The “Jábega” from Málaga

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A brief historial approach

By Francisco Texeira

Nowadays there are diverse shallow-draft fishing boats which share not only an etymological origin, but also a common history: the jábega, in Malaga (southern Spain); the xabec (very similar to “the catalan”), in the Balearic Islands; the sciabecco, in the south of Italy, and the sambuk, in the Red Sea.

But before entering the history of the jábega, let’s see and compare some details of these boats.

Xabeq from Menorca isle, made by the author.
Xabeq from Menorca isle, made by the author.
The Xabec is a coastal boat used both for trawling and inshore fishing. Although it used to have a mast with a latin sail tied to the boom in the prow, oars were also used.
Old photograph of a Xabec sailing off the coasts of Menorca.
Old photograph of a Xabec sailing off the coasts of Menorca.
Italian Sciabecco
Italian Sciabecco

The Italian Sciabecco was a boat with three masts, which was used to fish using the sciàbbeca -Italian word for a net that once thrown into the sea could be picked up from the seashore by the fishermen or with another boat.

The entrances in the Italian etymological dictionary say:

  • sciàbbeca – sciabica: a type of net, from arabic “sabaka”: grossa rete da pesca (strong fishing net). (Nigro, 388) [1]
  • sciabbécco – grossa barca che trascina la sciabica (ship used to fish with the sciabica); spanish: jabeque; arabic: sabak (net) (Belot 357; Nigro, 388)
Sambuk. Model ship built by Rubén Ebani.
Sambuk. Model ship built by Rubén Ebani.

The Sambuk is a fishing boat which can only be found in the Red Sea. Its origin is in Aden, in the south of the Arabic peninsula.

Its prow remembers the leaf of a scimitar (short saber used by the Turks and the Persians), whereas the stern is flat and straight. With an average length of 25 meters, it was used for the transport of people and merchandise by the coasts of Suez and Somalia.

This ship is the origin of the Italian “sambuchi”, and its name, according to some sources, comes from Arabic “sa(m)bak” (= quick). [2]

Jábega in Málaga
Jábega in Málaga

The Jábega is the most symbolic fishing in Malaga. With an average length of 6 meters and one beam of 1.80, the design of its bow and its shallow draft make it a very fast boat. It could carry eight rowers, plus a helmsman with a special oar to guide it (“espailla” in colloquial fishermen slang), because it lacks a rudder.


One end of the fishing net was left on the shore while the boat went away drawing a semicircle to get back to land with the other end, at a distance some 100 meters.

Once on land, the fishermen started to pick up the network, either by hand or with the help of a “traya” (belt that was hung on the chest, with a chain finished off by a piece of cork or wood to ease the dragging of the net). This operation was repeated early in the morning several times.

Jábegas with masts and latin sails.
Jábegas with masts and latin sails.

Until the beginning of century XX, the jábega used to have an inclined folding mast, with a latin sail, similar to the one of the xabec or the sambuco. For decades, its use in the coast of Malaga was frequent, although today there are regrettably very few left.

In this photograph from the 1920s, we can see “sardinales” or “faluchos”, that were used to fish sardine using special nets which were launched into the waters from the boats.

Next to them, in the sand, some fishermen repair their nets.

Jábega in the seashore, while the fishermen pick up the nets.
Jábega in the seashore, while the fishermen pick up the nets.

Appart from the oars and the “iron” (anchor), the jábega has other characteristic elements: the hanger or pole, a long wood stick with a metallic end that helped to ensure the boat when it was very near the shore, were the waves break; the “maniquetas”, four wood sticks attached on the prow used to tie the anchor, which was never thown from the stern.

The typical bow of the Jábega.
The typical bow of the Jábega.

But if there is something characteristic (and unique?) in the jábega, it is its bow. It has a frontal closing strongly fit to the stem, with two lateral reinforcements and a board in the form of an “S”, as a “figurehead”. A Jábega from the 1920s, with a decorated bow and the characteristic eyes in prow.

Some sources claim that this special bow comes from an ancient bowsprit, that might be used to tie the end of a latin sail.

There are engravings and old photographs like these, taken in the late 1920s and early 1930s, in which we can see jabegas on the seashore or sailing off Malaga bay [3].

Boat racing inside Malaga seaport, July 2004
Boat racing inside Malaga seaport, July 2004
Sailing in the seaport. At the back, the “Farola”, popular name for the lighthose of Malaga.
Sailing in the seaport. At the back, the “Farola”, popular name for the lighthose of Malaga.
These two images were taken on the occasion of the celebration of the Virgin of Carmen, but a hundred years later.

