Africa's Vikings: The Indonesians
Rory Carroll , writing for the Guardian (Jan. 12, 2004)
They were Africa's Vikings. Tough, daring voyagers who sailed thousands of miles to pluck riches from unmapped lands known today as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa and Nigeria.
Centuries before Europeans, mariners from Indonesia raided and traded across the continent, filling their vessels with gold and silver for the princes of Java and Sumatra.
In return they gave Africa the secrets of iron and bronze, exotic plants such as banana and yams, and a new culture enriched with music, architecture and spirituality.
And then the seafarers vanished. Some died, some returned home, others inter-married with the locals. So absorbed was the Asian influence that by the time the white man came he never noticed it.
So says a controversial new theory about Africa's development more than 2,000 years ago which could revive a racially tinged debate about whether outsiders fathered certain advances in technology, agriculture and art.
The researcher making these claims is no professional historian. Robert Dick-Read never finished university and has no academic qualifications.
But his self-confessed"obsession" with Indonesia's influence has fuelled more than 50 years' lonely slog collecting evidence which has been turned into a manuscript which will, he hopes, prove his case.
Some experts have rubbished Mr Dick-Read as misguided, but others say the"Indonesia Jones" thesis is plausible.
An unrelated attempt to demonstrate that mariners from south Asia could have reached west Africa is halfway to success: an expedition which reconstructed a ship illustrated in the reliefs of an 8th century Buddhist temple in Java has crossed the Indian Ocean and reached South Africa, destination Ghana.
After stopping in Cape Town last week the 15-strong crew will resume the voyage today, said Mujoko, an Indonesian crew member."We believe our ancestors came here. When we finish I think historians will appreciate that this voyage would have been possible."
It is generally agreed that approximately 1,500 years ago sailors from Indonesia and Malaysia, famed navigators who roved the Pacific, also sailed 3,700 miles west and settled Madagascar, a vast island off Mozambique.
It might be expected that they also explored the African mainland, just 150 miles further away, but unlike Madagascar there is little evidence: people on the continent do not resemble or talk like Indonesians.
Historians have noted fragments of Asian influence across Africa - plants, craftwork, instruments - but largely rejected the notion that it came via fleets of Indonesian double-outrigger canoes.
Inspired by a 1959 seminar at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, Mr Dick-Read, 73, has spent decades travelling the continent bolting those fragments into a radical theory of"Africa's vikings" which he hopes to publish this year.
Indonesian spices such as cassia and cinnamon which ancient Rome imported came not via India but east Africa after an epic sea voyage, he says, which would also explain how early iron age pottery spread so quickly in the first and second century AD down the coast from Kenya all the way to South Africa.
Plants such as banana, plantain and yam are widely believed to have originated in Indonesia and Mr Dick-Read cites oral and written accounts of rituals related to the food which suggest they reached west Africa too early for overland travellers.
Mr Dick-Read says pottery and bronze sculptures found in Nigeria also came from seafarers since they were too far from Saharan trade routes and too sophisticated for indigenous artwork of that time.
Sir Mervyn Brown, Britain's former ambassador to Madagascar and a historian of the region, found Mr Dick-Read's conclusions"generally plausible" and urged fresh research.
"Dick-Read has not provided any great new revelations in this area but has produced more detailed supporting evidence," he said."The influence in west Africa is not generally known, even among academics."
Other historians disagree. Robert Soper, an authority on east Africa, said there was no known evidence from artefacts, for example, of Indonesians spreading the iron age down the coast.
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