JAKARTA, 15 September 2003 — Somewhere out on the Indian Ocean, between the Cocos and Seychelles islands, an odd-looking outrigger vessel is retracing the ancient “cinnamon route” from Indonesia to East Africa, first navigated by Indonesian seafarers more than a millennium ago.
The Borobudur Ship — a 25 meter-long wooden ship modeled after wall reliefs found on the 8th century Borobudur temple in Central Java - set sail on Aug. 15 from Ancol pier in Jakarta, catching the Southeast Asian trade winds for a 4,000 mile sail to Madagascar, an island situated about 250 miles off East Africa.
Ten days into the expedition the boat was still afloat, according to its website.
“The major event on board has been the clearing out of most of the vegetables which are going off after 10 days,” said expedition leader Philip Beale, in an e-mail message sent on Aug. 25.
“Fortunately we have over 350 kilograms of rice and 1,200 boxes of noodles and some 3,500 liters of water, so we won’t go short of food anytime soon, even if it is not as interesting as we have had until now,” he added.
Computer access to the Internet, along with a satellite phone, radar and refrigeration, are some of the few modern nautical conveniences aboard the Borobudur, which otherwise has attempted to copy the sort of ship believed to have been state-of-the-art in Java about a century ago.
The boat, designed by Australian Nick Burningham - an expert on Indonesian traditional vessels - and built by Indonesian craftsmen on the island of Pagerungan Kecil, north of Bali, was modeled after five wall reliefs found on the Borobudur temple in Central Java.
Burningham and three of the Pagerungan boat builders are among the 16-person (including three women) crew. The Borobudur ship was built completely of wood, with two massive rudders for steering, small square sails and two giant bamboo outriggers on either side - normally a feature on much smaller Indonesian vessels.
The reliefs on Borobudur, a towering Buddhist complex near Yogyakarta built when many Hindus lived in Java, are famous for their depictions of not only such themes but also of everyday life.
Beale, a former member of the British Royal Navy, became interested in building a replica of a first millennium Indonesian ship when he saw the reliefs while visiting the area in 1982.
“When I saw it I made a promise I would have a replica made and sail it to Africa,” said Beale. “I’ve been talking about it ever since, and then a year ago I said either you do it or you don’t.”
In a remarkably short time Beale turned his dream into a reality. The boat was constructed between January and May this year, and Beale had won enough support from the Indonesian government and sponsors to launch his expedition by August at an estimated cost of $350,000.
There is no evidence that the type of ship depicted at Borobudur is the kind that traveled between Indonesia and Madagascar in the first millennium. There is, however, plenty of historic evidence that some sort of Indonesian vessel made the journey.
Indonesia, formerly known as the “Spice Islands” for its nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and pepper that attracted first Portuguese and then Dutch and British merchants to the archipelago more than 500 years ago, has its own history of seafaring and even colonizing distant shores.
Madagascar was first colonized by people from Indonesia, India and Africa about 2,000 years ago.
Evidence that Indonesians, or Austronesians, were among Madagascar’s first settlers include DNA tests and the Malagasy language, which is closest to Ma’anyan, the language of Kalimantan, Indonesia. Madagascar is also rich in crops that are indigenous to Southeast Asia, such as rice and cloves.
But how Indonesians managed to make a 4,000-mile journey to Madagascar long before European ships had rounded the Cape of Good Hope remains shrouded in mystery. However, there are clues.
“The Roman scholar Pliny (the Younger) said that cinnamon came in vast rafts across the perilous seas to the shores of East Africa, and was traded up through Ethiopia and through the marshes to the Mediterranean and Rome,” said Beale.
“At the beginning they were just rafts, but later they may have improved their shipping, and the Borobudur type of ship would have been one of the more sophisticated models toward the end of the period,” he speculated.
After reaching Madagascar, hopefully sometime in October, the Borobudur ship expedition intends to sail round the Cape of Good Hope, just to show it was possible in such a vessel even if it never happened.
“This is a voyage of celebration of the achievements of the Indonesians,” said Beale. “We’re not particularly trying to prove anything new.”