British Empire Books

King Solomon's Mines

AuthorRider Haggard
Originally published1885
This publisherWordsworth
This Edition1994
ISBN No.185326105X

A classic in its day, this book is one of the more famous titles from the Victorian eras. It is very much a classical boys own adventure typical of the genre.

The story revolves around a group of three Englishmen searching for the lost brother of the three. The story is narrated by another of the three, Allan Quatermain, who is something of a big game hunter type of adventurer. They have a lead that the missing brother is somewhere in the interior of Africa lost on his own quest for King Solomon's mines.

This book is particularly interesting as it is an excellent example of how a fantastical, fictional story actually became the basis for real events in the scramble for Africa. When diamonds were discovered in such abundance in South Africa many people were convinced that the geology of the continent must be conducive to more of the same riches (in fact, exactly the same theories were expressed when gold was also discovered). King Solomon's Mines plays on this theory and many of it's readers would not have found this adventure story in the least bit too fantastical. To emphasise this fact, and the racism implicit within, many people ascribed the discovery of Great Zimbabwe in Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) as being easier to explain in the terms of the biblical stories of King Solomon rather than to credit any African civilisation for their creation and construction.

This book demonstrates nicely the kind of technological gap that existed between the whites and the blacks. It gives a description of how the white hunters demonstrate their magic tube that speaks to some tribesmen that have never seen a white man before. The exhibtion of firepower on some of the largest animals on the plains would have been as equally impressive in fact as it is here in fiction. The fact that the tribesmen then think that these white men must be from another planet can not have been too far from reality and must have been a source of terror and awe for millions of black Africans.

Reading this book enables the reader to look at the world through a typical Nineteenth Century mindset. The concepts expressed of fair play and philanthropy make very uncomfortable company with the racist commentary that can be detected throughout the book. This superiority complex of whites over blacks almost seems to find an exception in the budding romance of one of the heroes with a black woman who cares for him when he is injured, and ultimately dies protecting him. However, just in case any Nineteenth Century reader was concerned at any such interracial behaviour, Haggard reasserts the inadvisability of such an occurence with the heroine utterance: "Can the sun mate with the moon, or the white with the black?" In fact, just in case you miss this warning, he goes on to repeat it later.

It's alway easy to condemn an earlier generation by today's standards. However, it must be remembered that both the author and his audience were very much products of their time. This book, allows you to transport yourself back to that time and judge for yourself the, at times highly complicated, relations between the races.

At the end of the day, this book is an old fashioned adventure novel written for boys and young men. It succeeds admirably in conveying adventure, battle and the hardship of life on the frontier. Reading it will cast light on all sorts of unexpected areas of Imperial study.

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by Stephen Luscombe