Zanj’s timeless workboats are slowly fading…
At first they were small. Simple canoes with square sails and outriggers, carrying five or six Waqwaqs, these mysterious cannibals and merchants of the 3rd century who were to discover Madagascar.
But the distances covered by these tiny craft were prodigious: from Indonesia across the Bay of Bengal to Galle in Ceylon, northwest to Calicut, then across the southern shore of the Arabian Sea to to the Horn of Africa and as far as Zanzibar and Madagascar.
A few centuries later, large Chinese junks were to follow them. These floating fortresses were likened to “swimming dragons” and were equipped with bombards – “impressive long-range cannons that work miracles”, to quote one source. They were considered “star rafts”, so named because it was believed that if a ship sailed far enough, it would eventually leave earth, reach the Milky Way and arrive in a galactic city where a young girl sat in rotation.
But if the Orient was the first to cross the western borders of the Indian Ocean, it was the Arabs of the north who had the most lasting influence on both the culture of East Africa and on the boats which were to cross its coasts. The reason was related to geography and wind.
For nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the east coast civilization of Zanj (a medieval Arabic term referring to Africa) was to thrive and be ruled by the regular seasonal hand of the monsoons. The name of these beneficial winds comes from Arabic mawsim, meaning ‘season’. For six months, they blow in one direction and then, for the other half of the year, they reverse the direction.
Ancient sea captains might not have understood why monsoons happened – how colder air was sucked north over the ocean in summer towards the hot lands of Asia, then south from the Himalayas and the Indian plains in winter. For them, it was enough that the winds arrived in time, year after year, to inflate their sails.
From the north, in the holds of their eccentric craft, came bricks and tiles from the coast of Kutch, dates from Iran, fish from Dubai, Oman and the coast of Mahrah, carved chests, silverware and carpets from Arabia and salt from Aden and Berbera. On their return journeys, the dhows carried ivory, timber, gold, exotic beasts and slaves.
Today, a remembrance of early Waqwaq ships can be seen in the tiny, outrigged ngalawas criss-crossing the islands and coastline of the east coast. But the most impressive boats are undoubtedly the working dhows with their remarkable lateen sails.
Until recently, these vessels were built entirely without nails, being “stitched” with coconut ropes and pegged by wooden pegs to ribs cut from crooks of mangrove logs. As all rigs are Latin—short masts supporting a long spar to which the sail is anchored—dhows are distinguished by their frame shape.
The most common is the boom, double-enders up to 70 meters long with a single log keel. This is the oldest form, with some speculating that it was the form used by Noah for his Ark. Like all other dhows, accommodation is on deck, with cargo holds below.
Other double-enders, singled out only by east coast sailors and wooden boat specialists, are dhangis, badans, zarooks and bhanuswhile square-stern varieties of craft have names such as sambuk, ghanja, baghlah, kotia, manjis and barig.
Their crews are a restless crowd of cunning sailors, mostly Muslims and always very superstitious. It is possible (and worth it) to hitchhike on one of these boats, but it is difficult if you are a woman. Women passengers – especially religious – must observe strict rules purdah and are often locked in a small cabin for the entire trip.
But time is running out for the last fleets of intercontinental dhows. Fewer and fewer wooden ships sail the monsoon cycle, their trade being usurped by freighters and their crews lured into safer, less dangerous jobs.
As fleets dwindle, skills are lost, iron replaces wood, nylon supplants canvas. Within a generation, the salt-hardened men in weathered dhows praying to Mecca and scanning the horizon for Jeddah, Mombasa or Zanzibar may be just a memory. DM/ML