Maritime Africa: African Canoemen
This begins a handful of episodes that will explore the maritime history of Africa. We begin with the fascinating story of African canoemen.
African indigenous seafaring canoemen operated as middlemen between European traders and the coastal estuaries, rivers and land of West Africa. The topography of the coast often necessitated their involvement in trade because it was variably rocky, broken by sandbars and shallow waters, or treacherous in other ways to large sailing ships. Canoemen allowed access to trade by using surfboats that could surmount the waves on the coast in ways European boats could not. They often were hired as navigators and pilots on European ships or worked as menial labourers or ordinary seamen on European ships. Canoemen also frequently came alongside European ships to board them and trade goods or enslaved people. As a result, when Europeans began to build trading entrepots, such as Elmina Castle in Ghana, Monrovia in Liberia, or Cap Verde in Senegal, they hired canoemen to contract out trade.
To find out more about this little-known aspect of African maritime history Dr Sam Willis spoke with Megan Cructcher, a PhD Student in the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University who is looking into the roles, identities, and material culture of these canoemen in West African maritime history, especially during the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries.
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From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today we are starting a handful of episodes that will explore the maritime history of Africa. Today we begin with a fascinating story of African Canoemen. African indigenous seafaring Canoemen operated as middlemen between European traders and their arriving ships and the coastal estuaries, rivers and land of West Africa. The topography of the coast often necessitated their involvement in trade because it was variably rocky, broken by sand bars, and shallow waters or treacherous in other ways to ships. Canoemen allowed access to trade by using surf boats that could surmount the waves on the coast in ways that European boats could not. They often were hired as navigators and pilots on European ships or worked as menial labourers or ordinary seaman on European ships. Canoemen also frequently came alongside European ships to board them and trade goods or enslaved people. As a result, when Europeans began to build trading entrepots such as Elmina castle in Ghana, Monrovia in Liberia, or Cape Verde in Senegal, they hired Canoemen to contract out trade. To find out more about this little known aspect of African maritime history I spoke with Megan Cructcher, a PhD student in the nautical archaeology programme of Texas A&M University. Megan is looking into the roles, identities and material culture of these Canoemen in West African maritime history, especially during the 15th to the 19th centuries, as ever, I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking with her here is the excellent Megan.
Megan, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you, Sam, it is a pleasure to be here.
So how did you become interested in this subject of African Canoemen?
Oh, I think part of it was an accidental research trajectory. And part of it comes from my background in public history, and especially concerned with heritage politics and access and inclusivity in cultural heritage. So when I started my PhD programme, I thought that I would be moving in that direction, sort of more general heritage conservation and preservation direction. And obviously, as you do a PhD, you really have to narrow that focus a lot. So I was looking specifically at very, very broad brush strokes, African maritime heritage, and preservation and conservation. And then in the course of doing that, I sort of pivoted a little bit seeing all of the scholarship that I was reading, and all of these books seeing at least somewhat of a gap in the knowledge in terms of indigenous African seafaring traditions. A lot of the onus was placed on Europeans and colonial history. And so seeing sort of this gap and seeing how that tied in with, Heritage Preservation, and specifically preservation of what’s typically been marginalised stories and things like that, I started to get really interested in it. Then doing all of these literature, surveys and looking at all of the research that’s out there, I was seeing this, this gap in terms of the history specifically of West African maritime history and West African indigenous traditions in terms of seafaring and sailing.
It’s quite exciting when that happens when you suddenly realise there is a gap. And I think it’s worth saying that a lot of the listeners out there might think that maritime research is quite what any historical research is quite straightforward is that you think about doing ABC and you do ABC, but it never happens. You end up doing X, Y and Z. It’s a continuous process of wonderful discovery, isn’t it?
That’s true. I think a lot of it is building on sort of basic building blocks, and then sort of beefing that out to be something more novel, or maybe bringing attention to something that hasn’t been brought attention before in terms of, West African maritime history. I think a lot of people especially in maritime history, maritime archaeology, a lot of people tend to focus on Europeans and Americans, because that’s a lot of the documentary sources we have. I think that’s also a general trajectory in the field of archaeology. People started out looking at ancient archaeology and Greece and Rome and Egypt, and there wasn’t as much focus on African archaeology and African history on its own terms. I think it’s sort of a broader trend maybe of focus on African history and African maritime history on on its own terms.
Yeah, essentially, what you’re saying because it’s reflected in what I’ve discovered recently by talking to curators, and historians who work in Australia, and New Zealand, and so they have a similar problem. So a lot of the actual written history is written by Europeans, but and they’re constantly fighting a sense that the indigenous peoples who lived in New Zealand and Australian were land people. Yeah, they weren’t at all. And I think this it’s very similar to what you’re you’re addressing here in Africa, you’re shining a light on the maritime aspects of this long established culture. So why were African canoes and Canoemen important?
