The British Empire Library

The Mystery of the Black Jungle
(I misteri della jungle nera)

by Emilio Salgari

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
I must have been seven or eight years old, I was in bed with measles and my sore eyes were extremely sensitive to light. My mother, knowing my love for geography and exotic places, decided to introduce me to the world of Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) an Italian writer of adventures, whose books delighted and inspired generations of Italian children and young adults. Although Salgari, allegedly, had never travelled further than the Adriatic Sea, he wrote about India, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Siberia, the Philippines and New Caledonia, with a fairly accurate knowledge of geography and local customs. My mother’s choice was The Mystery of the Black Jungle (1895) a book that she had read in her young years. This turned out to be the book which triggered my interest in India. Because of my sore eyes, she read the story aloud. The first paragraph of the narrative was a detailed description of the course of the Ganges from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal dwelling in detail on the Sundarbans, the locale of the action. The story involved a snake and tiger hunter Tremal-Naik with his pet tiger, Dharma, his faithful Maratha servant Kammamuri and other men.

Tremal-Naik is fascinated by the sight of a very young woman whom he has seen in the jungle. When one of his men is killed by the thugs, Tremal-Naik accompanied by Kammamuri, heads into the jungle to retrieve the body. The thugs, however, have been watching their every move. After a brief skinnish with the thugs, Tremal-Naik alone ventures ahead, in a remote area, enters a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali and encounters again the young woman, Ada, an Anglo-Indian, who has been kidnapped and consecrated to the goddess Kali. He falls in love with her, they plan to flee, but are discovered by the chief priest, who stabs Tremal-Naik in the hecirt and leaves him half dead in the jungle.

Predictably, he is found by Kammamuri who saves his life. A second attempt to liberate Ada fails yet again wiien, accompanied by a few men and Dhamia, the tiger, Tremal-Naik gets lost in the underground of the temple cUid all are taken prisoners. Impressed by Tremal-Naik’s prowess, the thugs try to persuade him and his followers to join them. The chief priest is prepared to give Ada to Tremal-Naik on one condition: he must kill Captain MacPherson whose main task is to eliminate the thugs. Tremal-Naik attempts twice to kill Captain MacPherson, before realising that he is Ada’s father. The two become allies: Ada is saved and marries the hero, the thugs are defeated, but the chief priest manages to escape with a number of followers. I was awed by the narrative’s setting; above all, I was fascinated and at the same time intimidated by the vivid description of the goddess Kali, of the subterranean temples, thugs, and the Sundarbans. With a certain trepidation I commenced collecting information on India.. .the rest is history.

British Empire Book
Emilio Salgari
ROH Press (first English translation) Donath (first Italian publisher)
Review Originally Published
Spring 2021 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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