A great fleet of dhows rode at anchor for 3-4 months of the year in the
in the early 1960s. As a child,
I marvelled at them, they were the biggest wooden boats that I had ever seen.
We sailed past them with our dingy taking in their strangeness and gazing at
their vast solidness in awe. These were vessels of the wild open 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 dark
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. harbour of Zanzibar
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 and we knew it was the toilet also called the thunder-box. Strange inscriptions and twirling designs were carved as decorations along the hull and over the stern hung the plain 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 brightly painted eye, rather like a Cyclops eye from
No human or animal replications were portrayed - as the Koran dictates. Greece
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. was the connection to those fabulous
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 further south than India and our harbour, tucked into the
western coast of the island, was very protected when the northern monsoon was
The Arab dhow captains were superb seamen. In 1939, Australian adventurer, Alan Vickers, travelled on a dhow from
Aden to 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 difficult to stomach but recognised that these sailors were tough
‘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
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 might be called Masika – born in the time of the rains. Zanzibar
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
short rains or vuli. Monsoon is a
word that English has copied from Arabic. Zanzibar
They were not called the ‘trade winds’ for nothing.
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 Zanzibar Arabia. In the narrow streets of ’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 Zanzibar 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 view the cargo. They discussed the weather and the health of their families until much strong sweet coffee or kahawa had been 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 intrinsic to the old
when the Omani Sultans ruled and controlled the east African shores. When Sultan
Said bin Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar Muscat had moved his
in 1840, he travelled with his fleet of dhows to take possession. His family
would rule Zanzibar Zanzibar till 1963 and the revolution
that ousted the newly independent .
Sultan Jamshid escaped while many other Arab Zanzibaris did not. Survivors tell
of how many Arab people were forced to embark on overloaded and under
provisioned dhows and sent to sea. The revolutionaries wanted them to go back
to Zanzibar Arabia. Some of those dhows did not survive
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, quickly,’ 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 and seamanship are lost to us. The great fleet under sail travels no
more. The beauty of the lateen sails on the horizon with the monsoon behind
them is now a mirage from history.