|MARK LYONS / ARTS AND EXHIBITIONS INTERNATIONAL;|
|Said’s 15-page manuscript became well-known soon after he penned it in 1831. Though translated several times, the original was lost in the 1920’s and only recovered in 1995.|
|ARTS AND EXHIBITIONS INTERNATIONAL|
|The traveling “America I AM” exhibition has brought new attention to Said and other aspects of African-American history..|
t’s a summer night at the Civic Center in downtown Atlanta, and the guests, dressed in suits and evening gowns, walk amid glass cases displaying artifacts from America’s slave period. There are the tall, wooden “Doors of No Return” from a 17th-century slave-trading fort in Ghana. There is a plantation’s whip. There are iron shackles. And there is a hush around these objects; they bring tears to the eyes of some visitors.
At a case titled “Cultural Gifts From Africa,” the mood changes to upbeat. Among the objects it displays is a small, yellowed, 15-page manuscript written in Arabic. Its owner, Derrick Beard, tells passersby that it was written in 1831 by a Muslim scholar, a slave from West Africa, named Omar ibn Said, who was more literate than many of the slave masters he encountered in the Carolinas. Listeners tend to repeat the same interjection: “Really?”
Beard is used to it. Said’s brief autobiography,The Life of Omar ben Saeed, is the only one known to have been penned in Arabic by an American slave. The manuscript’s inclusion in the “America I AM: The African American Imprint” exhibition, which has toured the United States since early last year, is giving new audiences a firsthand look at a document Beard says “has more relevance today than it did in 1831.”
Despite being enslaved by Christians, Said saw the importance of co-existence between Islam and Christianity in America. Addressing his words directly to Americans—but also indirectly to Muslims—he states that, despite the existence of the institution of slavery, there are nonetheless good people in the United States, notably his owners, whom he calls “a very good generation.” Beard sees Said’s manuscript as the first plea for religious co-existence written by a Muslim in America. Said had lived for 61 years when he wrote it; he had been a slave for 24 of them.
|UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL|
|One of two known portraits of Said, this daguerrotype was made in the 1850’s, when Said was about 80 years old. The other portrait, an ambrotype, appears on this issue’s Table of Contents.|
“This manuscript is important because here’s a man who’s advocating having an interfaith dialogue,” says Beard, a collector of African–American history who acquired Said’s autobiography at a 1996 auction. “What else could be more appropriate to bring to the public today?”
For almost 200 years, those familiar with Omar ibn Said have debated how complete or genuine his supposed conversion to Christianity was. Said began his autobiography with the 67thsurah of the Qur’an, Al-Mulk(“dominion” or “ownership”). Starting, as do all surahs but one, withBismillah (“In the Name of God…”), its text continues, “Blessed be He in Whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath power….” Said’s meaning is clear: It is God who holds sway over creation.
Compared to other slaves, Said was treated well by his owner, James Owen, a prominent North Carolinian whose brother had been governor. Said was excused from manual labor on the plantation belonging to Owen, “who does not beat me, nor call me bad names,” he wrote. “During the last twenty years I have not seen any harm
at the hand of
From his retention of Arabic—which even after decades in America he could write complete with the diacriticals that indicate short vowels—to his relatively friendly relationship with the Owen family, everything about Said was exceptional, and this drew public attention to him across the United States during his own lifetime, too. In the 1820’s, Francis Scott Key, who authored America’s national anthem, sent Said an Arabic-language Bible, hoping it would help convert him to Christianity. Newspapers wrote about Said, including one article from 1825 that described Said as “good natured” and speculated that he had been a prince in Africa, because of his “dignified deportment.” Around the mid-1850’s, when Said was over 80 years old, a daguerreotype of him was taken, followed a few years later by an ambrotype. These images, like those made of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, cemented the public’s perception of Said as an important African–American figure. That perception grew especially after 1995, when Said’s manuscript, thought to have been lost in the 1920’s, re-emerged in Alexandria, Virginia, from a trunk discovered by descendants of Howland Wood, a noted numismatist who once owned the autobiography.
|COURTESY OMAR IBN SAID FOUNDATION|
|The English-language title page added to Said’s autobiography offers details about how Said’s story was disseminated.|
The re-emergence prompted new attention to Said’s words and called forth fresh insights into his 94-year life. In the first years after Said wrote the manuscript, the Arabic experts who examined it were mainly missionaries or evangelists who gathered from it little more than proof of Said’s conversion to Christianity. Yet Ala Alryyes, Yale associate professor of comparative literature, is among those who say Said left important clues that testify otherwise—not the least of which is the manuscript’s opening surah. Alryyes’s book “O, People of America”: The Arabic Life of Omar Ibn Said, A Muslim American Slave is due to be published this year.
