Indonesia and Africa: questioning the origins of some of Africa’s most famous icons

07 January 2011

In the author’s opinion there have been three far-reaching gaps in the study of Africa’s history: 1) Indonesian involvement in East and Central Africa; 2) Links between Madagascar and Eastern and South/Central Africa; and 3) Extension of Indonesian interest to West Africa, particularly Nigeria. He contends that Indonesians (the term applies to ‘Insular Southeast Asians’) may have begun regular trading to Africa when Greek and Roman demand for oriental spices developed several centuries BCE. The East African ‘Zanj’ were, in his view, an Afro/Indonesian race linked with the people of ‘Zabag’ - Sumatra and Java – later with Srivijaya in particular, whose interest in the gold, copper, iron and other products of Africa were extensive. Madagascar was only ever of secondary importance to Indonesians compared with mineral-rich Africa. But for centuries the Austronesian-speaking, Afro-Indonesian people of Madagascar maintained regular contact with the mainland giving rise to mixed societies, particularly in the Mozambique-Zimbabwe region. He believes the ancient Zimbabwe culture was in several ways linked with that of Madagascar, and that the vast ruin area of Nyanga was also connected. These cross-channel associations were gradually eclipsed by the domination of Arab-Shirazi colonisation down the East African Coast. There is a wealth of evidence that Indonesians rounded the Cape and sailed to West Africa. Several elements of Nigerian culture generally attributed to East-West overland movements or trans-Saharan Arab traders, are more likely to have reached the lower Niger regions by sea from Indonesia. Among these was the technology enabling the iconic ‘bronze’ artwork for which Nigeria is famous.