White Peril

E.S. Turner

  • Diary of an African Journey (1914) by H. Rider Haggard
    Hurst, 345 pp, £20.00, August 2001, ISBN 1 85065 468 9

The author of King Solomon’s Mines and She composed his own epitaph, which was carved in black marble. It read:

Here lie the Ashes of Henry Rider Haggard
Knight Bachelor
Knight of the British Empire
Who with a Humble Heart Strove to Serve his Country

Nothing there about his ripping yarns, the first of which had been hyped, in 1885, as ‘The Most Amazing Story Ever Written’. The humble-hearted Haggard took more pride in being twice a knight. His father, a Norfolk squire, had deemed him unfit to be a greengrocer, but he had become not just another, and richer, Norfolk squire, but a respected agriculturist, a man of affairs and a colourful choice for governmental fact-finding missions. He had failed to become an MP but had rather hoped to be made a Privy Councillor, even a mini-proconsul; willing at a pinch, perhaps, to ‘go out and govern New South Wales’. He did not live to see the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle go out and govern Canada.

Tom Pocock gave a good account of his career in Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire (reviewed here 23 September 1993). The Diary of an African Journey tells how, in 1914, Haggard accompanied the Dominions Royal Commission on the second stage of its investigation into how the British Empire might be strengthened and its trade improved. Before the guns of August sounded the recall, the commissioners visited the Cape, Orange Free State, Natal and Transvaal, after which Haggard set off independently to tour the Zulu lands. This record of a conscience-torn imperialist has been quoted elsewhere, but is now published in full for the first time, edited, introduced and ably annotated by Stephen Coan of the Natal Witness. It has the fascination that goes with anything written in 1914, even though the more spectacular events of Armageddon were slated for the adjacent continent. No one should be surprised to come across words now ruled derog., joc., offen. or coll: vulg., like kaffir, native, savage and dusky, or shy at mention of the love that dare no longer speak the name of miscegenation.

Back in 1877, as an unpaid stripling in attendance on Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Haggard had helped to run the Union Jack up the flagpole in the Transvaal, to see how many Boers would salute it. Not enough, was the answer. This cordial annexation, conducted with sherry and champagne rather than firearms, led to the first Boer War and the retrocession of the Transvaal. The Royal Commission preparing the climb-down met in the home of Haggard and his wife, to whom they paid a handsome rent. It was an exquisitely shaming episode, illustrating what would later be defined as the craven fear of being great. Kipling was too young to be contemplating a poem called ‘Retrocessional’. In 1881 the Haggards had returned to Britain, leaving their fellow settlers to buy and sell the veldt for what it would fetch, or dig vast holes in search of gold and diamonds. Haggard had then prospered exceedingly by mining the continent’s myths from afar, to the joy of millions who still believed there were lost cities and civilisations out there. His success won him the jealousy of his older brother Andrew, a soldier-settler who tried the writing game without success.

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