Dhows of the swahili coast
by Philip Briggs
The word dhow, commonly applied by Europeans to any traditional seafaring vessel used off the coast of East Africa, is generally assumed to be Arabic in origin. There is, however, no historical evidence to back up this notion, nor does it appear to be an established Swahili name for any specific type of boat. Caroline Sassoon, writing in Tanganyika
Notes & Records in 1970, suggests that the word 'dhow' is a corruption of não
, used by the first Portuguese navigators in the Indian Ocean to refer to any small local seafaring vessel, or of the Swahili kidau
, a specific type of small boat described below.
The largest traditional sailing vessel in wide use off the coast of East Africa is the jahazi
, which measures up to 20m long and whose large billowing sails are a characteristic sight off Zanzibar and other traditional ports. With a capacity of about a hundred passengers, the jahazi is mainly used for transporting cargo and passengers over relatively long distances or in open water, for instance between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. Minor modifications in the Portuguese and Omani eras notwithstanding, the design of the modern jahazi is pretty much identical to that of similar seafaring vessels used in mediaeval times and before. The name jahazi is generally applied to boats with cutaway bows and square sterns built on Zanzibar and nearby parts of the mainland. Similar boats built in Lamu and nearby ports in Kenya are called jalbut
(possibly derived from the English 'jolly boat' or Indian 'gallevat') and have a vertical bow and wineglass shaped stern. Smaller but essentially similar in design, the mashua
measures up to 10m long, has a capacity of about 25 passengers, and is mostly used for fishing close to the shore or as local transport.
The most rudimentary and smallest type of boat used on the Swahili Coast is the mtumbwi
, which is basically a dugout canoe made by hollowing out the trunk of a large tree – the mango tree is favoured today – and used for fishing in mangrove creeks and other still water environments. The mtumbwi is certainly the oldest type of boat used in East Africa, and its simple design probably replicates that of the very first boats crafted by humans. A more elaborate and distinctive variation on the mtumbwi is the ngalawa
, a 5-6m long dugout supported by a narrow outrigger on each side, making it sufficiently stable to be propelled by a sail. The ngalawa is generally used for fishing close to shore as well as for transporting passengers across protected channels such as the one between Mafia and Chole Islands in the Mafia Archipelago.
The largest traditional boats of the Indian Ocean, the ocean-going dhows that were once used to transport cargo between East Africa, Asia and Arabia, have become increasingly scarce in recent decades due to the advent of foreign ships and other, faster modes of intercontinental transport. Several distinct types of ocean-going dhow are recognised, ranging from the 60-ton sambuk
from Persia to 250-ton boats originating from India. Oddly, one of the larger of these vessels, the Indian dengiya
, is thought to be the root of the English word 'dinghy'. Although a few large dhows still ply the old maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean, they are now powered almost exclusively with motors rather than by sails.
There's an excellent small exhibition on boats in the Pemba Museum in Chake Chake, and on Zanzibar Island, in the House of Wonders.