Said’s is not the only Muslim American slave narrative, but most of the other authors dictated their words to intermediaries who wrote them down in English. These include Job “Ayuba” Ben Solomon, whose account dates to 1734; Ibrahim Abd ar-Rahman (“the Prince Among Slaves”) in the 1820’s; and Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua in 1854.
It is significant, says Alryyes, that Said wrote himself in a language that demonstrated that he had been literate, even learned, before he was enslaved.“He offers a window into the antebellum world of slavery that is quite different from our standard, ‘normal’ view of slavery,” Alryyes says. “Other slaves acquired their literacy from their masters. Muslim slaves—because they read the Qur’an—had some literacy.”
Muslims comprised upward of 20 percent of African slaves brought to the United States, and like Said, a number of them impressed white Southerners with their proficiency in Arabic and their desire to maintain their observance of Islam’s requirement of five daily prayers. Both of these traits humanized them in the eyes of their owners—sometimes sufficiently to lead the owners to infer they were Arabs or noble Africans deserving of better treatment than other slaves, according to historian Allan D. Austin, who authored two books on the subject. What made Said more exceptional still was his maturity: When a warring African army captured and sold him in 1807, he was already 37 years old.
Born in Futa Toro (“the land between two rivers”), in what is now northern Senegal, Said came from a large, prosperous, pious family. In his Life, Said wrote that he “continued seeking knowledge for twenty-five years,” learning from his brother Muhammad and two other “shaykhs,” a word that can mean “learned men.” He claimed 15 siblings, and he waxed proud of his adherence to Islam in Africa—ablutions, prayers and alms “every year in gold, silver, harvest, cattle, sheep, goats, rice, wheat and barley.” He was, Austin says, “a scholar and a teacher.”
|COURTESY OMAR IBN SAID FOUNDATION|
In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful. Thanks be to God, for his goodness is of old, his generosity and favor.
I cannot write my life for I have forgotten much of my talk as well as the talk of the Arabs. Also I know little grammar and little vocabulary. O my brothers, I ask you, in the name of God, not to blame me, for my eye is weak and so is my body.
My name is Omar ibn Said; my birthplace is Fut Tur, between the two rivers…. There came to our country a big army. It killed many people. It took me, and walked me to the big Sea, and sold me into the hand of a Christian man who bought me and walked me to the big Ship in the big Sea. We sailed in the big Sea for a month and a half until we came to a place called Charleston.
O, people of North Carolina; O, people of South Carolina; O, people of America, all of you: Are there among you men as good as Jim Owen and John Owen? They are good men, for whatever they eat, I eat; and whatever they wear they give me to wear. Jim with his brother read from the Bible that God is our Lord, our Creator, and our Owner, and the restorer of our condition, health and wealth by grace and not duty.
Excerpted from “The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Written by Himself,” Ala A. Alryyes, tr., in The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature. Marc Shell and Werner Sollors, eds. 2000, New York University Press, 0-8147-9753-9 pb.
In the United States, Said was initially taken to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was sold to “a small, weak, evil man called Johnson, an infidel who did not fear God at all.” Johnson forced him to hard labor. “I am a small man who cannot do hard work. I escaped from the hands of Johnson after a month,” wrote Said. On foot for another month, he finally went to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he saw a church, and he went inside to pray. “A young man saw me,” wrote Said, and two men with “many dogs” walked Said 12 miles to the “big house called jeel” (jail) in Fayetteville. There, after “sixteen days and nights,” he was bought by James Owen, whose brother was a former governor. Said spent the rest of his life with Owen’s family, even turning down overtures from colonizers who offered to help him return free to Africa—if he would go there as a Christian evangelist.
Like many other Muslim slaves in the antebellum south, Said was under powerful pressure to adopt his master’s religion. By 1831, Said was attending church and reading the Bible—in Arabic. However, his written emphasis on Quranicsurahs convinces Alryyes that Said “was playing an in-between game,” professing enough Christianity to pass as a convert without denying Islam.
To bolster his point, Alryyes points to two Muslim slaves who won back their freedom. Born in what is now central Guinea, Ibrahim Abd ar-Rahman was repatriated after 40 years of slavery, thanks to diplomatic intervention by Morocco. When he returned to African soil in 1829, he renounced his conversion to Christianity. Similarly, in 1836 Lamine Kebe, who was a teacher in Guinea before enduring 30 years of slavery, reclaimed his Muslim roots after sailing to Liberia with the help of the American Colonization Society.
