The last days of Arab sail

Alan Villiers arrived at the Yemeni port of Ma’alla in 1938 and found a world that was slipping out of existence. The Australian explorer, seaman and journalist walked along the seafront, arrived at the jetty and inspected the traditional sailing boats laying in the dock. 

“Those Arab dhows were a heartening sight in that hot, harsh morning, and I meant to find a berth in one of the before the day was ended,” he wrote.

“I knew that the Arab dhows of today were in the direct line of descent from the ancient vessels of eastern waters in which men probably first sailed; I would have gone to hell to see them.”

Villiers negotiated himself passage aboard one of the boats heading for Zanzibar. He traveled with the boat until it returned, on monsoon winds the following summer, to its home port of Kuwait.

The result of his journey was a unique record of an ancient trading network that has largely disappeared. His book Sons of Sindbad, published in 1940, is probably the only work of western travel literature that focuses on the seafarers of the Arabian Peninsula. Illustrated with dozens of photographs of boats and their crews, it gives a unique insight into the twilight years of sail in the Arab world.

Fishing boats at a port in Kuwait (Photo: Mary Chambers)

Fishing boats at a port in Kuwait (Photo: Mary Chambers)

Villiers had made a name for himself as a maritime adventurer long before arriving in Yemen. Born in Melbourne, in 1903, by the age of fifteen he was working as an apprentice on a rickety barque taking timber between Australia and New Zealand. After stints on two of the last big sailing vessels plying the intercontinental grain trade between Australia and Europe, he found a job on a whaling boat in the Antarctic.

As he gained experience, Villiers started to publish his writings, first in the Australian press and then in book form. By the mid-1930s, he had gained enough capital to buy a boat capable of a round-the-world trip. He named it after another seafaring man of letters: Joseph Conrad.

By 1937, it was clear that the age of sail was drawing to a close. Across the world, sailing boats were being sold off for scrap as steam and diesel craft took their place. Villiers, aware of the zeitgeist, wanted to record what remained of the pre-industrial world of sail.

So it was that he found himself aboard the Triumph of Righteousness, a craft big enough to hold 2,500 packages of Basra dates.

“I knew this was the kind of vessel in which I wanted to sail,” he wrote. “The atmosphere of true adventure and romance lay heavy on her graceful hull, and the very timbers of her worn decks were impregnated with the spirit of colourful wandering.”

The boat he chose had a truly ancient pedigree. The origins of the dhow, a generic name for the kind of sailing craft traditionally used along the ancient trade routes out of Arabia, are lost to history. Most scholars believe the design originated in China some time around the 7th century BCE, to be adopted by seamen along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and the coast of India. Boat makers in Al Hudaydah, on the Red Sea coast of Yemen, were constructing dhows from acacia up until the middle of the 20th century.

Villiers wrote that the big deep-sea dhows in the ports of Arabia were “almost pure survival from the Phoenician days, from the most ancient sailing of which we know.” With their long, thin hulls, they were excellent for carrying heavy loads such as dates, fish and mangrove timber, and for navigating the dangerous sandbanks in the shallow waters of the Gulf. They were rigged with lateens, triangular sails set on long yards mounted at an angle on the mast, a design thought to have originated during the early Roman empire. The lateen proved itself more versatile than the square rigs favoured by the Greeks, and became the dominant form of sail prior to the Arab advance into the Mediterranean.

Maritime trade had been important in the Arabian Peninsula since human civilisation began. The Arabs living on the coasts of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea had spent millennia plying the routes between Aden, Zanzibar, Madagascar and the Malabar Coast, trading and bartering in incense, gold, pearls, glass and ornaments, perfumes, spices, silk, cotton, diamonds and teakwood.

The city of Jeddah, which recently applied for UNESCO World Heritage status, was founded in about 646 by Caliph Uthman. With the removal of Crusaders from the area towards the end of the 12th century, began to thrive on the trade with India. Arab navigational techniques stayed ahead of those of the Europeans for centuries. Many goods were transported from the Red Sea to Alexandria, where they were sold on to European merchants. Meanwhile in the Arabian Gulf, pearl-divers plucked their precious merchandise from underwater beds that were treacherous to the unwary boatman.

After 1600, with the rise of the British East India Company, European nations began to compete for the lucrative Persian Gulf trade. When Vasco Da Gama navigated around the Cape of Good Hope, it was. Yet it was not until the middle of the 20th century that the rise of steam-powered vessels signaled that the age of the dhow was almost over.

Villiers arrived in Yemen immediately prior to the world-shaking events of World War II and set out to preserve what he could of this fast-disappearing world. He did a magnificent job, but his book has been largely forgotten. It never took its rightful place among the works of Thesiger, Stark and Lawrence. The fact it was published while war ravaged the western world may have something to do with this. But the book also challenges stereotypes previous western explorers had created of Arabs: hospitable but backwards people exclusively linked to the desert, camels and tents.

Villiers breaks this trend. He meets his companions on equal terms and builds a long-lasting friendship with the charismatic Nejdi, captain of the Triumph. The book’s meta-narratives are respect for seamanship and a sadness that the age of sail was passing into history:

“It seemed to me, having looked far and wide over twenty years of a seafaring lifetime, that as pure sailing craft carrying on their unspoiled ways, on the Arab remained. Only the Arab still sailed his wind whips over the free sea, keeping steadfastly to the quieter ways of a kinder past.”

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