In 1938, Alan Villiers, an Australian sailor and maritime historian, could find no written account of the Arabs’ ancient method of trading up and down the coast of Africa. Realizing this ancient custom might be endangered by modern, efficient, fuel-powered shipping, he embarked on an eight-month trip by traditonal sailing dhow, recording this method of trade in a book titled Sons of Sinbad.
Arab dhows laden with dates, salt, sugar, honey, dried fish, ghee, tobacco,and passengers have been used in trade for countless centuries. Smugglers of small items such as perfumes and jewellery subsidized their incomes selling these goods at the various ports.
Using the northeast monsoon wind, dhows sailed from the Persian Gulf south to ports along the coast of Africa and returned home on the southwest monsoon with cargos of lemon juice, coconuts, cloves, soap, and mangrove poles for their wood-starved homelands. The sailors were paid a share of profits mwhich often wasn’t much when their advanced wages were deducted.
Villiers negotiated an agreement with Abdul-Krim Bin Misras, the nakhoda (captain ) of the dhow Triumph of Rightgeousness, that enabled Villiers to accompany Bin Misras on a trading mission from the gulf to ports along the east coast of Africa. Living conditions on a dhow were spartan, as all the work required manpower, and the crew slept on mats on the deck. All of the crew participated in five daily prayers. Meals consisted of fish, salt meat, rice, and vegetables while they lasted.
Villiers was impressed by the ability of Bin Misras to navigate dangerous reef studded waters without modern navigational equipment and came to understand and appreciate the ways of nakhoda and crew.
“They seemed to know more about contentment and the acceptance of each day for its own worth and the pleasure of its own living,” he wrote.
On their way home, laden with mangrove poles and being left in the wake of modern ships with huge cargos, the nakhoda said “I don’t understand why Allah has given the infidels so much power while we have to struggle.”
But in followed up with: “Allah in his wisdom may have given them this gift to destroy themselves.”
It was a comment Villiers took in stride but considering what has transpired since that voyage in 1938, the nakhoda’s point may be well worth further consideration.
Transcona community correspondent
Ron Buffie is a community correspondent for Transcona.