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Alan Villiers & the Sons of Sindbad: An Australian in 1930s Kuwait

In December 2019 the Australian National Maritime Museum made its first foray into the Middle East with an exhibition presented by the Museum in conjunction with the Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait's National Council for Art, Culture and Letters, and the Australian Embassy (Kuwait). Supported by the Council for Australian Arab Relations, we produced the exhibition in association with the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Melbourne-born Alan Villiers (1903-1982) was a noted maritime adventurer, journalist, novelist, sailor and photographer who devoted most of his life to the sea and the ships that harnessed the power of the winds. Fifty photographs (printed from the original negatives) were shown at the Amricani Cultural Centre and the National Assembly in Kuwait City from December 2019 to March 2020.

In the late 1930s Villiers began a survey to record the Arabian sailing methods of various types of Arab dhows – baggalas, booms, badans, belems, betils, bedeni, ghanjahs, jalboots, sambuks and zarooks – as they sailed on trading voyages through the Persian and Oman Gulfs, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea as far south as Tanzania in East Africa. Villiers believed he was seeing the last days of sail and wanted to record the vessels before they disappeared.

In November 1938 Villiers found passage aboard the Sheikh Mansur – as ‘a kind of trial voyage'. The zarook voyaged for eight days from Aden, one of the busiest ports in the world, to bustling Jizan (Gizan) on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast.

Villiers's second voyage was aboard the Kuwaiti boom Bayan, translated by Villiers as Triumph of Righteousness. Fashioned by master builders, stately booms like the Triumph were the typical cargo vessels of Kuwaiti seafarers. From December 1938 to June 1939 Villiers sailed the monsoon winds from Aden to the Swahili coast and then home to Kuwait.

The opening of the exhibition brought together many relatives of those who had sailed with Villiers – children, grandchildren, cousins who were proud to see photographs of their relatives on show. The success and general interest generated by this exhibition in Kuwait has led to discussions with the Australian Embassy in Riyadh and it is hoped to travel a modified version through Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman late in 2021.

Lindsey Shaw

Honorary Research Associate

Australian National Maritime Museum

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