The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Master shipbuilder who impressed the world

Under normal circumstances the death of Assad Abdullah al-Madani this month (May) would have passed little noticed outside Pagerungan Kecil, a flat 5.6 square kilometer island north of Bali and east of Madura.

Governments tend to officially recognize the rich, powerful and famous, often overlooking the talented and creative little folk.

Yet it’s these unsung, ordinary achievers going about their lives quietly and competently who give the nation its great strength, rather than the strutting generals, preening politicians and ephemeral pop stars.

This obituary would not have been written had two foreigners not met Assad in late 2002 when the traditional boat builder was about 68, though “still robust, big-bodied, sharp-minded and commanding respect,” according to marine archaeologist Nick Burningham.

He now lives in Western Australia, but had been in and around Indonesia for many years, generally messing about in boats.

The other outsider at the meeting was Philip Beale, a cashed-up Englishman who’d become obsessed with the flaking carvings of ships that he’d seen on the Borobudur temple terraces in 1982.

The carvings had been made a thousand years or more earlier. Beale was captivated by the idea that the masons had depicted ships that may have sailed southwest from Indonesia taking spices to Madagascar and Africa. He resolved to replicate the craft and sail what came to be called the Cinnamon Route.

Beale wasn’t able to realise his dream for another 20 years when he commissioned Burningham to help build a replica.

But who to carry out such a formidable task? Was there anyone still alive with the skills to translate the ancient carvings into a real ship?

After some disappointing leads the two men met Assad who agreed to complete the ship in four months. He’d already built more than 40 big boats and had a substantial local reputation.

Assad’s ancestors probably came from the Gulf of Aden in the late 19th century as Muslim Hadhrami missionaries to Sulawesi. The family settled on the then empty and almost barren island before the Second World War and struggled to survive.

Assad told Burningham that during the occupation there was no rice on the island and people could be beaten to death by the Japanese just for bringing coffee from Java. The family planted coconuts. Assad married Fatmah and became a supercargo on a 30-ton trader, then a boat builder. The family prospered and the island population grew. It now supports more than 1,000 families.

But could a man with just basic education re-create a ship he’d never seen? Burningham built a model. “Assad and Abdul (the head shipwright) looked at the model very rarely, but they had absorbed the design and shape, and built as accurately as if they’d been taking measurements from a set of drawings every day,” said Burningham.

“The only deviations from the design were to make the finished ship more attractive and neater on construction.

“Working with him was easy and pleasant – none of the usual frustrations or misunderstandings – no attempts to introduce sub-standard materials when I wasn’t looking.

“Longitudinal symmetry was scrupulously avoided because of the philosophy that Assad called ganjil. If there was symmetry there would be a kind of perfection and wholeness, so the ship would be content in itself and would have nothing to seek – it would not be eager to find friends, cargo, income, fish, new lands or anything else.

“Assad’s role was also imbuing and amplifying semangat, the life force in the developing hull.

“A good master-shipwright is believed to have the mental strength, focus and consistency to influence in a beneficial way the developing character of the boat. And character is destiny.

“He was confident that he could have the ship built better than anyone else – and he was right.”

The 19 meter long, 4.25-meter wide boat was built by 26 barefoot men using basic tools like adzes. The timber was sourced locally and from Papua. A hand auger bored through the keel for the ship’s navel, and the shavings were given to Assad and Beale.

The wood from the hole represented the placenta and would help the ship know where it belonged.

The ship cost Rp 250 million (US 24,000) and was launched in 2003 in an emotional atmosphere. “It is widely believed in Indonesia that mental concentration is important in ceremonies which contribute to the life-energy of a ship,” said Burningham. “She rode the water proud as a lion.”

A month later at a major event graced by the then president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, the expedition led by Beale set off into the Indian Ocean.

Named Samudraraksa (guardian of the sea) the ship successfully sailed to West Africa with a multi-national crew of 15. This became an international event stirring Indonesian pride, adding to the belief that people from the archipelago had been pioneer global traders, selling spices in Africa and returning with iron tools, and maybe even slaves, long before Europeans started exploring the world.

Assad’s masterpiece is now in a museum in the Borobudur complex, close to the carvings that inspired its construction. Beale, who was given an award by the Indonesian government for his services to culture, is at sea with the Phoenician Ship Expedition. This will try to recreate the first circumnavigation of Africa in 600 BC.

Assad lived to see the triumph of his skills on display and died on 3 May from a stomach disorder. His eldest son Rauf, 43, is continuing dad’s work as a shipbuilder though using woodworking machines. One of his grandchildren, Azmi, is studying English at a university in Malang, East Java, so he can market the boats overseas.

Rauf said he had a moral responsibility to continue his father’s work, though the economic crisis had hit orders.

“My father was a hard worker and persistent,” he said. “He was also friendly, humorous and patient. Since he was seven years old he was clever at drawing and making toy boats.

“Apparently he got this talent from his father. At the beginning it was only a hobby, but he was motivated to help fishermen by building boats that made it easy to catch fish. His philosophy was to build quality craft and on-time.”

Said Burningham: “Assad was a great craftsman who combined an aesthetic and sculptural genius for traditional ship building with integrity and can-do management. The world is diminished by his passing.”

(With additional reporting by Arnold Metekohy)

(First published in The Jakarta Post 22 May 09)