Indonesia and Africa – Cultural links behind the Borobudur Ship Expedition.
One of the objectives of the Borobudur Ship Expedition is to highlight the cultural influence that Indonesia and Asia contributed to the Indian Ocean and Africa during the first millennium AD. This is a complex story with many strands and differing interpretations. However, whilst there are many possible links, there are three main influences and activities that stand out.
First, it is known from Roman times, through writers such as Pliny, that Cinnamon came to Europe via East Africa by way of epic sea journeys across the Indian Ocean. To begin with these journeys were probably made by rafts and double-outrigger canoes. As the trade developed, the sophistication of the vessels would have increased over the centuries. The Borobudur Ship would have represented the one of the more sophisticated vessels, probably appearing around the second half of the first millennium AD. However there is no evidence that the Cinnamon trade was undertaken any further south than the shores of Mozambique. Whilst the Indonesian/Malays would have brought mainly spices to African shores, in return they would have returned via India and Sri Lanka with ivory, iron, skins and in some cases slaves. These perilous round-trip journeys may have taken anything up to 3 years to complete.
Secondly, and not linked to the trade in spices, there were certain very significant migrations of Indonesian peoples to Madagascar. Experts believe that Madagascar was an uninhabited island when the migrations started. It is believed that the migrations took place during and possibly before the first millennium AD. Today the Malagasy people recognise that many of their ancestors were from Indonesia (mainly Sumatra, Kalimantan and Java) and this is reflected in the Malagasy language, the physical features of many Malagasy and their traditions and customs.
Thirdly, there was widespread botanical influences on parts of Africa, including West Africa. For example the botanical influences that reached West Africa by the first millennium include yams, taro, maize, plantains (bananas), Asian rice and the betel nut. Although it is possible that the latter two spices arrived later than the first millennium . How these botanical influences got to West Africa is a matter of debate. Although it would not have been easy, it is conceivable that the botanical influences travelled overland and along rivers across a corridor of land in central Africa.
The alternative was a sea route via the Cape. Whilst this too would have been difficult it is not inconceivable that at certain times of the year such a route was possible. A further option is that such influences were a combination of local groups and seafarers.
There is certainly a growing body of opinion that the level of trade activity along African shores was much greater in the first millennium that has been accepted until now. And as more information becomes available, a better picture of trade and cultural interaction across the Indian Ocean will emerge. It is the intention of the Expedition that more details of the cultural links between Indonesia and Africa will be contained in the book to be published about the expedition.