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Traditional fishing pirogue (a lakana outrigger canoe) with sail from Madagascar
Group of pirogues at sunset on the river bank of Don Tati, Si Phan Don, Laos.
Pirogues of Madagascar
Pirogues, Niger
A pirogue on the Niger River in Mali
Statuette Karajà - Brazil - MHNT

A pirogue (/pɪˈrɡ/ or /ˈprɡ/),[1] also called a piragua or piraga, is any of various small boats, particularly dugouts and native canoes. The word is French and is derived from Spanish piragua [piˈɾaɣwa], which comes from the Carib piraua.


Pirogue does not refer to a specific kind of boat, but is a generic term for small native boats in regions once colonized by France and Spain, particularly dugouts made from a single log.[2] In French West Africa, pirogues refer to handcrafted banana-shaped boats used by traditional fishermen.[3] In Madagascar, it also includes the more elaborate Austronesian lakana outrigger canoe.[4][5]

Pirogues are usually propelled by paddles that have one blade (as opposed to a kayak paddle, which has two). It can also be punted with a push pole in shallow water. Small sails can also be employed. Outboard motors are increasingly being used in many regions.

Uses in military and piracy contexts[edit]

Lewis and Clark's pirogues mounted blunderbuss to the bow with a pintle.

In 626, when the Avars were besieging Constantinople, the Slavs crossed the Golden Horn in their pirogues and landed on the shore of the Lower Blachernae, and in spite of all defensive measures that were taken, looted churches.[6]

There are accounts of 17th and 18th century Caribbean pirates using pirogues to attack and take-by-force much larger vessels including sloops and even barca-longas.[7] Pirogues were used extensively by pirates and buccaneers throughout the Caribbean, the now-Mexican and Gulf Coasts and the East Coast of what is now the United States. For the most part, though, such vessels were used for scouting or as tenders.[7]

Pirogues were used by Lewis and Clark on the Missouri River and westward from 1804–1806, in addition to bateaux, larger flat-bottomed boats that could only be used in large rivers.[8] Their pirogues referred to the medium-sized boats of the company carrying eight rowers and a pilot, capable of carrying eight tons of cargo.[9] Henry D. Thoreau writes of using heavy pirogues in his book "The Maine Woods".


Pirogues in the United States are associated particularly with the Cajuns of the Louisiana marsh. The early Creole pirogues were cypress dugouts but today they are usually flat-bottomed boats. Pirogues are not usually intended for overnight travel but are light and small enough to be easily taken onto land. The design also allows the pirogue to move through the very shallow water of marshes and be easily turned over to drain any water that may get into the boat. A pirogue has "hard chines" which means that instead of a smooth curve from the gunwales to the keel, there is often a flat bottom which meets the plane of the side.

In his 1952 classic song "Jambalaya", Hank Williams refers to the pirogue in the line "me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou". Johnny Horton, an avid Louisiana fisherman who celebrated Cajun customs and culture, also mentions pirogues in his 1956 song "I Got a Hole in My Pirogue". Hank Williams, Jr. (son of the aforementioned Hank Williams) had a hit song in 1969 "Cajun Baby", which refers to the pirogue in the line "ride around in my old pirogue".

Doug Kershaw's 1961 hit "Louisiana Man" includes the line "he jumps in his pirogue headed down the bayou". Many online lyrics sites misunderstand this line, saying 'hero' or sometimes 'biro' instead.

See also[edit]

  • Periagua, a cognate which became applied to a different kind of sailing vessel in the 18th century
  • Mackinaw boat


  1. ^ dictionary.com – pirogue
  2. ^ "Pirogue". Merriam-Webster.
  3. ^ "Among the pirogues of Africa". Voyage to the Sargasso Sea. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  4. ^ "Sakalava pirogue". Alefa. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  5. ^ Setting sail Retrieved 9 June 2008
  6. ^ Dirimtekin, Feridun (1956) Fetihden Once Halic Surlari. Istanbul, Istanbul Enstitusu.
  7. ^ a b Marley, David F. (2010). Pirates of the Americas, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO.
  8. ^ Ambrose, Stephen. 1997. Undaunted Courage - ISBN 0-684-82697-6
  9. ^ Pirogues, Discovering Lewis & Clark, The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, 2009

External links[edit]