A letter from the author of The Phantom Voyagers

Robert Dick-Read [e-mail: robert.dread@ntlworld.com]

I have received a great many emails regarding my book The Phantom Voyagers. And I am grateful to New Zimbabwe.com for bringing it to peoples' attention. But the review is not entirely accurate in one or two important respects.

It gives the impression that I have said that INDONESIANS built the Great Zimbabwe. This is not the case. In my website I say: —

It would be fair to say that without the input of Indonesians in ancient times, sub-Saharan Africa would be a very different place today. Amongst other things, one wonders, would the world have such magnificent African icons as The Great Zimbabwe or Nigeria's famous bronzes?

Nowhere in the book have I said that INDONESIANS built the Great Zimbabwe, Khami or the Nyanga mountain complex! What I have said is that, centuries ago, the Indonesian mariners who came across the Indian ocean and settled Madagascar (this is not disputed) ALSO settled in AFRICA, and that there grew up a mixed race of Africans and Indonesians — an Afro/Indonesian, or Afro/Malagasy race, if you like. For much of the 1st millennium AD, in 'pre-Swahili' times, these people, many of whom must have been fine seamen, maintained contacts between Africa and Madagascar across the Mozambique Channel . . . .until the Arab/Shirazi expansion down the coast of Africa drove a wedge between the Great Island and the Mainland communities.

There is much evidence to suggest that the people of The Great Zimbabwe — and also the people who once inhabited the Nyanja mountains — were Afro/Malagasy communities. Take one example: the religion of the Shona has much in common with that of many Malagasy people whose tromba cult also may well tell us much about the purpose and function of the many zimbabwes of Central Africa. There are many connections.

I respect Professor George Landow for his work on Dickens, Ruskin, and European arts and design; but let's face it, he is not an Africanist. Furthermore, he is not entirely right in what he says about the great archaeologist of Zimbabwe, Gertrude Caton Thompson (no hyphen). In the introduction to the 2nd edition (1971) of her "The Zimbabwe Culture" she wrote:

. . . the identity of the 'ruin-builders', and their predecessors who occupied the site, still eludes certainty. That they were African is generally agreed by qualified opinion, but evidence is confused by millennia of hybridisation and absorption, as well as by our present ignorance of the physical extent to which, in whole or part, African populations have been subject to Asiatic or other intrusions. Where the morphology leaves off genetics may take over.

Those who read my book will note that Gertrude Caton Thompson gave me great encouragement when I started studying my thesis in 1959. In a letter to me dated Aug 8th 1959 she expressed the sentiment echoed in the quotation above when she wrote: "I myself used the term 'Bantu' in 1929 with expressed reserve. My subsequent commentators exceeded my intentions in the use of the word." She went on, in the same letter:

I still believe that Zimbabwe, as an important site, was occupied by iron-age people, with a culture which developed into the full-blown Z. Culture, several centuries before the 13th Cent. I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that a pre-building ashy stratum exists underneath the existing buildings in so many places, and is non-existent outside their boundaries, with a 'foundation' completely unconnected the one with the other.

She went on to discuss the probable dates concluding that they were: " . . . improbably older than the first 500 years A.D. . . . which is probably before the Karanga, the Shona, or any other Bantu-speaking people had crossed the Zambezi on their southward and eastward migrations."


A substantial part of the book concerns West Africa — southern Nigeria in particular — where I believe there is also considerable evidence of Indonesian influence dating back, maybe, as long as two thousand years ago, or even more. Though, some people may think that to include West Africa is a fantasy, it is not so unlikely when one considers that Indonesian islanders (whose brethren discovered virtually every spec of land in the Pacific) were the finest sailors the world has known, and that their capability for long-distance voyaging is well established. I certainly don't claim 'infallibility'; but the evidence is strong, and worth level-headed discussion by people who know and love Africa well.

Comments on The Phantom Voyagers: Evidence of Indonesian Settlement in Africa in Ancient Times by Robert Dick-Read

A comment from M.Marc Felix who has written extensively, advised museums, and lectured all over the world on African tribal arts:

I finished your book and want to congratulate you for the depth and scope of your research. I was totally fascinated and surprised by the West African section.

A review written by Sir Ewen Fergusson who served with the Foreign Office in various capacities throughout the continent, from Ethiopia to South Africa, and was later British Ambassador in Paris.

Robert Dick-Read has been an adventurer, physically and intellectually, all his life. He is an enthusiast with no fear at all of propagating ideas which may be against the mainstream, may be unpopular in academic circles and may even swim against the political correctness which insists on the African origin of everything "African". Dick-Read's motto follows Pliny: — 'There is always something new from Africa'.

Phantom Voyagers, as its full title indicates, is about the extraordinary coincidences over the millennia which suggest links between the societies and cultures in South-East and South Asia and societies in not just Madagascar and East Africa but also in West Africa — only possible because of the heroic enterprise of the sea-faring peoples of the Eastern Indian Ocean area.

Dick-Read's reading has been vast ; there is almost no aspect of human experience which he has not penetrated during his years of study, on paper and on the ground. Of course, in such a broad field, where the archaeological ground has been only sketchily furrowed, it would be impossible to be sure that there is a right answer. Dick-Read's merit consists in putting forward hypothesis after hypothesis, accompanied with more than a few question marks, not so much to tease as to challenge the received orthodoxies. At just over 200 pages, Phantom Voyagers makes a compelling short read."

A review written by Sir Mervyn Brown, ex-British Ambassador to Madagascar, and High Commissioner to Nigeria, author of Madagascar Rediscovered, and A History of Madagascar:

. . . I found it a fascinating read and a most impressive work of scholarship, based on a wide range of sources and a lifetime of travel and study of the art and culture of many African and other countries. I learned a great deal, especially about the Indonesian links with Nigeria.

From Professor Dr Dierk Lange, Professor of West African History, University of Bayreuth:

I read the West Africa part of your book and I am quite impressed by the breadth of your ideas.

. . . Best regards and congratulations for the brave achievement.

A comment from: Randall D. Bird, M.Arch., Ph.D. Getty Fellow in Art History and the Humanities, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Studies. Harvard University.

"I cannot tell you how happy I am that this topic is finally being explored seriously."

A comment from Professor Roland Oliver, Emeritus Professor of African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London; and the founder of the Journal of African History

"This is just to say that I have spent three very interesting days reading your book . . . I can see that in Part One you have to range pretty widely over the South-East Asian seascape in order to establish the most likely origins of your Phantom Voyagers, and I found this section of the book quite enthralling . . . With all good wishes for the eventual success of your work, which I am convinced could reach and interest a wide public".

"The Phantom Voyagers", ISBN 0-9549231-0-3, can be purchased direct from the author by sterling cheque or money order for (GB) 15.00 inclusive of purchase.

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Last modified 23 June 2005