By Williams, Stephen
The Middle East , No. 350
THE INSPIRATION FOR Sanjeeda, a cruise dhow, began when British musicologist Anderson Bakewell was visiting Madagascar. He was trying to reach a remote coastal village but heavy storm rains had washed away the only road that provided access to this village. As Bakewell contemplated his situation his thoughts turned to how useful it would be to have a boat.
"One thing led to the next," Bakewell explains. "I began to think about what type of boat I should like to have, and a traditional dhow came to mind." But Bakewell was neither interested in a reproduction, nor a reconstructed dhow. Neither did he really want a coastal jahazi dhow. What he was to set his sights on was a kotiya type dhow, a true ocean going vessel.
Although they can only be confirmed to have existed from about 200 years ago, kotiya dhows were probably a common sight some 500 years ago when the Indian Ocean was as important a trading region to Arabia, India, the Indian Ocean Islands and East Africa as the Mediterranean Sea was to the Maghreb, Levant and southern Europe. And there is a good argument to suggest that, at that time, the Indian Ocean far surpassed the Mediterranean Sea in terms of wealth and power.
The construction of ocean-going dhows in the Indian Ocean died out around 50 years ago. Today, while around the Arabian Gulf at sheltered creeks and bays there may still be dhow building yards--they only build the most common types of dhow in the Gulf, the shu'ai, designed for inshore waters and the wooden cargo ships known as 'launch' that work as coastal-trading vessels.
Bakewell reveals his research led him to conclude that in Oman and Yemen, the art of building ocean-going dhows has been lost for at least a generation. Along the East African coast the story was the same; he could find nobody capable of building the type or size of boat his heart was set on.
However, there was still a place where it might be possible to find the skills required to build a true trans-oceanic dhow. Traditionally, Arab traders had regularly gone to western India, with its plentiful supplies of teak and other exotic tropical hard woods, to have their boats built.
Bakewell first went to the Malabar coast in south India--to Calicut, made famous as the place Vasco de Gama first set foot in India. History buffs will recall that De Gama's epic voyage to India, at the tail-end of the 15th century, was greatly assisted by an Arab dhow captain. The captain joined the Portuguese mariner's fleet at Malindi, on East Africa's coast, to pilot the expedition, navigating mainly by the stars, across the Indian Ocean.
When Bakewell himself reached Calicut, he found the boat-building industry was in a moribund state. He was warned off commissioning his boat since powerful labour unions held sway throughout the Kerala State at that time, and might have sabotaged the project.
The fear was that after accepting a quotation for the work, halfway through the build the workers would have been ordered to down tools while the unions demanded more money. These kinds of practices had become common in Kerala and had hit the boat-building industry very hard. Many of the Arab traders, who a few years previously were having their modern wooden-hulled cargo boats built there, had taken their business elsewhere.
Bakewell then turned his attention northwards to Mumbai and the Gujarat coast where the Parsis of India had traditionally had their boats built. But he still wasn't happy. As a last resort, he decided to investigate the shipyards of the Gulf of Kutch close to the India-Pakistan border. It was there that serendipity was to play an extraordinary role.
In Kutch, Bakewell met a boat-builder, Ibrahim Mistry, whom he felt capable of the task of building Sanjeeda. Bakewell had carried a photograph, taken in the 1950s, of the kind of vessel that he wanted built. When he showed it to Mistry, to his astonishment, Mistry told him the captain of the boat in the photograph was his neighbour! …