In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Horn of Africa and South Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Historiography
  • Archaeology
  • Dispersals of Plants and Animals
  • Travelers’ Narratives
  • The Red Sea and Its Littoral
  • Trade Pre-1947
  • Overview
  • Items of Trade
  • Religion and Trade
  • Traders
  • Slavery
  • Indians of African Descent
  • Overview
  • Ethnography
  • Malik Ambar
  • Janjira
  • Influences on Material Culture
  • Overview
  • Paintings and Textiles
  • Architecture
  • Pre-1947 Political Relations
  • India’s Armies in the Horn of Africa
  • Post-1947 Relations

African Studies Horn of Africa and South Asia
Andrew Mickleburgh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0222


The Horn of Africa and South Asia have shared a vibrant, multidimensional relationship since ancient times. A number of factors enabled this relationship, including: the Indian Ocean monsoons; the location of coastal northeast Africa on trade routes between India, Egypt, and the Mediterranean; and a complementarity of resources and economic needs and wants. The Indian Ocean World (IOW) has been described as the first global economy. Trade also played roles in the spread of plants, animals, and religious and other cultural beliefs and practices across the IOW. For these and other reasons, it is surprising that the IOW has only been a frame for research and an object of study in its own right for a few decades. The dual status of the Horn of Africa as a component of both the African and IOW makes it a contact zone par excellence. It also provides fertile opportunities to advance understanding of the historiography of oceans, islands, port towns, and hinterlands. Many important lessons learned from scholarly study of relations between the Horn of Africa and South Asia have wider applicability, such as the need for new ways of thinking to tackle biases apparent in area studies, and ubiquitous Eurocentrism. Recent investigations have begun to address the neglected history and agency of indigenous communities and endogenous historical processes, such as the importance of short trading journeys by multitudes of local entrepreneurs, and the diverse histories of Sidis—Indians of African descent. Sidi studies continues to shed new and valuable insights into many other matters, including slavery, diaspora, and identity. The Portuguese intensified ties between Ethiopia and India. Portuguese colonies in Goa, Daman, and Diu became bases for Portuguese relations with Ethiopia. Although the Portuguese interlude in Ethiopia was relatively short, its legacy included Indian influences on material culture, including religious painting and architecture. Small numbers of Europeans visited the interior of the Horn of Africa over the next two and a half centuries, but Indian traders mostly conducted their business from Red Sea and Indian Ocean ports. Following the opening of Anglo-Ethiopian relations in 1897, Indian merchants ventured into the interior. Indian craftsmen were also to leave their mark. Most Indians left Ethiopia during the Italian Occupation between 1935 to 1941. Postwar, Emperor Haile Selassie focused on reconstruction and reform, which included recruiting large numbers of Indian school teachers. A new generation of Indian entrepreneurs also arrived. Following partition, India–Africa relations initially focused on political solidarities. With the beginning of economic liberalization in India in 1991, economic relations were foregrounded, with India becoming a significant trade and investment partner.

General Overview

Bausi and Uhlig 2014 provides unrivaled access to state-of-the-art information, presented in a very readable manner by leading subject specialists. Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972 is still one of the most accessible introductions to Ethiopian historiography and Ethiopian inscriptions, manuscripts, and other sources. The companion volumes Pankhurst 1961 and Pankhurst 1968, by the preeminent scholar of Ethiopian history, remain the most comprehensive and clearest account of the resources, trade, economic conditions, and social and political history of Ethiopia and its interactions with the wider world. Together, though adopting very different approaches, Campbell 2019 and Alpers 2014 provide an invaluable introduction to and overview of the IOW. Although Panikkar 1945 asserted that ability to rule India always rested with those controlling the adjacent seas, scholarly research has thus far not sufficiently examined why the political elites of India chose not to become significant naval powers. Chatterji 1968 is an early attempt to chronicle some of the specific connections between India and Ethiopia, providing useful signposting to matters requiring further exploration.

  • Alpers, Edward A. The Indian Ocean in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    One of the many strengths of this concise but thorough book is its adept use of snippets to capture voices of ordinary people who lived in or passed through the Indian Ocean and its littoral, a world within a world that is shown to be connected to and helps frame larger themes of world history.

  • Bausi, Alessandro, and Siegbert Uhlig, eds. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. 5 vols. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014.

    The most comprehensive reference work for the Horn of Africa. More than 5,000 entries, mostly spanning from prehistory to 1974. Encompasses the entire Horn of Africa and its historical partners and adversaries.

  • Campbell, Gwyn. Africa and the Indian Ocean World from Early Times to circa 1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781139028769

    By foregrounding human–environment interactions as the central dynamic in IOW history, Campbell challenges paradigms that present humans alone as the catalyst of historical change. Eurocentric perspectives, including temporal and spatial paradigms, are also confronted, documenting African agency and contributions to the wider IOW before and after the arrival of Europeans.

  • Chatterji, Suniti Kumar. India and Ethiopia from the Seventh Century BC. Asiatic Society Monograph Series XV. Calcutta: Asiatic Society, 1968.

    This slim, eclectic volume provides a whistle-stop tour of interactions between India and Ethiopia. Incudes suggestions of Indian influences on Ethiopian linguistics and art, but dismisses propositions of Indian influence on Ethiopia’s rock churches; and a section on Africans in India. Surprisingly, it contains only fleeting references to trade and traders.

  • Panikkar, Kavalam M. India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1945.

    Includes much interesting detail from 1500 BCE onward, such as the navigational achievements of Indians and Arabs; and argument that Indian rulers did not recognize the importance of the Indian Ocean until it was too late to prevent European powers from taking control. (Second ed. 1951.)

  • Pankhurst, Richard K. An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia from Early Times to 1800. London: Lalibela House, 1961.

    Spanning four millennia to 1800 CE, this meticulously researched and very readable volume, together with Pankhurst 1968, provides an unrivaled survey of Ethiopian life and history needed to understand that region’s interactions with the wider world. Includes much useful discussion relating to India and Indians, and a substantial appendix titled “The Habshis of India.”

  • Pankhurst, Richard K. Economic History of Ethiopia: 1800–1935. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Haile Sellassie I University Press, 1968.

    This companion volume to Pankhurst 1961 examines the period from the end of the 19th century to the Italian Occupation, providing invaluable contextual and specific detail. Although overall fewer in number than in the earlier volume, the references to India and Indians are useful, particularly in the chapter titled “Trade,” and when discussing the roles of foreigners and growth of towns in Ethiopia.

  • Sergew Hable Sellassie. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: United Printers, 1972.

    Draws on an extensive literature, in many languages, to narrate chronologically Ethiopian history up to the restoration of the Solomonic Dynasty, which helps to situate discussions about early contacts between the Horn of Africa, Middle East and South Asia.

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