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Saturday, September 8, 2012

More on Mtepes

If yesterday's post on the Kenyan sewn vessel the mtepe wasn't long enough, here's a bit more, gleaned from a source brought to my attention by a reader who wishes to remain anonymous but whose input is much appreciated.

First off, I was incorrect in using the plural form mtepes. It should be mitepe, according to this source ("The Mtepe: regional trade and the late survival of sewn ships in east African waters," Erik Gilbert, in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 1998).

Next, there's this wonderful photo from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts:

The mtepe shown appears to combine the beak-like stempost terminal of a mtepe proper with the sharply angled stem and long bow overhang of a dau la mtepe. Perhaps this c.1890 photo caught the mtepe during its transition period to the new style. As Gilbert notes, it's a graceful vessel, much finer in appearance than the extant chunky-looking models of mitepe proper, and more like photos of other dau la mitepe, but with the advantage of the lovely terminal head.

Gilbert's argument is that the mtepe's survival into the 20th century was not some weird conservative holdover, but due to the fact that its shallow draft, seagoing ability, and substantial capacity made it uniquely suitable to a couple of niche activities. 

After the Royal Navy began suppressing the slave trade in 1860, the mtepe found a role as an excellent slaver (please excuse the expression), able to avoid British patrols by sailing near inshore, but capacious enough to carry substantial human cargoes and fast enough to dash across the short deep-water sections necessary to reach its markets. Likewise, shallow draft and good capacity worked to its advantage in the mangrove pole trade, as it could be poled deep into mangrove swamps, where its strong but flexible hull had to take the ground twice daily, while its seagoing ability allowed it to travel regularly between its home in the Lamu archipelago and Zanzibar, where the mangrove forests and markets were.

Although the hull does not appear so particularly shallow in draft (see lines), that characteristic was frequently cited by contemporary Western observers. Gilbert cites the large mtepe upon which the replica Shangwaya was based which, when measured  in 1877, had a length of 97 feet, breadth of 24 feet, girth of 40 feet, depth of 9.5 feet and tonnage of186 (tonnage measurement type unknown). From this, Gilbert estimates a draft of 7 feet maximum, which is not bad for a vessel of that capacity.

It was only after the death of both the slave and the mangrove pole trades that the sewn-plank mtepe fell out of use. The jahazi, a dhow style of nailed construction, was already in wide use in the same region, and it did not force the mtepe out, but it filled any remaining niches that the mtepe left vacant.

1 comment:

  1. Just a comment about the reference to the death of the mtepe being linked to the demise of the mangrove pole trade - we lived in Lamu for a year in the mid-1960s and had a boat built by the jahazi-builders. Mtepes were just a memory by that time but the collection of mangrove pole, boriti, was still an extremely active business. The poles were collected and lay in enormous piles along the Lamu seafront awaiting the big dhows which would come every year on the monsoon from the north.