o writes Alan Villiers in the preface to his remarkable sailing book, Sons of Sindbad. Determined to defy his own prediction, Villiers then goes on to explain how he did just that. In the process, he records the swan song of an already ancient industry, and even of a way of life.
Granted, the Australian mariner and author was probably better prepared than any other outsider for the task. He had years of experience on sailing ships under his oilskins, and he would achieve fame in his own lifetime (1903–1982) as the leading documenter of the last days of commercial sail in square-rigged ships. After completing a three-year, 93,000-kilometer (57,800-mi) voyage around the world in his own three-masted schooner, Joseph Conrad, he ventured into new territory in 1938 and 1939, spending a year among seafaring Arabs. That’s when he undertook the arduous, eye-opening journey from Aden to East Africa and then back east around the Arabian Peninsula to Kuwait on a high-prowed, 150-ton Kuwaiti dhow of the kind known as a boom. He wrote about the trip in Sons of Sindbad, published in 1940.
The book is among the classics of Arabian travel literature. Like his contemporary Wilfred Thesiger, who won fame for twice crossing Arabia’s great sand sea, the Rub’ al-Khali, in the 1940’s, Villiers was not only a writer finely attuned to his environment but also a gifted photographer. Indeed, these and other similarities between the two men entitle Villiers, who is much less known than his English counterpart, to be regarded as the Thesiger of the Arabian Sea.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, where his father, a tram driver, wrote articles for workingmen’s papers and was something of a poet, Villiers was exposed from an early age to the idea of writing, and inculcated with a very Australian egalitarianism and sense of fair play. As a boy, he was irresistibly drawn to the docks and the ships engaged in the deep-sea bulk-cargo trade to Europe. These were still square-rigged tall ships, and he fell rapidly in thrall to the power of wind and sail, championing its continued use. Though he was not against labor-saving technology in principle, his lifelong distaste for mechanized shipping was one that Thesiger—notoriously repelled by modern conveniences—would have understood.
Several of Villiers’s books became best-sellers during his early career working and writing about life on board the grain ships voyaging between Australia and Britain. Here, he found the openness and egalitarianism he so admired among the young Swedish-speaking Finns who made up many of the crews.
In 1938–1939, he would be impressed by the same quality of instinctive teamwork and concern for one’s crewmates he found on board the Kuwaiti boom Bayan (which he loosely translates as Triumph of Righteousness), the centerpiece of Sons of Sindbad. By the time he decided to travel to Aden, at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Villiers had already completed Cruise of the Conrad (1937), about his circumnavigation of the globe, which would be another best-seller.
While Villiers was engaged in that and earlier voyages, European sail had been steadily dwindling, and many of the ships he had known had been sold off as hulks or scrapped. After selling the Joseph Conrad to pay his debts from that trip (she was bought by an American millionaire who happened to see her in New York harbor) and after publishing the book named after her, he decided to turn his attention to seafaring in pre-industrial, cultures. He opted first for the Arabian-dhow world of the western Indian Ocean because it seemed to him, “having looked far and wide over a seafaring lifetime, that as pure sailing craft carrying on their unspoiled ways, only the Arab remained,” he says in Sons of Sindbad. Certain he was living through the last days of sail, he was determined to record as much as he could of the way of life that masted ships represented.
In Aden, after spending a month on a trial voyage along the coral-rimmed Red Sea coast aboard a little dhow called Sheikh Mansur, Villiers immediately looked around for Arab dhow masters prepared to take on a lone westerner as a crewman, and was eventually put in touch with one of the great Kuwaiti ships then frequenting the port. Her nakhoda, or captain, Ali bin Nasr al-Nejdi, was making the ages-old voyage from the Arabian Gulf to East Africa, coasting on the northeast monsoon winds with a cargo of dates from Basra. Although somewhat suspicious, he took Villiers on as a passenger. The return voyage from the Rufiji Delta, in what is now Tanzania, to Kuwait with a cargo of mangrove poles would take place in the early summer of 1939 on the first breezes of the southwest monsoon.
Sons of Sindbad captures the trials and the less-frequent joys of this voyage and is the sole work of Arabian travel to place the seafaring Arabs center stage. It is the maritime counterpart of Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, which it predates by almost 20 years. Like Thesiger, Villiers traveled among his companions as an equal, deferring to their superior knowledge of their business and observing at close quarters their toughness and fortitude, their working methods and devotion to their way of life. The spirit they displayed in the face of extremely difficult conditions astonished him. He writes that they had “a delight in living that we do not even know we lack.”
