Maritime Past & Present | Epic Stories Of Exploration

Fijian-Druas Maritime Past & Present Epic Stories Of Exploration

Discover epic Maritime stories of exploration and endeavor that have shaped the nation of Fiji, from the humble outrigger canoe, used to travel from island to island, to the tall ships circumnavigating across the vast oceans under sail, opening up trade routes from around the world, to the ocean-faring steamships who were less dependent on the winds, thus creating more reliable and consistent service for passengers and cargo. to the Internal combustion engine motor mammoths, you see speeding across the oceans today.  This short article takes you on a journey of the evolution of the different vessels that have come…

Traditional Fijian Canoes

As seafaring people, traditional canoe voyaging was a part of everyday life for Fijians in the early 1800s, The canoes were designed and used to meet the needs of the whole community, they were used for fishing, transportation, trade and in the case of the famous Drua canoe warfare between disputing adversaries.  The first Fijians ploughed through hundreds of miles of uncharted waters of the pacific ocean with the currents and stars to act as their GPS system to create a trading network with distant islands.  Like the powerhouse of the English Empire which controlled the open seas of the 16th and early 18th centuries, the Fijian islands of Bau, Lau and Rewa all dominated the local seas, defending and enforcing their influence across the islands.

Takia (Simple Outrigger Canoe) 

Takia Outrigger Canoe Club Fiji
Takia Outrigger Canoe Club Fiji Competition at Vuda Marina Fiji | Image: Supplied

The traditional Takia was essentially a hollowed-out log with an outrigger attached (A projection with a float or a shaped log at the end attached to a boat to prevent capsizing). Typically it has no sail and is poled or paddled along rivers or in quiet coastal waters and bays.

Today, they are as light as a feather and constructed of fibreglass, several social clubs have developed around Fiji over the last few years, with yearly competitions between public and private businesses, each having a team; they paddle over a given distance at sea against each other. This has helped revive this traditional canoe culture, teaching the newer generations the skills and knowledge their past ancestors possessed.  A typical length today is about 10 metres, though much larger ones were built in the past.

Camakau (Sailing Canoe)

Camakau (Fijian Canoe) at Polynesian Cultural Center and the Reverse of the 50 Cent Coin displaying the Camakau
Camakau (Fijian Canoe) at Polynesian Cultural Center and the Reverse of the 50 Cent Coin displaying the Camakau | Image: Supplied

The Camakau Canoe was designed to travel across the open waters between neighbouring islands, transporting chiefs and dignitaries to visit their counterparts, unlike the Drua made for the purpose of war with secondary duties of transporting passengers and goods.  Traditionally the Camakau was based on a hollowed-out log with built-up sides for decking to enable it to sail in the open sea and a large platform for passengers and cargo. A skilful sailor can balance the canoe so that the outrigger boom hangs above the water (vakalilicama), and under these conditions of minimal resistance, these canoes can match for speed any other sailing vessel in the world.

Camakau Documentary Trailer – The art of canoe building is passed from father to son on a remote island in northern Lau of the Fijian Archipelago.

Eco-Challenge The Expedition Race produced a PDF to teach the contestants how to sail the Camakau and basic terminology.  Sailing-the-Camakau PDF

Drua (Double Canoe)

Double-Hulled-Canoe-Ratu-Finau-the-last-Waqa-Drua-1913 | Image: Supplied
  1. Deck House – Valeniwaqa (Deckhouse) Chiefs would rest within the deckhouse, safe from the weather and elements.
  2. Spear Rack – Larger Druas could carry more than 200 soldiers into battle, with this in mind spear racks were built into the initial design, allowing the weapons to be kept close to hand, and ready to use at the slightest notice.
  3. Steering Oars – On the larger Druas constructed in the 1800s steering oars were sometimes required to help navigate and keep the vessel on course,   and because of the size and weight of the oars, some canoes had two oars placed at each end of the vessel.  The ends of each hull were identical, so they can change direction and manoeuvrability at speed, with the smaller of the two hulls always sailing windward.
  4. Domodomo (Horned Masthead) –  This would have normally been lashed to the end of the mast.  The symbol of the Domodomo has been represented on all the dominations of the Flora and Fauna Banknotes designed and introduced in 2012.

What is the main difference between the Camakau Canoe and the Drua? In all respects the Drua is like the Camakau except the outrigger on the Drua is more of a smaller second hull, instead of being a simple counterbalance to prevent capsizing, it is typically hollowed out and used for passage or storage.

