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Construction and Qualitative Analysis of a Sewn Boat of the Western Indian Ocean

Robert Adams
Thesis: December 1985
Chair: Bass
Nautical Archaeology Program


For thousands of years the boats that dominate coastal and international trade in the Western Indian Ocean were built entirely without metal fasteners. These carvel, shell-first "sewn boats" were constructed with only cordage for fastenings. When the Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean in the 15th century A.D., sewn-boat construction gave way to western shipbuilding techniques. As a result very little information has been preserved to aid the definition of the construction of these boats. A relic of these sewn boats of antiquity was the mtepe of the East African littoral, which remained an oddity among the world's vessels until its extinction in the beginning of the 20th century. The mtepe, with its matting sail and extensive decoration is regarded as one of the last of the large sewn vessels of the Western Indian Ocean. Fortunately, nearly a dozen archival photographs and several models of the mtepe have been preserved. These sources, along with previous publications, allowed a comparative analysis to define the construction of the mtepe. After definition of the individual construction features is accomplished a qualitative analysis of these components and the boat as a system is presented. Results of the qualitative analysis show that in contrast to the rigidly constructed vessels built in the "western boatbuilding tradition," the sewn hull was designed to be flexible.

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