Canoe carvings of West Solomon Islands

Canoe carvings of West Solomon Islands

Grace Hutton (Collection Manager Pacific Cultures) introduces us to Nguzunguzu, the guardians of war canoes from the Solomon Islands.  With Kesoko (a water spirit) putting travelling crew members at risk, Nguzunguzu were secured to the prow of every departing war canoe to ensure their safe passage.

In the 1800s, on the islands of Choiseul, Santa Isabel, the New Georgia Islands and Florida in the Solomon Islands, carved prow and stern ornaments were secured to war canoes named mon or magoru. These figures are commonly known by the Roviana name Nguzunguzu, although they are figured differently on different islands of the Solomons.

Nguzunguzu (War canoe prow figurehead), maker unknown; Solomon Islands. Gift of Tairawhiti Museum, Te Whare Taonga O Tairawhiti, 1975. Te Papa (FE006584)

They are an anthropomorphic figurehead (with dog-like features) named nguzunguzu in Simbo, musu musu in New Georgia, or toto isu  in Marovo Lagoon, New Georgia and were originally lashed to the bow of the war canoe just above the waterline.

Nguzunguzu (War canoe prow figurehead), Unknown; Solomon Islands. Te Papa (FE002431)
Nguzunguzu (War canoe prow figurehead), 1800s, Solomon Islands, maker unknown. Gift of Alexander Turnbull, 1913. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (FE000716)

They were carved from a light coloured wood, stained black, and often inlaid with nautilus shell. According to historical accounts, their function was to provide canoes with protection and safe passage from the Kesoko or water fiend, who threatened to upset canoes so that they could devour the crew.

Nguzunguzu (War canoe prow figurehead), Unknown; Solomon Islands, Gift of Tairawhiti Museum, Te Whare Taonga O Tairawhiti, 1975. Te Papa (FE006585)

The earliest example of a nguzunguzu to have reached a European museum by 1805, is now in the collections of Te Papa.

Nguzunguzu (war canoe prow figurehead), Unknown; Solomon Islands. Gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912. Te Papa (FE003876)

Throughout the 1800s, nguzunguzu were often removed from canoes to be sold or traded. During the second world war, they were made in great numbers as souvenirs for sale to American troops. Today, they are made by village carvers to sell to tourists, but they have also become a widely recognised national symbol of the Solomon Islands, and feature on the one-dollar coin as well as other commercial logos.

3 Comments

  1. We were also told that a third figure, with 2 clenched fists, represented an intention for trade or commerce. I have had my doubts about the validity of this 3rd figure and suspect that it was made up to sell more carvings to tourists. Is there any information on the existence of the 3rd figure?

  2. In addition: the NguzuNguzu were attached to the Tomoko war canoe. The NguzuNguzu also gave a clue as to the intentions of the warriors in the canoe: if the NguzuNguzu is holding a bird, the visitors are peaceful. If the NguzuNguzu is holding a human head, this is a true war canoe. Head hunting is on the agenda!

    1. Author

      Thank you for reading and commenting on the blog Brett.

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