The Draus our one of the fastest traditional sailing vessels in the world, with the right weather conditions and helmsman they can reach up to 8 to 10 knots, and in their heyday in the 19 century designed to carry over 250 passengers at 35 meters in length. The Drua was primarily constructed with the main role as a warship, transporting warriors across the waters to do battle with frauding tribes, because of the size and prestige placed on these vessels only aristocrats could own them.

The Ratu Finau Tui Nayau Waqa Drua constructed in 1913, was acquired by the Fiji Museum in Suva in 1981, over the following few years it was meticulously restored by local boatbuilders, and ultimately rests in the main hall as you enter the museum, one of the exceptional exhibits open to the public (Images above).  Listed below are some of the structural features of the vessel.

Video: The project showcased in this documentary is the work of The Uto ni Yalo in partnership with Moturiki Communities in Fiji. Their vision is to help transition back to forms of traditional navigation to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and to drive safety at sea and sustainable ocean practices into the future.

Tall Ships In Fiji’s Past

Tall ships played a crucial role in the development of Fiji, They opened up trade routes, created international relationships across the pacific that still exist today, and most noticeably; they helped create a diverse multicultural population that lives and thrives in harmony with each other.

HMS Bounty (May 6 1789)

Bounty (Oil Painting on canvas)
Bounty (Oil Painting on canvas) | Image: Supplied

The HMS Bounty was purchased by the Royal Navy in 1787, primarily for botanical missions across the pacific.  The Captian of the vessel – Vice-Admiral William Bligh and his crew in 1789, were the first recorded Europeans to set eyes upon the Fijan coastline, as he slowly sailed through the channel he used the sextant (Tutorials on how the sextant works) to chart the positions of each of the islands as they passed, stretching them out on his journal.  The charts were so accurate they were used for over two centuries after the fact.

Eliza of Providence

Yorke, William Horde; The Ship 'Eliza' in Full Sail; National Maritime Museum | Image: Supplied
Yorke, William Horde; The Ship ‘Eliza’ in Full Sail; National Maritime Museum | Image: Supplied

The Fijian Sandlewood trade was discovered in the year 1804 by Oliver Slater, whilst traveling on the American schooner Argo, he discovered that sandalwood (Santalum yasi) grew abundantly about the Bua Bay on Vanua Levu. This scented timber known locally simply as ‘Yasi’, fetched fantastic prices in the Orient, and was in great demand. As the word spread, colonial vessels from Port Jackson (Sydney), Kalikata (formerly known as Calcutta West Bengal), and New England in the United States converged on Fiji, to profit from this natural resource.

In the year 1808, the American brig Eliza was navigating from Tonga to Bua to engage in the sandalwood trade, on this journey, Eliza foundered on Mocea Reef, south of Nairai, a volcanic island of origin located in the Lomaiviti Archipelago. Many of the survivors became beachcombers, and one, Charles Savage, introduced firearms to Bau, and with his prowess in battle soon became the right-hand man in Naulivou, the Vunivalu of Bau, consolidating and extending Bau’s dominion in Fiji.  Another of the survivors, Samuel Patterson, published an account of his experiences in Fiji which gives fascinating insights into local politics and the way of life at the time.

By 1814, all the sandalwood was exhausted, and the trade turned to béche-de-mer (sea cucumbers). Towards the middle of the century, increasing familiarity and Christianisation brought settlement by colonizers, mainly from English-speaking countries, who tried cotton planting for a while, but eventually decided that sugar cane was the most profitable crop for Fiji – as it has remained until recently. To work these plantations, laborers were introduced, initially from Melanesian island groups such as the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, then ultimately from India.


Elbe – Scottish Built Ships (Caledonian Maritime Research Trust, 2022) | Image: Supplied
Elbe – Scottish Built Ships (Caledonian Maritime Research Trust, 2022) | Image: Supplied

On the 14 May 1879, the Leonidas brig docked at Nukulau Quarantine Station based on Nukulau Island (10 miles east of the Capital Suva) transporting the first recruitments of Indian Labourers (463 persons) for the Fiji sugar cane fields, bound for Girmit – an agreement of five years of servitude in Fiji, originating from the North East of India. The immigrants would normally spend their first few nights at the station before being assigned to their plantation.

The Elbe was a three-masted sailing ship built in Glasgow in 1877, she was one of the most notable vessels involved in transporting immigrants safely from India to Fiji in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she sailed from Calcutta on the following dates 13 June 1896, with 615 persons onboard and the 26th July 1900 with a slightly reduced number of 604. Conditions on board were good for the time, with regular nutritious food, plenty of exercises and an onboard hospital, and as a result, there was an average mortality of less than one per cent. The Elbe, after recruitment expanded from Northern India to Madras (Southern India), helped transport 590 additional labours on 5 August 1903.