As rich as his text are the thousands of photographs Villiers took of the voyage. Of these, only around 50 were published in Sons of Sindbad in 1940. His photographic archive, located at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, remained largely unpublished until 2006, when Sons of Sindbad: The Photographs was co-published by the museum and Arabian Publishing. Villiers often dismissed his photography by saying that he would just point his camera and click, jokingly ascribing the quality of his images to the luminous light at sea, but he had a wonderful eye for detail and composition, and he developed a professional’s knowledge of photographic and film techniques. He carried a 35-mm and a large-format camera, along with a movie camera, with him on the dhow. The pictures from his voyage provide an unforgettably vivid memorial of the life and skills of Kuwait’s sailors, of the ports along the route, of Kuwait itself and of the pearl divers of the Arabian Gulf.
As captain and owner of the Joseph Conrad, Villiers had for the first time achieved a status with which an Arab nakhoda would have identified. So he did not ship out on al-Nejdi’s boom as an ordinary crewmember, but shared the poop deck with the captain, the mate, al-Nejdi’s brother, the two helmsmen and any merchants voyaging as passengers. (Upward of 150 other passengers—men, women and children—rode elsewhere.)
In a telling episode, Villiers recounts the dramatic rescue of a Bedouin youngster who fell overboard near Ras Haifun, on the rocky Horn of Africa, five days after sailing from Shihr in Yemen. “Children scampered among the bulwarks, playing merrily,” he writes,.“…[when] suddenly I heard a splash.” Two crewmen immediately jumped in after the child, “a sprawling bundle in his white gown streaming in the sea,” who was rapidly receding astern. Unruffled, the captain barked an order and his sailors responded like lightning. They turned the ship across the wind and, sailing “within 50 yards of destruction” against the cliffs of Ras Haifun, launched the vessel’s cutter and finally pulled all three back on board. The two rescuers received no thanks and—after the child was warned not to fall in again—the incident was never mentioned again.
Villiers’s special status did not deter him from trying to join in the arduous tasks of the sailors. But even though he was a hardened Cape Horner used to working aloft, taking in sail in a hurricane, he found the labor too taxing. He was amazed at the Kuwaiti sailors’ ability to climb aloft and take in sail without any need for footropes. Also, he’d been felled by a serious accident early on, which initially blinded him and later handicapped him for the rest of the voyage. But he persevered to the end and dashed off Sons of Sindbad with his usual facility in the early weeks of World War ii.
Sons of Sindbad is the work not only of an exceptional sailor, writer and photographer, but also of a shrewd businessman. Villiers was interested in the economics of the dhow and pearl trades and the social conditions of those engaged in them. In Kuwait, he interviewed people from every walk of life, from the ruler, Shaykh Ahmad Al-Sabah, to ministers, merchants, captains and homeless seamen on the waterfront.
His analysis of the bonds of debt tying the sailors and divers to the dhow captains, and the captains to the merchants, makes compelling reading. It goes to the heart of the inequities of the old system, as it stood on the very threshold of being swept away by the wealth from oil that had just, in 1938, been discovered in Kuwait in commercial quantities. Villiers paints a graphic portrait of the society and economy of this maritime people who had managed to turn their small, barren state into the foremost Arab dhow port in the Gulf.
So Sons of Sindbad is very much more than just a rattling good sea dog’s yarn.
Villiers’s ambivalent position aboard The Triumph of Righteousness afforded him a unique perspective, for he was both a westerner connected with the imperial reach of British officials on the one hand and an Australian free-lancer on the other, who had little time for colonial niceties and was accepted as part of an Arab dhow crew.
When he turns a blind eye to the smuggling ventures of his crewmates, or is amused by al-Nejdi’s attempts to evade new-fangled, European-imposed navigation and immigration regulations, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie. Yet he could also see some benefit in modernization and administration. His awareness that he was witnessing the demise of an ancient tradition of wind-borne trade in the face of irreversible mechanization lends piquancy to his reporting, but he does not lull readers into romantic illusions about the life of the Gulf sailors and pearlers, exploited as they were by the traditional debt system and mostly living from hand to mouth.
Much of the book revolves around Villiers’s relationship with the dashing young dhow captain, al-Nejdi. About 30 years old, just five years junior to Villiers, he was a natural leader whose crew gave him unquestioning loyalty. Confident in the enclosed little world of his dhow, he could air his opinions with unchallenged authority.
Nejdi was scornful of Villiers’s project to write a book about the voyage, and there are other hints in Sons of Sindbad that the two may at times have had a somewhat trying relationship. As Kate Lance has shown in her biography, Alan Villiers: Voyager of the Winds (2009), his diaries reveal that when he came to publish his voyages, he tended to underplay the difficulties he experienced with his fellow crew. But it is clear that in general the Kuwaiti captain humored his eccentric guest well enough.
