British Empire Books

Allan Quatermain

AuthorRider Haggard
PublisherPenguin Popular Classics
Originally Published1887
This Edition1995
ISBN No.13579108642

"That the natives of this unknown lake should understand the art of sailing seemed to suggest that they possesed some degree of civilization. In a few more minutes it became evident that the occupant or occupants of the advancing boat had made us out. For a moment or two she hung in the wind as though in doubt, and then came tacking towards us with great swiftness. In ten more minutes she was within a hundred yards, and we saw that she was a neat little boat - not a canoe 'dug out', but built more or less in the European fashion with planks, and carrying a singularly large sail for her size. But our attention was soon diverted from the boat to her crew, which consisted of a man and woman, nearly as white as ourselves"

Incredibly racist, unbearably sexist, politically incorrect and as historically inaccurate as it is possible to be. This is one of the best Victorian novels that you could ever want to read. Why? Because it is fun! Of course, the racism and sexism can grate against the modern ear, but this was what Victorians were like. We may not approve, but we can't change it. It's an essential aspect of the Victorian character. If you can accept these flaws for what they are then you can enjoy an immensly exciting and well crafted story.

The story itself is actually a continuation of the more famous King Solomon's Mines. It uses the same characters, backdrop and in many ways a very similar storyline. A group of adventurers travel to Africa in search of a missing civilization. Remember, these were the early days of Darwinism in general and Social Darwinism in particular. The idea of having a distinct 'race' of people genetically cut off from a wider population was not as far fetched as it may seem today. Remembering that the naturally occuring exceptions found on the Galapagos islands and in Australia were used to prove the existence of evolution in the first place. Of course, at this stage of Darwinism, few Europeans could credit the fact that they were virtually identical to their African and Asian neighbours. Social Darwinism was all about misapplying the rules of genetics to those of the development of civilization. And, the period in which Rider Haggard was writing was the heyday of such theories. Indeed, to agree with them at all was actually a sign of progressiveness rather than the intolerance that would later be associated with it. It was a sign that you put the rational world of science ahead of the irrational one of religion. Social Darwinism did help imperialists justify there actions as being a by-product of the actions of the survival of the fittest. Rider Haggard doesn't go quite that far, but it is interesting to see that he can associate the signs of civilization with an outgrowth of a 'white' society but not for any 'black' one. The best characterization that the African figures can hope for is that of the 'noble savage'. The best example of this is Quatermain's henchman, Umslopogaas, who is characterized surprisingly charitably. But all to frequently, Africans are portrayed in a much less flattering light than this.

As always in a period novel, there are some lovely incidental shafts of light that illuminate the world of the writer. In this case, there are some good examples of what a 'great white traveller' might have been like, what actions he would likely have done and how he 'thought' he was perceived by the local populace. An example of this is when his Zulu henchman refers to him as 'slayer of elephants, eater of lions, whose shot never misses...' It is obvious from these quotes that Rider Haggard, just as most Europeans in Africa, were comfortable and happy with the image of themselves as being little short of demi-gods. Although it is difficult to know if they regarded themselves as innately superior and more powerful than the Africans or whether they realised that it was by virtue of the technology available to them. Either way, the mindset is clearly demonstrated. In fact, the story takes a nasty turn for the 'heroes' of the book when they did in fact employ technology much as whites would have done throughout Africa when first meeting a new tribe or group of Africans. In the story, after they first meet with the people 'nearly as white as ourselves', they try to overawe their interlocuters by shooting some nearby hippopatami. You will have to read the book to find the complications of this action, but it is a lovely illustration of how the Europeans would try to 'impress the natives'. This would have been doubly important when the Europeans would otherwise have been massively outnumbered. I'm sure that in real life examples of this happened time and time again as the Europeans encroached on the territories of unsuspecting Africans.

The book, despite its scientific credentials and exotic location, frequently falls back into the safe and conservative world of upper class Victorian society. There is an interesting example of the sexism of the era when Allan Quatermain advises a young girl in the story to always do what is right and to be unselfish in order "to make many people's lives a little brighter, and then you will not have lived, as so many of your sex do, in vain." It also becomes quite clear that the author is quite in awe of royalty. Two of the key characters in the book are queens of the lost tribe who later become deadly rivals. The author is positively fawning about their regalness and majesty. Pomp and ceremony are very much seen in a favourable light. When describing the lost civilization, It is interesting that although the author seems to convey a rather romantic notion of an ideal feudalistic society - he still must describe a nice, sanitized feudal society. He is at pains to point out that 'absolute serfdom or slavery is unknown'. Anti-slavery credentials would have been an essential commodity for his Victorian audience. But the pining for this romantic, pastoral, fictional past keep re-surfacing: "They know nothing about steam, electricity, or gunpowder, and mercifully for themselves nothing about printing and the penny post. They are spared many evils, for of a truth our age has learnt the wisdom of the old-world saying 'He who increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow'."

The story builds up to a suitably exciting and grand climax with the hero, and his noble savage sidekick, saving the day. The surviving characters do indeed decide to reject the outer world in order to retain their titles and rank in this ideal feudalistic one. There are a few caveats to this withdrawal. One of the survivors, who is also regent to the crown, writes how he hopes to convert them all to the 'Cross of Christ'. Again, an aspiration that would have been applauded by his then reading public. He also goes on to say how he will raise his son; the heir to the throne: "I hope I may be able to bring him up to become what an English gentleman should be, and generally is - which is to my mind even a prouder and a finer thing than being born heir apparent to the great house of the Stairway, and, indeed, the highest rank that a man can reach upon this earth." Imperial and patriotic attitudes don't get much more blatant than this! And, this is why, if you want to understand the Victorian mindset, you would be well advised to read a book along these lines. Besides, as well as subliminally teaching you history - it's a good read in its own right.

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by Stephen Luscombe