The first governor of the British Colony of Fiji, Sir Authur Gordon made the initial decision to contract Indian labourers under the indentured labour system, after his previous governorship, in Trinidad (1866-1870) and Mauritius (1871-1874), where they had contracted Indian labours, as well as self-sufficiency from Britain, local diplomacy and recover from the measles outbreak in 1875 that had a high mortality rate amongst the indigenous population were all elements that drove this decision.

H.M.S. Rosario

H.M.S. Rosario was one of a number of British warships sent in 1867 to patrol the Pacific in order to investigate and curtail abuses arising from the recruitment of Melanesian Island labourers to work in plantations in Queensland and Fiji. Most famously, in 1871 it intercepted the brig Carl, which was later discovered to have kidnapped many Melanesians, and murdered over fifty of them when they rioted during the voyage. This and similar incidents led to the ready acceptance of Fiji’s offer of Cession to Britain in 1874.


LAstrolabe tall ship | Image: Supplied
LAstrolabe tall ship | Image: Supplied

The French corvette L’Astrolobe visited Fiji twice, under the command of Dumont d’Urville. The first visit was in 1827, on a mission to explore the Pacific, and in particular to ascertain the fate of the French explorer La Perouse, who had been lost in the Solomon Islands in 1788. They sailed from Lau to Lomaiviti and then to Rewa, and turning south narrowly escaped being wrecked on the reef that now bears the ship’s name – Astrolabe Reef – before exiting via Vatulele and Nadroga.

The published records of this voyage contain a fantastic amount of detailed information about Fiji, much of it supplied by Tubuanakoro, Cakobau’s older brother, who spent much time on board, and was highly praised by d’Urville and his officers. The second visit, in 1838, was to punish the people of Bau and Viwa for having seized and murdered the captain and crew of the French brig L’Aimable Josephine in 1834.


“Wreck of the Syria, Naselai Reef”, 2015
“Wreck of the Syria, Naselai Reef”, 2015 | Image: Supplied

The Syria ship left India (Bharat Mata) motherland of the world to Fiji fatherland of the world on the 13th of March 1884 with a full complement of 439 Indian Indentured labourers (Girmit) struck a reef at Naselai on the night of Sunday 11th may 1884 Captain Benson immediately dispatched a boat to Levuka to report the mishap and to seek assistance. On the morning of 12th May canoes from villages around Naselai went and started taking the Indians ashore.

On the morning of 13th May government boat, Cyde rendered assistance to passengers and crew of the Syria ship. 57 Indians lost their lives in the disaster, 32 Men, 15 women, 5 girls 3 boys and 2 infants for those who save Indians from drowning, Her Majesty Queen Victoria sent medals to the government of Fiji. and it was presented at the government house in Suva on the 23rd of February 1885 – and including the villagers who helped the Indians from drowning and burying the dead on their shore.  Kiuva – Vadrai – Muana I Ra – Naselai and Naivuaga Monument Nausori TownSyria Masthead (Fiji Museum)

Steam Ships (SS) of Fiji’s Past

The introduction of the ocean-faring steamships into the Fijian waters opened up new international partners for business and travel, and subsequently created a more reliable and consistent trading environment with their current traders, as the steamships were less dependent on wind patterns, they could travel across larger stretches of open water in levels of comfort never experienced before.

SS Tofua (Steamer) – 1908 -1934

SS Tofua 1908 Postcard | Image: Supplied
SS Tofua 1908 Postcard | Image: Supplied

The New Zealand Ship SS Tofua, owned by the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd (USSCo), constructed by William Denny and Brothers in Scotland (England), was one of Fiji’s vital links to Australian and New Zealand markets during the early 1900s. The Vessel was designed to operate as a Cargo-Passenger liner (100 First Class and 44 Second Class accommodations), with large refrigeration space available to carry perishables goods loaded across the Pacific Islands on her monthly rounds.

The Madian voyage departed Auckland on July 1908 and headed for the Captial of Fiji Suva, then continued onto the three main islands of Tonga (Nukualofa, Haapai and Vavau), concluding in Apia (Samoa Capital). Then the return voyage was via one stop at Suva once more, where they loaded various goods such as crops, sugar and bananas then straight back to Auckland.