Al-Nejdi was, after all, a nakhoda with a reputation to uphold. The laws of Arabian hospitality were as binding at sea as on land, and in any case, Villiers was a skilled navigator who could make himself useful. At first handicapped by the language barrier, he soon picked up sufficient Arabic to understand the management of the boom, and even to take part in conversations on the poop. These were dominated by al-Nejdi’s pontificating on everything from politics, religion and the relative merits of Islam and the West, to the intricacies of the coastal navigation in which he specialized.
As Lance has also shown, Villiers could certainly be prone on occasion to some of the prejudices current among westerners of his era, but these seem never to have infected his attitude toward Arabs and Africans, and such judgments are refreshingly absent from Sons of Sindbad. Villiers’s account is a heady brew of the people, ways of life, governments, trade ancient and modern, cultures and human relations at the western edge of the old Indian Ocean world.
His insights stimulate much thought on the nature of power, whether exerted by imperialism from without or by traditional merchant capitalism from within. Despite the bold brush strokes, he never offers simplicities. The picture he paints is complex, a depiction as much of man’s capacity for benevolence as for inhumanity to his fellows.
Villiers’s story is very different from the overland exploits of the more famous 19th- and 20th-century Arabian travelers, Johann Burckhardt, Richard Burton, Charles Doughty, T. E. Lawrence and H. St. John B. Philby among them. Instead of bravely heading into an unmapped, potentially dangerous desert atop a camel, attended by Bedouin tribesmen as guides and protectors, Villiers’s voyage was a rather cautious, coasting one, certainly perilous but not especially romantic.
He did not throw himself upon fortune in a quest to explore unknown lands, nor did he aim to shed light on supposedly biblical ways or purge his soul in a journey of spiritual redemption. Instead, he traveled on equal terms with Kuwaiti mariners, eager to learn the details of their craft. Like Thesiger, he took pains not to set himself above his companions, even when he thought their methods could be improved, and came to respect their superior knowledge of their own techniques.
His modesty and willingness to work with his Arab comrades sits ill with that cliché of Orientalism: that western observers must inevitably be tainted by a superior sense of detachment from and power over the Orient. On the contrary, Villiers’s admiration was boundless for those, such as Kuwait’s seamen, who knew how to harness and exploit the wind. He was a modern man who was antipathetic to much of the “progress” brought by western civilization, but—unlike Lawrence and Thesiger, who displayed a romantic attitude to the Arabian past—he was realistic about change.
After spending the summer of 1939 in Kuwait and on the pearl banks of the northern Gulf, Villiers returned to England to play his part in the war effort. After the war, he settled with his family in Oxfordshire, where he would stay for the rest of his life. Nonetheless, he continued to travel widely until the mid-1970’s in search of new adventures, from which emerged a steady stream of books, as well as articles for National Geographic. Growing fame brought more glamorous work, such as assignments as adviser on various films, including the Hollywood versions of the Melville classics Billy Budd and Moby Dick; in Moby Dick he had an on-screen role as master of the Pequod. In 1957, he commanded the Mayflower replica during its 55-day voyage to the United States, and in 1964 he recorded the Lisbon–Bermuda Tall Ships Race. He was much in demand as a broadcaster and lecturer on both sides of the Atlantic.
In all, Villiers published more than 40 books. One of his greatest satisfactions came when, just a year or so before his death, he received a doctorate of letters from the University of Melbourne in honor of his writings. His last book, Voyaging with the Wind, published in 1975, is a simple introduction to handling large square-rigged ships that returns to the essentials of his trade.
In a life spent largely at sea, Villiers both lived and recorded the last days of sail. He made a contribution to maritime history, research, training and public education equaled by few others, building up a unique body of work on the world of commercial sail that vanished during the first half of the 20th century. His papers are now at the National Library of Australia in Canberra; the University of Melbourne holds his library of 5000 volumes; and his film and photographic archive are at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
In Kuwait, Villiers is still a revered figure, and Sons of Sindbad is prized as a unique record of Kuwait’s maritime past, despite having been written by a foreigner. Villiers kept in touch with some of his Kuwaiti friends over the years, and on his 1967 visit to Kuwait, a now-prosperous al-Nejdi met him at the airport. Their greeting, which Villiers included in the introduction to the second US edition of the book in 1969, forms a fitting valediction to the age of sail and the lifestyle it encompassed.
“‘Allah is great,’ I said. ‘His winds are free.’
“‘Allah is great,’ Najdi replied…. ‘And sometimes I wish that I could use His winds again. For it was a good life that my sons can never know—no Kuwait sons shall know. We cannot bring those ways back again.’”
||William Facey ([email protected]) is a museum consultant, writer and publisher on the Arabian Peninsula. He is currently the director of Arabian Publishing Ltd., London.