At Christmas time, in the harbour of Zanzibar in the early 1960s a great fleet of huge dhows would ride at anchor. They were the biggest wooden boats that I had ever seen. We would sail past them with our little fourteen foot dingy taking in their strangeness and gazing at their vast solidness in awe. These were real vessels of the sea. Festooned with ropes made of sisal, their masts slanted at an angle, they spoke of journeys by men who knew the sea like no others. Sometimes I would see lithe sailors shimming up the masts with their bare feet. We always complained about the smell of the dhow fleet. Later I learnt that they used fish oil to season the wood. Aging fish oil is not recommended for its smell.
Off the stern of the boat hung a large box, big enough for a person to sit in. It had a hole in the bottom. It was the toilet, called the thunder-box. Strange inscriptions and twirling designs were carved as decorations along the hull and over the stern hung the red flag of the Sultans of Zanzibar. On their prow would hang an oculus or talisman. The oculus is the ‘eye’ of the boat and was often in the form of a large painted eye, rather like a Cyclops eye from Greece. No human or animal replications were portrayed - as the Koran dictates.
I knew that this dhow fleet plied an ancient triangular route, from India to the Arabian Gulf and then on to the East African coast. India was the connection to those trading countries even further east. From ancient times the monsoon winds had made this route feasible and as boats become more sophisticated its importance grew. The monsoon winds were not reliable a little further south than Zanzibar and our harbour, tucked into the western coast of the island, was very protected when the northern monsoon was blowing.
The Arab dhow captains were superb seamen. In 1939, Australian adventurer, Alan Vickers, travelled on a dhow from Aden to Zanzibar and back. In his book, ‘Sons of Sinbad’ he recounts how he found a nakhoda or captain of a boum dhow and arranged his passage south with the north-east monsoon on a boat called The Triumph of Righteousness. Alan believed he was living through the last days of sail. He tells of the journey and it is a window into the past. With western eyes he found the filth the accumulated on the overcrowded main deck rather horrible but recognised that these sailors were tough men, ‘the constantly cramped quarters, the crowds, the wretched food, the exposure to the elements, the daylong burning sun, the nightlong heavy dews, if they continued to be disadvantages, were far offset by the interest of being there….’
You were always aware of the monsoon in Zanzibar. There was no summer and winter on the islands. It was one monsoon or the other or the time in-between when the rains came. The northern monsoon blows from late November to February and the long rains, or masika, come in March as the winds become variable. If you were a girl child born during the rains, you could be called Masika – born in the time of the rains.
April is the start of the south-west monsoon. This wind is more violent during the months of June and July so the boats leave with the first winds or stay to the last weeks of the monsoon. It was hard to get insurance for your boat if you left during June and July when many seasoned dhow captains would stay put in a safe harbour. By late September the winds become variable again and Zanzibar experiences the short rains or vuli. Monsoon is a word that English has copied from Arabic.
They were not called the ‘trade winds’ for nothing. Zanzibar was a trading nation, perfectly positioned and blessed with the richness of its spices and the produce of the African hinterland. In the 1800s when Zanzibar was the centre of a maritime commercial empire, the cargo used to be gold, gum copal, ivory and slaves. In my days it was spices, predominantly cloves, mangrove poles, Persian carpets, dates and dried fish that plied its way to and from Arabia. In the narrow streets of Zanzibar’s Stonetown could be found a cornucopia of riches. Small open fronted shops or dukas were filled with wares from east and west. The shopkeeper sat cross legged at the shop front on the elevated concrete ledge talking to his neighbours. On the main street were the gold and silver merchants with worked semi-precious stones from Ceylon and India.
My father wanted to buy some Persian carpets directly from a dhow captain so he put out the word and a little while after the dhow fleet arrived from the Gulf my mother and he went on board to look at the cargo of Persian carpets. Carpets were not discussed until much strong sweet coffee or kahawa was imbibed and general pleasantries had been exhausted. ‘The red dust of the desert was still in the carpets’, my father said, ‘each one that they brought up from the hold seemed more beautiful than the one before. It was impossible to choose!’
The dhow fleet were part and parcel of what Zanzibar was in its hey day, when the Omani Sultans ruled and controlled the east African shores. When Sultan Said bin Sultan of Oman and Muscat had moved his capital to Zanzibar in 1840, he travelled with his fleet of dhows to take possession. His family would rule Zanzibar till 1963 and the revolution that ousted the newly independent Zanzibar. Sultan Jamshid escaped by sea in a steamship while many other Arab Zanzibaris did not. The story goes that some other Arab people were forced to embark on overloaded and under provisioned dhows and sent to sea. The revolutionaries wanted them to go back to Arabia. Some of those dhows did not survive the trip.
Recently someone told me of a story he had heard while travelling down the East African coast 50 years ago. The first mate of a large cargo boat woke the captain early one morning and asked him to get to the bridge urgently. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘look at our bow!’ There over the bow was draped a huge sail. Both realised what it was: the tremendous triangular sail of a dhow. ‘Get if off,’ the captain replied,’ throw it away’. The cargo boat had ploughed down a dhow in the night. They did not turn around to see if they could find any survivors clinging to bits of wooden hull. It was just one more hazard of the open sea.
Some dhows have been converted to motor and still trade along East Africa. Still trading and still involved in smuggling. But the ancient stories of the dhow captains’ bravery are mostly lost to us. The great dhow fleet under sail travels no more. The beauty of the lateen sails on the horizon is now a mirage from history.