Dr Peter Garlake: Archaeologist who ended the myth that whites built Great Zimbabwe

With the publication of his ground-breaking “Great Zimbabwe” (Thames & Hudson) in 1973, the archaeologist Peter Garlake ended the colonial myth that Europeans, or the Phoenicians, built Great Zimbabwe.

The late Dr Peter Garlake: 11 January 1934 - 2 December 2011
The late Dr Peter Garlake: 11 January 1934 – 2 December 2011

“Peter Garlake was a great scholar who had the courage to defy white authorities under Ian Smith and tell the world that blacks built our greatest shrine. It took courage to say that in 1973 when Smith and his narrow-minded supporters wanted to re-write history and pretend that everything cultural and of value in my country had been built by Europeans,” said author and historian Lawrence Vambe.

With the publication of that important work Garlake became a household name in archaeological circles.

In it he said: “Great Zimbabwe must be recognized for what it is – a building of peculiar size and imposing grandeur, the product of two or three centuries of development of an indigenous stone-building technique, itself rooted in long traditions of using stone for field walls, buildings platforms and terraces. The structure reflects the economic dominance and prestige of a small oligarchy that had arisen within an Iron Age subsistence economy.”

1973 was also the year that also saw the publication in Salisbury of the Encyclopedia Rhodesia, which devoted a few lines to the magnificent structure under the heading “Zimbabwe Ruins” saying (as the law demanded in those days) that many believed that the well-preserved ruins were once King Solomon’s Palace.

Garlake was the son of a Rhodesian soldier Storr Garlake, who became head of the Rhodesian Armed Forces between 1947-1959, the soldier considered by Prime Minister Harold Wilson after Ian Smith’s illegal Unilateral Declaration of Independence in November 1965 as a possible future Governor of southern Rhodesia in the event of the death or ill health of Sir Humphrey Gibbs.

His mother, Catherine, was a South African of Scottish extraction. She had a passion for animals and was instrumental in setting up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Educated under Jesuit supervision at Salisbury’s top private school St George’s College Garlake determined to become an architect, studying at Cape Town University from 1952-1957 but never earning a degree.

“He left South Africa with a college friend and landed in London with one shilling and sixpence in his pocket,” said his wife of 50 years, Margaret Garlake from her home in England.

At UCL’s Institute of Archaeology in London in 1962 he met and fell in love with fellow student and archaeological conservator Margaret (nee Mallet). He’d been awarded a Nuffield Research Studentship, which took him to the British Institute in Eastern Africa and they flew first to Salisbury (Harare) where they were married at Nazareth House.

In 1964 he returned to Rhodesia where he was appointed Inspector of Monuments based in Salisbury. But he found it impossible to comply with laws which insisted that interpretations about pre-colonial structures should be ‘balanced.’ After UDI in1965, any articles saying that religious/cultural sites had been built by Africans had to contain an equal number of words explaining that they might, on the other hand, have been build by the Portuguese, the Phoenicians . . . the Queen of Sheba.

Unable to conform to such ridiculous requirements, he and Margaret left for first a new life lecturing at Ife in Nigeria and then from 1976-1981 as a senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at University College London. They returned to Zimbabwe after Independence in 1980 where he lectured in history at the University of Zimbabwe.

Those who knew him well say Garlake probably never grasped what a contribution he had made to the black nationalist struggle for freedom in the 1970s and 1980s .

“When we listened to Peter’s lectures and heard what Professor Axelson had to say about the origin Great Zimbabwe (House of Stones in the Shona language) our hearts leapt and we were glad that a Rhodesian white had the courage to take on and destroy the prejudices of his white countrymen,” said Vambe.

Post published in: Africa News
  1. ChimurengaBoy

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