It is thanks in part to Kebe that we have Said’s words today: After Kebe received his freedom in 1834, but before his departure to Liberia, Said sent him the manuscript of his autobiography. Kebe passed it on to an abolitionist named Theodore Dwight. Since then, it has been translated three times, most recently in 2000 by Alryyes.
|WILL AND DENI MCINTYRE|
|Fayetteville tax accountant Adam Beyah also serves as an imam at Fayetteville’s Omar ibn Sayyid mosque. He is one of few people to have sought out the site and the few remains of the Owen plantation.|
To Beard, “everything [Said] writes and looks at is from an Islamic perspective. Even before he writes the Lord’s Prayer, he contextualizes it with the Fatiha (“The Opening”), the first chapter of the Qur’an. He writes that first, then he writes the Lord’s Prayer. There’s a clear reason for that: He believes the Fatiha has pre-eminence over the Lord’s Prayer.”
The night I interviewed Beard and saw Said’s manuscript behind glass was the opening night of the “America I AM” exhibition in Atlanta. The night had the feel of an Academy Awards ceremony. By special invitation, guests heard live African music and speeches (paraphrasing W. E. B. Du Bois, organizer Tavis Smiley asked, “Would America be America without its Negro people?”), then walked through an exhibition whose entry mirrored those of traditional mud-and-timber buildings in West Africa. Images of famous African Americans adorned the walls, from Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama—and including Omar ibn Said.
It’s not only here that Said is remembered, but also in southeastern North Carolina. A few years ago, Adam Beyah, a member of a Fayetteville mosque named the Masjid Omar ibn Sayyid, drove about an hour south to the small town of Bladenboro, where “Owen Hill”—Said’s plantation—had been located. Beyah and his companions were seeking Said’s grave, but they found that the plantation had disappeared, covered over by smaller, subdivided properties. “We were driving down the street, and we saw a lady in the yard,” says Beyah. “We pulled over and she asked what we were looking for. We told her, ‘Omar.’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re talking about the Prince?’”
She pointed Beyah to a nearby property, which they explored until they found “remnants of an old house and some grave stones,” says Beyah. “I’m not going to say it was Omar’s grave. I don’t know whose grave it was.”
According to research by Thomas C. Parramore, a North Carolina historian and professor who died in 2004, Said’s tombstone, which read “Omar the Slave,” disappeared many years ago. Today, people who want to honor his life often come to the Masjid Omar ibn Sayyid, where Beyah or others can show them Said’s daguerreotype and tell his story.
Said died in 1864, one year before Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment that officially abolished slavery in the United States. Beard believes Said knew that his autobiography would be read for many years. “It’s almost as if he wrote this manuscript for today,” Beard says.
Including Alryyes’ forthcoming work, more than 50 books have now devoted at least some attention to Said. In North Carolina, Beyah says, public-school history books describe Said’s life in detail. In addition to Fayetteville’s mosque, a boarding school in New Haven, Connecticut, has taken its name from Said. In the future, Beard hopes a movie version of Said’s life might be produced.
Alryyes points out that Said composed his autobiography shortly after the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. Did antebellum slave owners, asks Alryyes, look to Said’s Life for reassurance that not all slaves were blood-thirsty avengers? In prefacing his autobiography with a surah from the Qur’an, was Said inspired by ex-slave David Walker, whose 1829 “Appeal” was a riveting abolitionist document that similarly cited God’s dominion over all? Or was Walker somehow inspired by ideas already in circulation thanks to Muslim slaves like Said? Such questions, Alryyes says, may never be answered, but by raising them, Alryyes hopes to broaden understanding of the context of Said’s autobiography.
Africa and America, freedom and slavery, Islam and Christianity, all coalesced in his brief 1831 manuscript. “To see his written word is just fascinating and beautiful,” says Mark Lach, senior vice president at Arts and Exhibitions International, which designed the “America I AM” exhibit. “To have it right in front of you is a privilege.”
|http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201002/images/said/Curiel.jpg||Journalist Jonathan Curiel (www.jonathancuriel.com) is the author of Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots (2008, New Press), which won an American Book Award. As a Reuters Foundation Fellow at Oxford University, he researched Islamic history; as a Fulbright Scholar, he taught at Punjab University in Pakistan.|
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 fromSons 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; inMoby 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a museum consultant, writer and publisher on the Arabian Peninsula. He is currently the director of Arabian Publishing Ltd., London.|