031 — on delicious imperialism and Solomon’s diamonds

Damn! All this time and I haven’t told you about H. Rider Haggard. I suppose I should do that. There are three books that, reasonably, I could expect you to have the patience to sit through (unless, like me, you particularly like Victorian adventure fiction. If you don’t you might get irritated pretty quickly). They are King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain, and She. Let’s just start with Mines, shall we?

You might have noticed Allan Quatermain’s name up there. Yes, Haggard is the guy who invented him, ended up writing over a dozen novels and short stories about the character. Like Sherlock Holmes, Quatermain took on a life of his own in the British public mind. Geography was attributed to him in Africa; events blurred between fiction and reality as Haggard’s experience of Africa and his good eye for detail continued to make convincing stories – there’s one event in particular that I’m thinking of. In a story Quatermain is running from angry natives and one catches his foot as he scrambles up a mountainside. Quatermain is forced to shoot along his leg and kill the man to get away. Years later a fan who spent time in Africa marveled at that particular adventure: he said he was surprised, as he was sure he had never told anyone what had happened to him. As in, that’s exactly what happened to him. So Haggard could do convincing stuff, it turns out, even though now most people don’t tend to think so. And anyway his most famous novel, She, is a fantasy, so people don’t pay much attention to the credible details he includes.

But anyway, back to this one particular novel. We’ll talk about She later. Mines is the first story with Quatermain in it. It’s the story of three men with nothing to do.

Sorry, that’s mean. It’s the story of three imperialist white assholes with nothing to do.

Sorry, that’s accurate but still mean.

Really what’s going on here is that Sir Henry Curtis’s brother has gone missing trying to find, well, King Solomon’s mines, where one can supposedly get incredibly large diamonds. Curtis wants to find his brother and maybe the mines too, you know, if there’s time. He’s bringing along a guy named Good, who is obsessed with clean linen shirts and shaving. Seriously. And this is a plot point later. They convince Quatermain to come with them by offering him money and, if he dies, money for his son back in England. OK, cool. They pick up a Zulu warrior named Umbopa along the way who is in no way odd, suspicious, or out of character (and remember, this book was written in the Victorian period, so every Zulu behaves exactly the same way). Aaaaannd of course he’s actually the long-lost prince of the kingdom that houses the mine.

They have adventures, stuff happens, they nearly die a few times, and Quatermain talks a little too much about Queen Sheba’s Breasts – the mountains, but still, you know, that isn’t in any way making the countryside of Africa a willing female under the hand of male dominion, right? *Cough* OK then.

Turns out the asshole who killed Umbopa’s dad is named Twala and he is king. He also has a hideous witch assistant named Gagool. Sure, these are real names, I betcha.

There’s a lot of posturing and back-and-forthing. Here comes that goofy plot point I mentioned: they aren’t killed straight away because the natives of the region are convinced they are gods because Good’s skin is so white and his beard grows on only half his face. Yeah, they caught him in the middle of shaving. So the rest of the time he has to shave only half his face and wear no pants, so everyone can see his half-beard and his white legs.

Does anyone else think this is getting weird?

In true Johnny Quest style they convince Twala’s people to stop sacrificing humans by claiming they’re gods and they will make the sun go dark at an appointed time – naturally Curtis has an almanac with the date of an eclipse coming soon. That works, they get the royal treatment for a while, then Twala goes to war with them. Because why not? Seriously – Umbopa and the white folk have been planning to take the country back, but they have made no move. However, they have enough support among the military – who hate Twala and loved Umbopa’s father – that when the king sends an army after them they have one of their own.

This is where things get really interesting from a critical point of view. The book has followed all the conventions of the civilized white folk among barbarian black folk, down to the letter. But then the fight starts. And the most savage fighters are the white folk. Curtis is likened to his forbears the Vikings more than once – he is, as the knighted hero of the crown, the most civilized, proper member of the away team. So he loses his fucking mind and chops people in two with an axe. The other two aren’t far behind. Quatermain spends the novel trying to get out of trouble and away from violence, but suddenly in this fight he begs to be allowed to fight more. He describes being sad when the fighting is over.

The book ends with Gagool taking the white folk into the mine and trapping them, though they find a back way out and escape, finally leaving Umbopa in charge of his rightful kingdom and pronouncing an edict that no more white people will be allowed into his kingdom. Because he doesn’t want anyone else finding out about the mine and destroying his people. Fair enough. But in parting he uses the typical words of the mask-wearing black before the white: we are as children compared to your wisdom. Yeeeaah, except remember that thing, two chapters ago, where the black people were calmer, more rational, and fairer in combat than the white folk? What the hell does that mean?

This crops up in more of Haggard’s work, what it means to be civilized – and whether or not that’s an illusion after all – but it’s only touched on in Mines.

And yes, I know Quatermain is in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. You don’t have to flood me with messages. Though maybe I shouldn’t have said. Some of you could do with some commenting.

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