SS Tofua remained on this monthly route until 1915 when under the orders of the British High Command was taken over by the Admiralty, refitted and made more suitable for being a WW1 Troopship. This was her duty and future for the next 5 long years until 1919. After her service during the war, she returned to New Zealand and received a comprehensive refit, with the passenger cabins receiving some fine improvements providing high passenger standards and luxuries.

Thought shortly after the commencement of her previous pacific route, she was called upon to serve the Trans-Pacific Service. sailing from Sydney (Australia), via Wellington (New Zealand), Rarotonga (Cook Islands), and Papeete (Tahiti), to San Francisco (U.S.A.) and return via the same Pacific ports to Wellington and Sydney.

SS Niagara (Steamer)

Tony, A. (2008). SS Niagara [Photograph]. | Image: Supplied
Tony, A. (2008). SS Niagara [Photograph]. | Image: Supplied

The Australian Ship Niagara, had two recorded owners over her life, the Union Steamship Co. of New Zealand Ltd (1913 -1931) and the Canadian Australasian Line Ltd (1931 – 1940) constructed by John Brown & Co. Ltd., Clydebank (Scotland), became an important Mail Steamer connecting Fiji, with Australia, New Zealand and Canada on a monthly route between the nations.

Mail steamers were steamships which carried the mail across waterways, such as across an ocean or between islands, primarily during the 19th century and early 20th century, when the cost of sending a letter was declining to the point an ordinary person could afford the cost of sending a letter across great distances. In addition to carrying mail, most mail steamers carried passengers or cargo since the revenue from the mail service, if any, was insufficient by itself to pay for the cost of its travel (“Mail steamer”, 2022). The Vessel came to a premature end when it hit a mine near New Zealand.

The Royal Yacht Britannia

The Royal Yacht Britannia in Suva, Fiji Islands 1965 | Image: Supplied
The Royal Yacht Britannia in Suva, Fiji Islands 1965 | Image: Supplied

The Royal Britannica became iconic in Fiji, she was constructed and launched at John Brown & Company shipyard, Clydebank, Scotland on 16 April 1953, and served the royal family for 44 years, she visited the shores of Fiji with Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh throughout the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as the couple performed their official duties across the Pacific.

Motor Vessels (MV) of Fiji’s Past

Internal combustion engines for motor vessels were developed in the 1890s and started to appear in Fiji in the early 20th Century.

MV Adi Beti (Inter-Island Motor Vessel)

The Adi Beti (Lady Betty) was the government workhorse of the 1930s and 40s. Though cramped and unstable in rough seas, it conveyed hundreds of government officials, from the Governor downwards, around the islands on new appointments or on tours of inspection.

MV Pioneer (Motor yacht)

Left H.M. Customs Ship PIONEER Top Right-H.M. Customs Ship PIONEER-At Levuka. Captain James Patrick Mullins, Officers and Crew of H.M. Customs Ship PIONEER. Photograph from Commander James Patrick Mullins Collection, provided by Robin Storcks. | Image: Supplied
Left H.M. Customs Ship PIONEER Top Right-H.M. Customs Ship PIONEER-At Levuka. Captain James Patrick Mullins, Officers and Crew of H.M. Customs Ship PIONEER. Photograph from Commander James Patrick Mullins Collection, provided by Robin Storcks. | Image: Supplied

The motor yacht HMCS Pioneer was purchased for His Excellency The High Commissioner for the W. Pacific, on 11 March 1929 (Western Pacific Archives, 1929) she was a common sight as you looked over the Fijian waters in the 1920s and 30s as it conveyed the Governor and other government officials on tours of inspection, including tours to inspect Fijiąs many far-flung lighthouses. Captained by the honourable Captain Mullins Commander of the HMCS Pioneer.

MV Royal Viking Sun

Howell, C. (2009). MV Royal Viking Sun [Photograph] | Image: Supplied
Howell, C. (2009). MV Royal Viking Sun [Photograph] | Image: Supplied

While not as common as in their heyday in the middle of the century, cruise ships have started to return to the Fijian Islands for a small taste of paradise as they cross the Pacific, making a significant contribution to the tourism industry; and economy that is heavily dependent, brought to the fore when the COVID-19, pandemic hit the world at the end of 2019. With international cruise liners entering the ports of Suva and Lautoka throughout the year, visitors can get a glimpse of the historical town of Suva, and the tourism hub of the western division.
The luxurious Royal Viking Sun above came to Suva once a year, making available the beauty and the world-class hospitality of the Fijian people to over 700 visitors, if only for a day.


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