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HomeNL-2011-07 Origin Canoe

What is the origin of the word "canoe"?
John Rich
As paddlers, we often use the word "canoe" in conversation, and the concept evoked by the word is well-established in our minds.  But have you ever stopped to wonder from where that word originated?

According to various dictionaries, the origin of the word "canoe" goes something like this:
"French, from New Latin canoa, from Spanish, from Arawakan, of Cariban origin; akin to Carib kana:wa canoe. First Known Use: 1555"
Thus, the English word "canoe" comes from the French language.  The French obtained it from the Spanish word "canoa", and it was even so-recorded by Christopher Columbus himself.  And the Spanish acquired it from the word "kana:wa", used by the Arawakan indians of the Caribbean islands to describe their boats.  Other variations on the spelling were kanoa, cano, canow and canaoua.  The Spanish spelling finally settled down on canoa about 1600.

Originally the word was used to refer to any simple boat used by "primitive" tribes, which meant dug-out boats constructed by hollowing out a log.  It was not until the late 18th century that the word came to represent the modern idea of a canoe as we know it today.

So who were these Arawak Indians from whom we acquired the word "canoe"?

  South America
The Arawak Indians were thought to have first been settled in South America in the Amazon Basin forests between the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers. They migrated northeast to Venezuela and Guyana on the northern coast, where some settled, while others constructed and boarded small boats and pushed out across the ocean into the Caribbean Islands.  By about 1000 A.D. almost every Caribbean island had an Arawak village along the coast or beside their rivers.

Early Spanish explorers gave good descriptions of the Arawaks. When Columbus first bumped into "America" in 1492 while trying to reach Asia, he was actually on the island of San Salvador, north of Cuba, which was inhabited by Arawak Indians.  Columbus reported to Spanish Queen Isabella about the Arawaks:
"So tractable, so peaceable, are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy."
The Arawaks were of short to medium height, well shaped, but slightly built, except in Hispaniola where they were plump. It appeared that they were physically weak in comparison with the Africans and Europeans. Their skin was "olive" meaning smooth and brown. The Arawaks were considered naturally good-looking but distorted their features by artificial means - their heads were flattened at the foreheads as babies when the skull was bound between two boards. This elongated head was considered as a mark of beauty.

Here is another excerpt from Columbus' journal in 1492 regarding the Arawaks:
"They are generally fairly tall and good looking, well made. I saw some who had marks of wounds on their bodies, and made signs to ask them what it was, and they showed me how people of other islands which are near came there and wished to capture them, and they defended themselves. And I believed and now believe that people do come here from the mainland to take them as slaves. They ought to be good servants and of good skill, for I see that they repeat very quickly all that is said to them; and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, because it seems to me that they belonged to no religion."
Even though the Arawaks were mainly farmers, they did not lack for meat, as they were also proficient at fishing and hunting. Arawak villages were always near the sea or a river, and the surrounding bodies of water were abundant in food. Since there were no large animals in the Caribbean islands, it was natural for the Arawaks to focus more on fishing rather than hunting.  And to do that, they needed boats!

Postage stamp featuring  
Arawak canoe 

No metal tools were used in the skilled task of constructing dugout canoes. A wide silk cotton tree was first ringed and burnt off at the base. Chipping the upper side and slowly burning out the interior hollowed the trunk. The hollowed trunk was then wetted and wooden wedges of different lengths inserted to widen it in the middle and taper it at the ends, to shape it into a canoe. The canoe was buried in damp sand to cure before finally being dried in the sun. Some Arawak canoes were large enough to carry seventy or eighty people, or a ton of trading goods.

Canoes made it possible for the Arawaks to carry out trade between the various Caribbean Islands. They became so proficient at sea travel in their canoes that the first European explorers used Arawak traders as guides and pilots.

An excerpt from Columbus' journal addressing how the Arawaks from different islands kept in contact with each other:
"Each of these islands had a great number of canoes, built of solid wood, narrow and not unlike our double-banked boats in length and shape, but swifter in their motion; they steer them only by the oar. These canoes are of various sizes, but the greater number are constructed with eighteen banks of oars, and with these they cross to the other islands, which are of countless number, to carry on traffic with the people. I saw some of these canoes that held as many as seventy-eight rowers."
   Replica Arawak canoe
This 60-foot long modern replica of an Arawak canoe (right) was carved from a single tree. It carries 29 people and was paddled from Martinique to Dominica, Guadeloupe and to Antigua, 145 miles, to demonstrate that the Arawaks could indeed travel between the Islands in this type of canoe.

So there you have it - the word "canoe" that we use today, originated almost 500 years ago, derives from the Arawak Indian word "kanawa", and was brought to us by Christopher Columbus!

The author, John Rich