The British Empire Library

The Arab Chest

by Sheila Unwin

Courtesy of OSPA

Christopher MacRae (British High Commission, Dar es Salaam 1963-65 High Commissioner, Nigeria 1991-94, Pakistan 1994-97)
This enchanting book is required reading for anyone lucky enough to possess one of these chests. For surprisingly, there has until now been no comprehensive guide to their history. Sheila Unwin has filled this lacuna with her authoritative account, based on many years of travel and research, of how decorated wooden chests fitted into the centuries-old trade patterns of the Indian Ocean, which were determined largely by the monsoon winds and the eponymous trade winds.

It is a complicated story. Countless different cultural influences are reflected in the design of these chests. They range from the artistic (affecting the intricate, stylised design of the brass-work depicting rose-water shakers and many other motifs) to the practical (e.g. the use to which the chest would be put, with internal "tills" for the goldsmiths and pearl-merchants to store their wares, and sometimes secret compartments for hiding money or jewellery). Influences have been detected from as far away as China and the Netherlands. Then there was the problem of the availability of suitable wood, not to be found in the Arabian deserts. Many chests are made of teak, for durability; others are of shisham, rosewood, or other hardwoods, mostly from the Indian Subcontinent. The geographical spread of the chests is even more surprising. Although their origins lay in the west coast of the Subcontinent, Persia and the Gulf, they soon spread far and wide as trade items, from Indonesia to East Africa, even to China. The hardware (hinges, hasps, handles, brass-headed nails, sheet brass) gives valuable clues to provenance, a good deal of it being traceable to the Bombay area. The annexes contain valuable tips on how to repair and maintain your chest.

But you do not need to be a proud chest-owner to enjoy this short, clear, colourful book. It is a well-told history of these practical but carefully decorated domestic objects, which provides an insight into a whole way of life, now dying if not dead, of dhowborne trade in the India Ocean, and of the many different communities in South Asia, the Gulf and Africa which this served. The illustrations are stunning. They range from fine examples of the three main varieties of chest and their sub-sets, to some of the places which gave rise to the trade, from fifteenth-century Portuguese fortresses in India and East Africa, to a house on the Makran coast of Pakistan with chests still in use.

How the author (who spent years in Tanganyika married to a Colonial Service District Officer/Commissioner) became interested in the subject in the first place - and then spent years unravelling its secrets - is itself an epic. She tells it with humour and affection for the many interesting people she met along the way. There follows a fascinating explanation, helped by three first-rate maps, of the historical background to the surge in popularity of the "Arab chest" throughout the Indian Ocean region. The last two parts of the book describe the chests themselves and speculate about their age and origins.

"Speculate" because it is still often impossible to be certain about how old an "Arab chest" really is, where exactly it was made, or what was its history thereafter. Many different workshops along the Malabar, Bombay, Gujerat, Kutch, Makran, Shirazi, Kuwaiti, Batinah, Omani and East African coasts, were involved. Countless different artisans made them according to their own tastes and those of their customers. The Arab Chest brings the stories of these objects vividly alive and puts them in historical context.

British Empire Book
Sheila Unwin
Arabian Publishing Ltd
978 095 44792 6 8