the past few centuries the Pacific Ocean was a vast body of water with many islands to be “discovered” and colonised. For the Pacific Islanders, it was and is a multitude of connections between home islands and their people.

Connecting across the sea is beyond subsistence and economic reason. It is the way human groups position themselves in the broader natural and social world with its etiquette, implied purpose and cosmic vision. This is well represented and studied in what is known as Kula Ring.

The Kula trading network in Milne Bay Province, east Papua New Guinea links many communities in about a dozen island groups including D'Entrecasteaux Islands, Trobriand and Woodlark and was first researched in the second decade of the 20th century by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. With the subsequent involvement of Marcel Mauss and Maurice Bloch in the subject, the “gift economy” as it was called become one of the prominent themes of social anthropology. What intrigued Western observers was strong, nearly obsessive focus on giving gifts. In Kula the two types of ceremonial gifts always circulate on opposite routes around a circle of islands, shell necklaces (soulava) clockwise and shell armlets (mwali) in reverse direction. The gifts enhance status and position, confirm rank on participants, but they are not kept, they must circulate.

This ritualised gift exchange helps to maintain friendly cooperation and trading of economic nature but its complexity and deeper meaning go beyond pragmatic requirements. The system reflects not only social order but also a rich pool of knowledge that links the sea and the sky, land and plants, living creatures and people in the complex web of what could be called indigenous ontology or cosmic vision. Such vision was not only imbedded in the multitude of connections across islands, but also in sizable boats with outrigger used in these trading journeys.

Boats used in Kula exchange (anageg in Woodlark) “are exceedingly complex objects from which people continually learn …though they may never totalize the form.” Technical intricacies of boats and their symbolic content was a communal knowledge and communal enterprise. A vessel was the most complex technical structure, assembled to meet variable sailing conditions. It was made not according to a strict building diagram but a blueprint where the individual trees used for a keel and outrigger-float would influence the overall size and property of various parts. Each boat was a unique creation, combining sailing experience, specific wind and water conditions, the availability and knowledge of materials, as well as human strength and abilities. These factors dictated the size and the optimal variant of other attachments and riggings. The boat was frequently rebuilt, but it maintained its identity as long as the keel was in working order. When the keel rotted, it was the end of the boat’s existence. A new keel meant the new boat with its own unique identity.

The “core” of a Kula boat is the dugout canoe (keel), typically nearly 12m long with two or three extra planks added on both sides to increase its holding capacity, and with wave-splitter and splash board at each end. Effectively there is no bow or stern as either end can face forward in sailing, but the sailors are perfectly aware of the branch-end and root-end of the keel, reflected in some differences in splash boards affixed at each end. These boards, intricately carved in soft wood and prone to quick decay, are frequently replaced. The outrigger float, the second major part of the structure, is always positioned windwards since practice shows that the float cannot be easily lifted out of the water but it can be readily submerged with disastrous consequences. In addition, a large steering paddle is placed and used at whichever end is at the back. The mast about 10m high holds the sail as big as about 10 by 6 metres. Ten or more people would embark on each journey.

With so much technical and cosmological knowledge encapsulated in its structure, building or rebuilding a boat is an act of learning and expressing knowledge as much as enacting it in practice. This expression and practice would apply to boat models - unable to transport people and goods they are useful for conveying knowledge and a variety of technical skills. Several Massim boat-models and some splash boards in the Australian Museum collection illustrate this fascinating maritime culture with its technical tradition and captivating custom of social connections.

Gift economy reveals an important characteristic of human communal life before it was abandoned in the industrial world and nearly eradicated by capitalism where values are reduced to narrowly defined self-interest and one-dimensional transactions.

Additional information:

Culturally the Milne Bay region of Papua New Guinea is sometimes referred to as the Massim, a term derived from the name of Misima Island. The cultures of this region are usually characterised by matrilineal descent, elaborate mortuary practices and complex systems of ritual exchange, including the Kula Ring.


All quotes are from an informative and perceptive new study by anthropologist Frederick Damon.

Frederick Damon. Trees, Knots and Outriggers: Environmental Knowledge in the Northeast Kula Ring. Berghahn Books 2017.

Other important reading is a collection of articles edited by Jerry and Edmund Leach.

Jerry Leach and Edmund Leach (eds). The Kula: New Perspectives on Massim Exchange. Cambridge University Press 1983.