I want to move away from defining them in terms of importance related to Europeans. A lot of the reason that African Canoemen have been focused on in history, is because of their roles in European trade and contact with the continent of Africa. Canoemen served as intermediaries between European ships and coastal communities. So all of the trade that was carried out specifically in the regions of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, sort of more on the southern coast of West Africa. All of the trade that was carried out prior to really European colonisation of the area was via these canoes and these intermediaries coming out to the European ships and trading goods as well as enslaved people. These were really the only way for Europeans to access that landed trade because of the way that the coastal topography is, and the way that the surf and the beaches are. It was really difficult for Europeans to access the coast because there ships long boats and smaller boats they would use, typically to access the coast for trade weren’t able to sort of surmount the giant waves in these areas. So they relied on these intermediaries that had this long standing tradition of going out to sea and fishing or going along the West African coast and trading with other groups. The Europeans relied on them to conduct trade. This is also not just a coastal phenomenon. Within West Africa, within the entire region, there are huge river networks. Most of the interior trade was carried out via these river networks and via canoe portage. So not only do you have the trans Saharan trade routes of like salt and gold and enslave people, you also have these massive river networks and maritime trade routes within the interior of West Africa, and not just on the coast. So if you’re looking at West African history, and economics, and even politics and culture, you can’t overlook the roles that these people played, because they were so important before Europeans came in terms of trade and commerce and cultural interactions. Then once Europeans came, they’re also just as important to establishing those trade relationships as well.
And when we talk about them, they’re importance. They’re social, cultural, economic, but they’re also important in warfare, as well in between indigenous societies.
There are some accounts of war canoes in, I believe it’s the Gulf of Guinea, but some accounts of war canoes carrying like 8100/120 warriors in the canoe, and these are mostly like early Portuguese sources. So whether or not it’s actually a canoe, there’s some debate there but these like massive war boats being used internally, not just against Europeans, although they will were used against Europeans, but also being used internally to conduct naval warfare.
Yeah, it’s fascinating stuff, isn’t it? I like the idea of the importance of the rivers as well because that boatmanship, I won’t say seamanship, Boatmanship, the skill involved in using boats in rivers is similar to that in using them in maritime spaces near the coast. And that’s obviously why they were so, so, so important. I like also between making a difference between the canoes themselves as a physical object and the location. And the Canoemen who are the kind of cultural interact as brokers between Europeans. Let’s talk about the canoes themselves. What do we know first about them? I mean, how were they made, were they made differently in different places? What’s the general history of these canoes?
They were made differently in different places, because they were and a lot of different groups have different sort of markers or ornamentation for different canoes or boats. For example, in Senegal, they’re called pirogues, which is the French word for canoe, but there are pirogues that are heavily ornamented and have these beautiful designs on them. There’s an excellent work from I think the 70s on Niominka Pirogues ornaments. You have other groups like in the Sagas islands off of West Africa; you’ve got these canoes, where they basically have giant Longhorn cattle heads as rams on the front for maritime war. They’re really intimidating, I’m sure if I was trying to go up against these people, I would be very intimidated. There’s definitely these regional variations and the ways that canoes are decorated, and in the shapes that they take. In some of the early European sources, especially the Portuguese, they’ll talk about different shapes of canoes, and in some areas of the coast, they’ll say they look like weaver’s shuttles, or in other areas, they’ll say they just look like a standard dugout canoe. Unfortunately, they weren’t super descriptive in terms of the very construction details I’ll say. In terms of construction, I will point to Kevin Dawson’s book ‘Undercurrents of Power’ that just came out in 2021. He’s got some excellent artistic and iconic graphic representations of canoes, and even some that look like plank built boats. Those are from historic sources that are pretty rare. So that’s a great source, undercurrents of power by Kevin Dawson. But in terms of the shape and the construction of these canoes, it was argued for a long time that in the Americas specifically, Native Americans taught enslaved Africans how to build dugout canoes. But when you look at the difference between indigenous African canoes and Native American canoes, they’re both dugouts, but Native American dugouts tend to have blunter ends, whereas indigenous African dugouts tend to be much more tapered on the ends. Some are tapered in and then sort of have doveted handled on the ends for portage. Then in terms of the way they were constructed, both are dugouts, so they’re made from a hollowed out log, but the tools that were used were different and then whether or not fire was used to harden in the hole inside the dugout, also differed, especially between Native Americans and indigenous Africans, but even within Africa itself. So most of the canoes we’re looking at are what will say like traditional dugout canoes. But they’re made from mostly cottonwood trees or these really large trees in the coastal areas, and then hollowed out with either iron or stone tools to be pretty thin, at least in terms of like the thickness of the wood. Some are even reported to be half an inch thick. Which is pretty insane to me?
Makes them light to carry.
Exactly. It makes them light for Portage, and then in terms of surf boats to surmount those giant waves on the coast, it makes them almost more like a surfboard or a paddle board. It’s easier to navigate those giant waves because you’re not dealing with sort of a cumbersome plank built boat. You’re dealing with more of like a boat yes, but very similar to a surfboard.
