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Sunday, March 25, 2012


"I have passed the day very pleasantly in looking at the shore and watching the little catamarans," wrote Mary Brewster on January 29, 1848.

Mary was the wife of Captain William Brewster of the whaleship Tiger, and the ship was laying at anchor in the roads of the Brazilian port of Pernambuco (now Recife).  These "catamarans as they are called," she described, "appear like logs fastened together with a seat raised at one end or at each, where they set."  Their speed amazed her--"These tiny things," she wrote, "are supplied with a large three-cornered sail and sail very fast."

This observation is intriguing, as the double-hulled canoe is characteristic of the Pacific, on the other side of the continent from Brazil.  Navigators like the great Tahitian, Tupaia, who sailed with James Cook on the Endeavour, spanned the Pacific in their great voyaging catamarans hundreds of years before the arrival of any Europeans.  As Cook wrote rather ruefully after talking with Tupaia, "their large Proes [pahi] sail much faster than the ship."

That the double hull should be a feature of South America seems to provide still more evidence that the early Polynesians visited the eastern shores of that continent (the sweet tuber, kumara, was perhaps either introduced to Peru by Polynesians, or taken away by Polynesians).  However, I find that the origins of the catamaran belong to India, on the far side of the globe.

Indeed, the word "catamaran" is a combination of two Tamil words, "kattu" -- to tie -- and "maram," meaning wood, or tree.  The double hull was invented by the Paravas, a fishing community on the southern coast of Tamil Nadu, in the Bay of Bengal.  Recorded as far back as the 5th century, AD, catamaran fleets sped in campaigns against tribes in Burma, Cambodia, and Malaysia.

William Dampier, explorer and pirate, recorded seeing double-hulled boats in Tamil Nadu, in 1697.   Less than a century later, in 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis, of the discovery ship Dolphin, described seeing great double-hulled canoes at Tahiti.  "The Double Canoes are very Large and are lashed together about two three or four feet asunder forward abaft & a Midships," he wrote-- 

"they have two Masts which they Step between the two Canoes one forward & the other abaft, their Shrouds are fixed to the outer Gunwale of each Canoe, they have large sails & are very Stiff ― and go swift and live in a great Sea, they are about two feet & a half Broad within Board and the Plank of some of them at the Whole is above three inches, and at the gunwall about two, they are covered both forward and abaft for Eight or ten feet with Plank, & curved at each end so no water can come in but a Midships, they have likewais many of them large Square Rooms or Awnings fixed over both boats that will hold a Dozen People beside two or three on the Top, this Awning is fixed between the Two Masts."

So -- did the Polynesian voyagers adapt the Indian hull type sometime in the ancient past, perhaps even before the proto-Polynesians first launched themselves into the Pacific?

Not at all, according to the very informative story "Origin of the Catamaran" on a website promoting multi-hulled vessels.  The Polynesian double canoe was developed independently.  It was the first English visitors who noticed the similarity, and called the craft "catamarans."

And it was the Pacific double canoe -- not the Indian or South American versions -- that inspired the modern catamaran style.

(The image of Mary Brewster is held at Mystic Seaport Museum; the painting of the Tiger was made by Ron Druett.  The Tahitian pahi is a painting by Hodges.)


Jonnie Comet said...

It is a shame that the modern cruising catamaran so popular in the Caribbean owes so little in principle and appearance to the Pacific catamarans of antiquity. Nowadays the clamor for convenience and the denial of the craft's sailing lineage (have to make it as little like a sailing yacht as possible) have resulted in boats that are fat, ugly, heavy, slow, expensive and patently unseaworthy. Just amazing! --how an idea so good and so pure can become so sullied by forgetting its origins.

Joan Druett said...

Couldn't agree more! Even the cost-effective fibreglass "replicas" of double-hulled Polynesian craft are more graceful. It seems ironic that the modern catamaran type is popular for ferries.

Anonymous said...

My new paper about some paintings by Hodges, leading to the one you show :