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

The historical relations between Indonesia and Africa are rich and complex, with interactions spanning centuries. These interactions have been characterized by trade, cultural exchange, and mutual influence across vast distances. One particularly noteworthy aspect of this historical relationship is explored in the work “Indonesia and Africa: questioning the origins of some of Africa’s most famous icons” by Robert Dick-Read (2006). Dick-Read delves into the often-overlooked historical connections between Indonesia (referred to in the broader sense of ‘Insular Southeast Asians’) and Africa, particularly in regions such as East and Central Africa, Madagascar, and extending to West Africa.

Key Points from the Study

  1. Trading Relations and Cultural Exchanges: The paper suggests that Indonesians may have started regular trading with Africa several centuries BCE, driven by Greek and Roman demand for oriental spices. This trade was not just about commodities but also facilitated cultural and genetic exchanges between the peoples of Indonesia and Africa.
  2. The Afro/Indonesian Connection: The author proposes that the East African ‘Zanj’ were an Afro/Indonesian race, linked with the people of ‘Zabag’—an ancient name possibly referring to Sumatra and Java. This connection is seen as part of a broader network that included Srivijaya, a powerful maritime kingdom in Sumatra, which had extensive interests in Africa’s gold, copper, iron, and other products.
  3. Madagascar and the Mozambique-Zimbabwe Region: Madagascar’s importance to Indonesians, according to Dick-Read, was secondary compared to the African mainland. However, for centuries, Austronesian-speaking, Afro-Indonesian people of Madagascar maintained regular contact with the mainland, giving rise to mixed societies, particularly in the Mozambique-Zimbabwe region. The paper suggests that the ancient Zimbabwe culture and the vast ruin area of Nyanga had connections with Madagascar, mediated by these Afro-Indonesian peoples.
  4. Impact on Nigerian Culture: There is evidence that Indonesians rounded the Cape and sailed to West Africa, impacting Nigerian culture in ways previously attributed to East-West overland movements or trans-Saharan Arab traders. For example, the technology enabling Nigeria’s iconic ‘bronze’ artwork may have originated from Indonesia, reaching the lower Niger regions by sea.


Dick-Read’s work highlights the significant, yet underappreciated, historical relations between Indonesia and Africa. It points to a shared history that extends beyond mere trade, encompassing cultural, technological, and genetic exchanges. These insights challenge conventional narratives of global history, underscoring the importance of maritime connections in shaping the world’s cultural landscapes.

For more in-depth exploration of these historical connections and their implications for understanding Africa’s and Indonesia’s past, the article provides a rich resource: Indonesia and Africa: questioning the origins of some of Africa’s most famous icons.

This study underscores the complex web of interactions that have historically connected different parts of the world, reminding us of the interconnectedness of human societies across continents.