So something that’s easily manoeuvrable, did any of them have kind of outriggers to give them more stability in the surf?
Some did, but I’m not entirely sure where and when that was the case, there were a lot of different regional variations. So at least I would hypothesise that it was based more on the use and function of when they needed to, they would lash canoes together or put outriggers, but most of the time paddles were used to stabilise the canoe.
Does this boat building tradition now survive in coastal communities? This is going to lead me on to talking about how you study this.
It does, and it’s been affected, of course, by the long trajectory of West African history and of contact with Europeans and of being colonised throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There are a lot of coastal communities that still build and use these kinds of surf boats that still use canoes or pirogues in Senegal. There is a huge tradition of fishing across West Africa, especially in Ghana the use of these traditional canoes and fishing vessels is really prevalent. And there are guilds, basically, of fishermen and boat builders that form into these houses, still today. It is still really prevalent the use and construction of traditional watercraft, as opposed to a metal rowboat or something like that.
And the written sources are there pictures? I mean, how else do you get into the history of these craft?
There are written sources, and I’ll say, especially for the early European ingress to Africa, the written sources typically tend to give a throwaway line about canoes or they’ll give a throwaway line about, 80 guys in a canoe came to our ship to trade. Wait back up, 80 Guys in a canoe came to trade with your ship, can you go into more detail? And of course, because its early European authors, no more detail, we are continuing on navigation only. That’s all you get. So that’s really the early sources. And then once you get into European colonisation of the continent, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, you start to see a lot more discussion of canoes and Canoemen. And I will say it’s not all men. There are also women, heavily established in maritime traditions in Africa. Can omen is just a shorthand for the people who use these boats. So that does not leave out women. I will say that. But later on, you start to get the colonial officials interacting with these groups and hiring them out as trade brokers. The Canoemen actually form a very unified labour force in terms of being able to strike for better conditions and wages. They’re afforded some privileges under the colonial government that other groups aren’t. So there are a lot more sources when we get into the really heavy period of European colonisation. A lot of these have pictorial depictions of canoes and people using them within those sources.
I love that aspect of the history of Canoemen being actually an important history of African labour, the African labour movement. That’s fantastic, isn’t it? What about these canoes is a kind of location for history. I’m fascinated by this idea of them being a marketplace, a place for exchange of goods or ideas. How do you get into that?
I think that is a really important question. In the second year of my PhD, I’m getting into these questions and developing them more and fleshing them out. I think in terms of the canoes themselves being a space for this? I think it follows the rest of maritime history, right? We talk a lot about boats and ships being a space for this interaction or clash or contact or development of new ideas. I think that can also be applied to canoes, as as watercraft, just like boats. I don’t think there’s really a difference between the way we approach that in European seafaring and European spaces. And in these as well.
I totally agree with you. And I think I think the passage of time is important part of that. So don’t just think about these canoes as being vehicles for quick voyages, your quick little journeys from the shore route to an anchored European ship, I mean, people spent time they probably lived in them. And wherever you have the location for people with passing time and living then then that itself becomes significant. I’m also really interested by the skills that they acquired and when it comes to them, the enslaved Africans going across to the Caribbean or to America, then they surely brought those maritime skills with them.
They absolutely did, and that is not necessarily my specialty. I’m looking more at the African side. But there are quite a few scholars looking at the American side. Kevin Dawson, who I mentioned before is looking especially at American canoes and enslaved Africans use of canoes and watery spaces generally. And so I would point everyone to his works. Those traditions were transported across with the Middle Passage, the horrors of slavery were not enough to get rid of this skill and this maritime tradition that people carried with them. And I think that that’s a really cool story of resiliency and, and strength in the face of the horrors of slavery.
Do we know? I mean, we’ve not been talking about specific people yet. We haven’t mentioned any names. Is it possible to get into the you know, the personal history of these people who were Canoemen? Do we know any names, know any personal backgrounds.
The bulk of the very personal individual stories come from the crew, who were one of probably the best documented by European sources. The best documented group of these Canoemen were the crew. They traditionally came from Liberia and then migrated to Sierra Leone, and across West Africa, and even to the UK to India to the US, mostly employed in maritime spaces. A lot of the human stories come from whether it’s court testimony or Parliamentary Papers, come from the crew, and that’s mostly from British sources. A really difficult part of doing this research is that there aren’t a lot of written historical records that document the voices of these Canoemen. They’re sort of homogenised in all of the European records. Looking for individuals and looking for the people in their voices can be really difficult. There are quite a few researchers who’ve done oral histories in some of these areas, specifically Ghana and Liberia. I just haven’t gotten that far in terms of my research; I’m relying on their oral histories that they’ve already taken of descendant communities.
Yeah, well, fantastic. I wish you all the luck in the world. Thank you. Very exciting project Megan. Thank you very much indeed for talking to me today.
Thank you so much.
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