Monday, October 26, 2009

The Fijian warship - 26 October 2009

Drua - the Fijian warship.

The construction of the Waqa Drua, the aristocratic canoe of Fijian High Chiefs, was wrapped in blood and ceremony.

Because of the part she played in the winning of a crucial battle, like the great ship the Ra Marama.

Built in the early 1850's the Ra Marama had more than a thousand square feet of deck space, a 60-foot high main mast and two sleek hulls.

She was over 100 feet long, carried more than 150 people, and sailed faster with the wind than the European vessels visiting the Fiji Islands in those times.

Because these were the Waqa Tabu, or sacred boats, their use was restricted to Fijian chiefs of the highest rank and to Tongan royalty.

The Tongans began making trips to Fiji as early as the 1300s to buy the huge vesi logs needed to build large vessels because their own small islands had no trees of the girth and mass required.

After a few centuries, they abandoned their own designs and purchased fully-made druas from the Fijians.

The process of building a Drua started with a feast to mark the felling of two trees which would be spliced together to form the keel.

The process, from the felling of the first tree to the finished vessel, could take as long as seven years.

The human sacrifices began when the keel was laid. The hull was constructed from split logs lashed together with sinnet and caulked with breadfruit gum and mulberry bark forming a watertight seal.

Because the Fijians had no writing, they passed the knowledge of how to construct these great ships from one generation to the next as traditional stories.

Each plank of a Drua had its own name and was set in place according to tradition and ceremony.

The result was a fine, fast sailing vessel capable of riding out the roughest seas, but at a cost of many lives due to the ceremonial sacrifices required during construction.

Usually when a new Drua was launched, it slid into the sea on the blood of slaves who served as rollers under its massive hulls.

The Ra Marama was promised to King George of Tonga by Ratu Cakobau, who wanted the Tongans to join him in his war against Rewa.

Eventually, King George arrived with a procession of forty war canoes to take possession of his fine new Drua.

He probably would have merely gone back to Tonga, but the Rewans killed a Tongan Chief and left King George with a matter of honour to be settled. The result saw the Tongans, allied with Cakobau, defeat the Rewans at the battle of the Kaba Peninsula.

After the battle of Kaba, King George and Cakobau sailed the Ra Marama on a victory tour of Rewa, Kadavu and Ovalau with a long procession of war canoes in their wake. No full scale Druas are now in existence.

However, there is an authentically built 1:10 scale model of one of these fine vessels on display at the Fiji Museum in Suva.

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