Alderwood model canoe

Nuu-Chah-Nulth, early 19th century AD
From Vancouver Island, British Columbia, North America

This model canoe is carved from a single piece of alderwood, and painted black with micaceous paint. It is engraved with a red painted Lightning Serpent and inlaid with white glass beads. One of the artists on Captain Cook's third voyage (1778) drew a full-sized canoe with this decoration.

While large canoes would use the whole of a red cedar log, smaller ones would be made by splitting the trunk in half and then using the heartwood for the bottom of the canoe. The sides of the canoe would be formed from edge grain, and so be less prone to splitting.

The Nuu-Chah-Nulth canoe, with its curved and pointed prow, is perhaps the most elegant boat from the Northwest Coast; they are sometimes said to have been the inspiration for the design of the bow of the American clipper ship. They were also effective in cutting through the Pacific swell. To help in whaling for instance, songs were sung to calm the seas, for instance by the Clayoquot, with titles such as 'Be still', 'Breakers, roll more easily' and 'The water will be calm in the morning'.

The model was presented to The British Museum by the Canadian explorer Edward Belcher (1799-1877) on HMS Sulphur, some time before 1842. It may have been purchased at Fort Vancouver, the Hudson's Bay Company post on the Columbia River, in what was then Oregon Territory, and is now the State of Washington.

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More information


J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)


Length: 128.000 cm

Museum number

AOA 1842,12.10.37


Gift of Captain Edward Belcher


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