They are known as ‘Arab’ Chests but that is only part of the story. There is no collective name for the communities of the Indian Ocean that created these amazing chests: chests to store peoples’ most precious possessions. I like to think of them as peoples of the monsoon - a community of coastal civilisations that relied on the powerful winds of the Indian Ocean. From China, through Asia, western India, to the Arabian Gulf and down to the East African coast the winds allowed trade to take place and these chests are their testament.
Our family owns an Arab chest. It was purchased over 60 years ago in Zanzibar. Nowadays Arab chests are collectors items, found in the museums of the African coast and old houses of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly of Oman. The diverse origins of the solid wooden, brass-studded and plated chests that are called ‘Arab’ chests are deep in history. Research by a collector, Sheila Unwin, has revealed some of these cultural roots. The chests were trade items that came from the West Indian coast, from Surat down past Bombay. Local craftsmen made the chests from teak, rosewood and shisham. They were exported to Arabia and some were transported onwards down the coast to Africa. The chests were often the prized possessions of the dhow captains, the nakhodas.
The Portuguese had brought their own sea chests with them when they sailed into the Indian Ocean in the 16Century. These invaders devastated the region, wiping out cities, overpowering local rulers and building their sea-facing forts from Kilwa in Africa, Muscat in Oman to Goa in India. Their chests were on fretted stands and local craftsmen admired and adopted this design into their chest making. There is a golden16th Century Chinese screen painting depicting Portuguese traders arriving in China. The high backed caravel is filled with people offloading boxes of trading goods. Two sumptuously dressed Chinese officials are seated on the shore observing the activity. Clearly drawn at their feet is an ‘Arab’ chest.
The Dutch were the next conquerors and brought their camphorwood sea chests to India. From them the ‘Arab’ chest inherited the brass knobs and backplates. The Chinese gave the chest makers the idea of the ingenious three-ring-padlocks and the internal cash boxes or till boxes were probably copied English chests.
When the simple chests reached Oman brass decoration could be added according to the wishes of the owner. In the simple Arab houses of the Gulf, there was no furniture. Persian carpets decorated the floors and embossed niches held items of decorative value. Valuable possessions were kept in the prized chests and a bride would leave home with her valuables, her dowry, in a new chest – often painted red to symbolise fertility.
In the 19 century Zanzibar grew rich on the monsoonal trade. The winds also brought invaders to her shores. It was a safe port with rich fishing grounds, fertile soils and it facilitated the trade from the east and from the rich African interior. Zanzibar had many chests for sale in the old days. They arrived with the NE Monsoon that blows from October to March. It was where our family bought the chest that graced our home.
It came from a tiny Stonetown shop or dukka along Portuguese Alley, now called Gizenga Street. Recently I opened the chest’s lid to see if it had a secret drawer under the small till box. It did. Inside was a piece of paper, yellowed and insect eaten. The writing was in Arabic, beautifully scripted. A friend did the translation and explained that it was a prayer, a dua, a promise to Allah. I returned it in the drawer where the previous owner had put it for safekeeping. With the chest, it had travelled a long way.