According to the Dictionary of the Spanish Real Academy of Language, the jábega is a net that is one hundred fathoms long and has an inner closed end (“copo”, in Spanish) and two bands, from which it is thrown from earth by means of very long ends. One second meaning explains that the jábega is a boat similar to the jabeque, but smaller, used to fish.

Etymologically, the word jábega comes from the Arabic “šábaka”, (`red’), and this one ftom “šábak” (‘tie’, ‘bind’). From these terms derived the word “jabeque”, meaning ‘type of coastal boat’. [4].

In the 13th century, ordinary Arabic used the word “šebbek” to reffer to shallow-draft vessels used for fishing with a net. Eight centuries of Muslim domination of the Iberian Peninsula made the rest. Today, in the Mediterranean coast of Almeria, to fish to jabeque, is to do it using a net that is dragged from the shore.

Algerian Jabeque
Algerian Jabeque

It is clear then that at least these four boats have a common etymological origin, but is also certain that they share a unique predecessor: the jabeque.

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries , Algerian and Tunisian pirates used to make frequent incursions into the Spanish coasts of the Mediterranean, sometimes in France and Sicily, seeding the terror between the coastal populations. Their strategy was to get near the coast with a small fleet, from 6 to 20 jabeques, and disembark near a defenseless port, to occupy and sack it, and then they sailed away quickly, before the fleets of galeras used for the coastal protection could intercept them.

Initially, the Berber jabeque (from the north of Africa), was piloted using both oars and sails, although they preferred the sails, and used the oars only for maneuvers inside the port or in case of calm, flat sea. At the end of 17th century, the pirates modified the structure of the jabeque suppressing to the oars and building ships with a long-shaped hulk, easy to maneuver, with three masts that could take both latin or triangular sails. Most surprising was that the pawl mast was leaning forwards. This design of the jabeque’s prow might be, as I said above, the origin of the characteristic prow of the jábega, which, although it no longer uses sails, it did until the beginning of the 20th century.

Model of jabeque constructed by Philippos Kyriakopoulos -
Model of jabeque constructed by Philippos Kyriakopoulos –

During the 18th century, the jabeque was one of the ships that sailed along and across the Mediterranean. The definite design derived from the ship used by the pirates and was similar to the “falúa” (ships used for fishing in the Messina Straits, Sicily, some Greek islands, and, in the shape of a boat, along the Nile, in Egypt). The jabeque used to have three masts for latin sails, although it could also use oars. It is classified as a “gondola-type” ship because of its pointed and up-raised prow and stern.

It is not strange that ship-builders who made coastal fishing boats wanted to copy the shape and characteristics of the majors ships that arrived in their coasts, especially if they were fast.

Curiously, nowadays the stem of the xabeq (in the Balearic isles) does not reproduce the characteristic pointed prow of the jabeque, while the jábega does. The xabeq has a straight and totally vertical prow that reminds of the dghajsas, traditional boat from the isle of Malt, which belongs to the “gondola” type. It is normal to see how two fishing boats used in some Mediterranean islands share a common prow, but, at the same time, it is quite peculiar that the prow of the sambuco (in Italy, Turkey and the gulf of Arabia) is the same that the one used in the Atlantic ocean by the moliceiros from Averiro, Portugal, with its prow curved upwards in the shape of a scimitar. No doubt there is a connection between all these fishing boats.

The jabega's prow: A line drawn in the stem and two eyes, on both sides, with some religious paintings.
The jabega’s prow: A line drawn in the stem and two eyes, on both sides, with some religious paintings.
Of all the decorative elements shared by the boats of the jabega family, perhaps the most outstanding ones are the drawings with strong colours and the presence of eyes on the prow.
Decoration: suns and moons, carnations, the symbol of the Virgin of Carmel, and the name of the village, Rincón de la Victoria (Malaga).
Decoration: suns and moons, carnations, the symbol of the Virgin of Carmel, and the name of the village, Rincón de la Victoria (Malaga).

Concerning the colours, the xabec is usually painted totally white, with varnished covers, whereas the jábega has long lines painted in strong colors (red, blue, green…). When the jabega is going to be used on special occasions, it is decorated with flowers (mainly carnations), geometric shapes (circles -suns?- and moons) and even religious icons (like the Virgin of Carmel).

