Sunday, July 20, 2008


Alan Villiers is well known to readers of tales of the sea. The author of several books, he was an accomplished and wide-ranging sailing ship captain who spent much of his earlier life on sailing ships during their last years of commercial viability, and much of the later portion on sailing ships of various noncommercial colors, including school ships, ships used in making sea movies, historical replica ships, and the like. Seems he had a serious sailing ship jones and would do just about anything he could to continue sailing them.

In Give Me a Ship to Sail, he describes many of these adventures, most of which are concerned with more or less traditional "western"-type ships. But in one chapter, he describes an Indian Ocean vessel called a buggalow, on which he took passage from Colombo, Sri Lanka (Ceylon, then), to Male, in the Maldive Islands. The buggalow was one of several owned by the Maldives government that served as a combined cargo and ferry service between Ceylon and the one-mile-by-half-a-mile island-city of Male, then a town of some 8,000 people and capital of the Maldives – a group of some 12,000 islands, islets and atolls (of which, only some 215 were inhabited in the mid-1950s).

Although carrying a lateen rig, he distinguishes the buggalow from other dhows then sailing the Indian Ocean, explaining that the latter were only seaworthy enough to be used during the monsoon's off-season, while the buggalow was capable of providing year-round service. Although Villiers doesn't describe the vessel itself in great detail, he description of life aboard it is worthy transcribing at length:

The buggalow was a well-built vessel, built – the master told me – somewhere near Calicut about eleven years previously, at a cost of 90,000 rupees. She was a very much stronger, better-built, and better-rigged vessel than any dhow I had previously seen. She had properly caulked teak decks, real hatches and proper waterways, an efficient ship's pump (used very little: she was tight), a good compass binnacle, an efficient capstan of wood and brass, and her fresh water was carried in good steel tanks, on deck. Her "galley" was an adequate firebox with an open hearth, on the foredeck, and her cooks were industrious, well equipped, and competent. Her mainmast was either stepped in, or at any rate well supported by, a strong steel sleeve which extended about four feet above the main deck, and her rigging was exceptionally good and well cared for. Her large assortment of equipment included an old speaking trumpet, a full set of new International Code flags (and the books), a telescope, binoculars, a roll of well-kept and corrected charts kept in an ancient copper cylinder attached to the deckhead in the great cabin, and a number of umbrellas used, I suppose for going ashore in the S.W. monsoon. All of these umbrellas were decorated with little photographs of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, set in silver on the handles.

The master had a sextant, deck watch, and the necessary nautical tables, almanac, etc. He had an advanced textbook on arithmetic (in English) and two different Oxford dictionaries. He spoke English well. He was a very quiet little man and I did not discover that he could speak English at all until we sailed, though I had known him in the agent's office ashore for some weeks. He also spoke Hindustani, Arabic, his own Maldivian, and some Singhalese. His ambition was to see his native islands acquire a motor ship and to serve aboard her some day as master. He as a good navigator, working up star sights night and morning and noon sights, position lines by Marq St. Hilaire from the sun, ex-meridians, and anything else he considered necessary. He has to be a good navigator as the passage was of some 415 miles across open sea, with a difficult landfall at the end which had, if necessary, to be made by night.

He did not seem to bother much about the International Rule of the Road, nor did the ship show colored side lights, though these were aboard and kept ready trimmed at night. He said it was the custom to show these only when sailing into Colombo. He always had too good hurricane lamps lit and ready for use, and he had a large torch [i.e., flashlight, edtr.] which, he said, he flashed on the sails if he saw a steamer approaching too close. He said that if steamers can close, it made no difference whether he burned side lights, for he was sure that no watchkeeping officers kept any lookout for such antiquated sea lights as the red and green lamps of a sailing vessel. The torch was much better. They sheered off when they saw the sails. As for possible risk of collision with other such vessels as his own, he knew where they all were, and he had confidence in their masters….

On the passage, she [the ship] rolled a lot, running deep-laden before the wind, She set a lateen topsail on the main, which was a sail I had not been with before. She had a main topmast not much stouter than a flagstaff, and the tops'l yard was hoisted on this. It was very light. So was the sail. I slept in the open in preference to the great cabin, which was hot. She steered like a witch and ran like a clipper, and very little rudder movement was necessary to give her a good course.

The photo of the buggalow is from the book Give Me a Ship to Sail, which is a darn good read.


  1. Amazing. Where can I get more information on Buggalows, and what was the capacity of the largest type? Who made these boats and how can I get a blueprint of it? I'm writing a fiction novel which involves one of these boats.

  2. Amish,
    I have no more info. on the type. My only source was the Villiers book cited in the post.
    Best of luck,

  3. Hi Bob.

    Wonderful blog you have here. I am portuguese and write also a blog on traditional boats, mainly of Portugal. I do investigation as a hobby on the roots of our boats, and keeping myself between Mediterranean and North Europe is already a huge circle. That´s why this blog of yours is very important, about the "not so glamorous" types of boats of the rest of the world. Many of your articles I could comment, and this one caught my special attention, because of the buggalow good construction and all on board different from the "crude" dhow, thar populated the Indian Ocean for centuries. Calicut, being in the Kerala region of India, has a past of european contacts, more strongly after Vasco da Gama. Looking at the buggalow I clearly see european caracter√≠stics, and although the Dutch and English had also presence in the region, I would say these european fine construction methods arrived and were kept in Kerala by the Portuguese positions there after 1498.
    I have an article prepared to publish in the future which makes me believe even more strongly in this Portuguese influence in Kerala boats, this time in a Kerala fishing boat, lauched from the beach and with a half-moon shape. This boat is almost the same as the ones in central Portugal coast, the "barco-de-mar", considered very ancient in their roots, possibly of Greek, Phoenician times and their colonies in Iberian coast. Even the method of fishing used is the same as in Portugal, pulling the nets from the beach.
    I may send you some pictures about these two examples of boats in Portugal for your analysis.

    Best Regards,
    António Fangueiro

  4. amish/antonio/bob
    I think the "Buggalow" referred to by allan villiers was more commonly known as a Bhaglia. Antonio is correct in stating that a number of arabian/indian craft exhibit features of portugese design. Gangas, kotias, batils and battelas all featured aspects of portugese design practice of the 15th century onwards.
    George Waite
    Naval Architect

  5. In the comment above, George Waite refers to Antonio's comments that appear in my post of May 27, 2010, here:
    Thanks for this input George.

  6. Oops. My previous comment wasn't quite right. Antonio did indeed comment on buggalows in this particular post, as well as the newer one that I cited. Sorry.