PM Modi has touched down at the Mozambique airport, kickstarting his four-nation tour of the African continent. In the next five days, as he visits South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya, the agenda on his mind would be to enhance trade and maritime cooperation along with increasing collaboration in matters of energy and food security.
As Modi initiates India into intensifying trade relations with Africa, it would perhaps be useful to revisit a time when trade between the two regions was more developed than commercial enterprises of most contemporary global powers.
Trade relations between India and Africa can be traced back to the first century CE, when the Aksum empire had been established in what is modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Over the centuries, trade relations between india and Africa were boosted as a result of the rise of Islam and then the colonial empire. However, the importance of the Aksum empire’s trade relations with India has special significance, once we take note of the modernised system of international trade that had been established in this route, at a time when West Europe had hardly started its commercial enterprises.
The kingdom of Aksum remained in power for approximately seven centuries beginning with the start of the Christian Era. The location of the empire came with the advantage of access to the Red sea which was in the direct route linking Southern India to the Roman empire in Egypt.
The Indo-Roman trade relations had, by first century CE, developed significantly. The Roman demand for goods from Southern India ensured that a large number of ships sailed down the Red sea, from Egypt to enter the shores of India. The ancient African kingdom saw an opportune moment to make use of the trade route for augmenting its commercial appetite.
Then Adulis was the central port of the Aksum empire, located on the Red sea. It was here that goods such as silks, spices, pepper, glass, brass and copper arrived from India, Egypt and Arabia. In return, Africa provided with ivory which was available in abundance in Ethiopia and Eritrea. A 5th century record of a Greek-Byzantine ambassador in Aksum states he saw a herd of 5000 elephants in the region. Another record from the 6th century states that large elephant tusks were transported by boats to India, Persia and Romania. African ivory, gold and slaves were in huge demand in ancient India. The trading kingdom of Aksum fed this demand most efficiently.
The benefits made from this trade between ancient India and Africa at a time when international mercantile undertakings had just started establishing itself, can perhaps serve as an indicator to how much can be gained from strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries.