The earliest known sewn-boat designs were from ancient Egypt, the most famous of which is the 43 metres long Khufu ship now preserved near the Great pyramid of Giza. Since then, the technique has been used throughout the history of seafaring and became characteristic of the western Indian Ocean region in particular. These sewn vessels, which came into existence over two thousand years ago, have been remarked upon by voyagers since antiquity.
In the north-eastern regions of Somalia, a locally made Somali sailing boat called the beden is the last sewn vessel to survive on the western shores of the Indian Ocean. No metal fastenings are used in the construction of this ancient vessel and the planks of wood are sewn together with coir cord (coconut fibre).
In the past, the beden was used as a merchant vessel to transport goods and livestock across the Indian Ocean, but it is now almost exclusively used for fishing ( particular for shark fishing). They are believed to have survived in the Puntland region due to local needs. The beden’s ability to endure the shock of striking the shore as they rode in through the surf made it the preferred vessel above all others.
The ancient mode of boat-building was still being employed by locals in Bandar Bayla, Foar, and Hafun well into the 1970s. By the 1980s, nearly 200 bedens were still in use in the region. The craft is now close to reaching the point of extinction as most beden’s have now been replaced in favour of fibreglass boats that are manufactured by a local boatyard.
The following is an account by Neville Chittick based on his observations of the construction of beden’s at Bandar Bayla, Foar, and Hafun.
A representative boat at Bender Beyle was 10.0 m overall, with a beam of 1-82 m. The hull has a hard chine; normally, it seems the planking has five strakes, plus a sixth near the bow. The Stern and stem post are both raking, and project well above the gunwale. The rake of the stem is greater than that of the stern. In one instance (near Hafun) the prow is decorated with an incised design, which looks symbolic; if so the significance is unknown. The first strake is sewn to the keel; the lowest two strakes (and perhaps more) are fixed in position before the stern and stem post are fitted. The planks are only 0.02 m thick, but are given more stability by a stout gunwale, which is securely pegged to the uppermost strake. There are a considerable number of ribs, apparently naturally grown, trimmed crooks. These are alternately full frames, having the profile of both sides of the vessel, and half frames with the profile of one side. These are added after the strakes have been fixed in position and the hull is complete. The boat is additionally supported by thwarts, which are sewn to the hull. The rudder is relatively very small, and attached to the stern post by grommets and operated by a cord attached to its trailing edge on either side. The mast is short and stout, the single yard very long; the sail, of cloth, is lateen-rigged in similar fashion to the dhows found further south. The boats are provided with sweeps, consisting of a round blade bound to a pole. Anchors are typically oval slabs of stone, with one hole for a wooden rod serving as a fluke, and another hole for the cable; iron grapnels are also used.
The caulking and sewing of the boats is done as one continuous operation. At Hafun, pitch (obtained commercially) was being poured into the seams from the inner side of the vessel. Over this is placed a fibrous tow-like substance which is beaten out of a plant which, I was told at Fu’ar, is obtained from not far off in the hinterland. This band is then sewn into position. The sewing was traditonally done with coir string as appears to have been the case throughout the Indian Ocean. One or two old bedens at Bender Beyle, in need of repair, were sewn with such string, which must be brought from further south, probably Kenya or Zanzibar, for there are no coconut palms in this region. Restitching of such boats at the present day, however, is done with whitish fishing-line. The holes drilled for the cord are plugged after sewing, but the stitches on the outside are not cut away when this is completed, as is stated to be done in the case of the mtepe. Additionally, the strakes were held together by cylindrical treenails set vertically in the adjacent planks – as opposed to being at an angle, as was the case with the mtepe. At bow and stern the strakes appear to be fitted into rabbets on the stem and stern posts. The joints in these positions and at the junction with the keel are sewn with the fibre band outside.
Large mats are placed within the bedens, presumably to keep caught fish out of the bilge. The mats are removed when the boat is ashore.
The timber for the planking and the like was variously said to come from Mombasa and Tanga, via Mogadishu and from India via Mukalla or Aden. The fishing-line now used for the sewing is no doubt obtained commercially.
An informant at Fu’ar stated that these boats had a life of very many years – indeed averred that the one I was photographing was 70 years old! He stated that the stitching needed replacing every 10 years. These figures are in such stark contrast with those given for the mtepe, mentioned above, that they must be surely exaggerated.
The boats are commonly drawn up the beach, even when in fairly protected waters, and always so when the beach is exposed. Six or seven men are said to be enough to drag the boat up the beach.
These bedens are, I was informed, in use from ‘Eil in the south (lat. 8°0’N) to Bargal (lat. 11°16’N), though I saw a few places west of Cape Guardafui.