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The Canoe in West African History

Robert Smith
The Journal of African History
Vol. 11, No. 4 (1970), pp. 515-533
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/180919
Page Count: 19
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The Canoe in West African History
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Abstract

The canoe, carved and usually also burnt-out from a single tree trunk, played a part in the history of the coastal, lagoon and river-side peoples of West Africa similar in importance to that of the horse in the savannah states. It ranged in size from the small fishing canoe to craft over 80 ft. in length and capable of carrying, in calm waters, 100 men or more. Sails were often used, in addition to paddles and punt poles. The builders were specialists, usually living in the forests, where the most suitable trees were found. On the coast the canoe was in use by the sixteenth century for trade with the European ships, for sea voyages which (according to an account of the intrepid sailors of the Gold Coast) may have covered hundreds of miles, and for fishing up to a distance of about 10 miles from the shore. Not all those living on or near the coast ventured on the sea, and the distinction between the seafaring and non-seafaring peoples of Guinea may be explained by geographical and historical factors. Long distance trade was carried on across the lagoons and far up the rivers. The early Arabic writers testify to the importance of the canoe on the Upper Niger, and the extension of the Mali and, even more, Songhay empires was made possible by water transport. Ferries served to bind together the peoples of riparian states, while in the Niger Delta the canoe was the very basis of government and society. In war the canoe provided rapid and efficient transport for troops. There was, moreover, a form of naval warfare in which engagements took place on the water between opposing canoes, and blockade and ambush were practised. From the seventeenth century onwards, firearms were coming into use, and canoes were armed with small cannon as well as the muskets carried by individual warriors.

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