In the south of Italy, fishermen also decorate their boats with very showy colours, but no doubt the most attactive are those of the Maltese dghajsas, whose decoration look like the moliceiros’s boats from Aveiro (Portugal). [5] and [6]

Maltese Dghajsa
Maltese Dghajsa
Portuguese Moliceiro
Portuguese Moliceiro

The presence of eyes on both sides of the prow needs an explanation. In ancient times, the symbol of the Eyes of the Horus, the oldest and possibly the purest of all medical symbols, was painted in the prows of the boats, it could be seen in protective amulets and talismans, and was very important in the decoration of the Egyptian coffins of mummies. Legends say that the eyes of Osiris were painted by the Egyptians in their sailing boats of the Nile, like a talisman, to protect the navigators. [7]

Nowadays, you can see eyes painted in the prows of smaller fishing boats all through the Mediterranean (Malt, Italy, Turkey, north of Africa, Spain…) and, surprisingly, in the Atlantic coast of Portugal.

In the Middle Ages, the symbol of the eye was believed to stop the effects of witchcraft, with extreme effectiveness. For centuries, painting eyes in the prow of boats has also been a way of giving them “life”. The boat was not only a fishing tool or a means of transport, but a “living” being that sailed the seas guided by men.

Which is the relation between all these boats? Why have some of them the same design? How is it possible that boats from distant villages are decorated in the same way? All sources seem to point to a common answer: the Phoenicians.

It was around 5,000 or 4,000 BC when a group of semitic men from Cannan, coming from the Persian gulf, settled down in the coast of present Lebanon and Syria. Its territory was a weak isolated coastal strip of the continent next to a mountain range, with mountains covered with thick cedars forests. That’s what the Phoenicians needed to build their excellent ships and also to provide high quality wood to Egypt’s pharaoh. According to Herodoto, the Phoenicians were a people who had been “lead to the sea because of their geography”. [8]

Drawing of a Phoenician ship
Drawing of a Phoenician ship

The Phoenician expansion did not have a political reason, they did not want to conquer territories. The Phoenicians just settled down commercial “factories”. They crossed the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea, the coasts of England and they even circumnavigated Africa (although this last destination has been put in doubt by some historians, it has been proved that the Phoenicians explored the western African coast and all the Mediterranean).

That’s why talking about the Phoenicians means talking about expert sailors. Among the most important contributions this people offered to the world of sailing, we can find the bireme. The bireme was the boat that allowed the Phoenicians to cross long distances, it had a double row of oars and a fixed square sail that was very useful when favorable winds blew. In the 7th century BC, the Corinthian shipbuilder Aminoklis built the first “trireme” (= three rows of oars).

Reconstruction of an ancient “trireme”, of the Greek Navy, and scale model in which you can see the defensive spur and the eyes in prow. (more details in

In these boats, the stern was similar to the one of the commercial boats, but the prow was quite different, since it was the most important part of the boat and the offensive weapon during battles. It was at the end of the prow where the spur was placed, it was a bronze hard end that was used to destroy the flanks of the opposing boats. To the sides of the prow the typical eyes, upon which they placed holes for the anchor’s cables. [9]

I certainly agree that the jábega from Malaga (like many the other boats) has a Phoenician origin, and has received along centuries elements coming from the peoples that have sailed the Mediterranean. Definite signs of her origin are: the long “fallen mast” or spur in the prow, the presence of eyes, and the special characteristics (low-depth and width) that make her a very quick boat.

At present, jabegas are only used for rowing races in some Malaga coastal villages. [10]

We hope the jábega will not suffer the same fate as the Phoenician civilization, although if things go on the way they go…
who knows!




[3] (c) old photos: private collection of Jose Perez Murillas (1862-1939). Catalogue of the exhibition “An unpublished vision of Malaga during the 1920s and 1930s”, published by Area de Cultura, Malaga City Council; and Collection of Obra Sociocultural Unicaja.

[4] Corominas, J. Etymological Dictionary of the Spanish Language, Gredos, Madrid, 1980




[8] the Phoenicians, Vols I, II. Origins of men, de. Folio. Barcelona, 1995

[9] and


[11] Information and images of Greek and Phoenician boats: (John Pantakis & Phillippos Kyriakopoulos)


[*] Paco Lopez, El Palo, Malaga, for his wonderful contribution on the names of the parts of the jábega.

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