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.

The Africa to which Haggard now returned had been partitioned by – as the jokers said – ‘everybody but the Swiss’. The Dutch had long ago introduced a thrawn and turbulent element in the Boers; besides the British, there were the Germans, Belgians, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Italians. Africans were entitled to look on this as the White Peril. Haggard, alive though he was to the Yellow Peril, the German Peril and the Islam Peril, could not yet subscribe to a White Peril. He agreed that no white race had ever established itself permanently in Africa, but the Africans, like the people of India, needed to be ‘guided and vivified by constantly refreshed European intelligence’. This was liberated thinking for the times. Haggard’s strongly held conviction that the black man had suffered an abominable injustice in the distribution of land was not shared by old Africa hands. He was to hear of at least one ‘average white farmer’ who welcomed the idea of a war against the Basutos, ‘as then we should get their land’. This was fully in the spirit of Belloc’s ‘The Modern Traveller’: ‘We shot and hanged a few, and then/The rest became devoted men’, and, more notoriously, ‘Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not.’ What saddened Haggard on this journey was the dismal quality of the ‘poor whites’, unfit for settlement on the land, unwilling to do ‘niggers’ work’, yet ready to miscegenate and become ‘effeminate and ineffective like the Portuguese’ (the Portuguese Peril). Responsible whites with means were not breeding fast enough, ‘owing to causes that are in operation all over the civilised world’. Would the blacks corrupt the whites and bring about their downfall? ‘The black man is driving a wedge into the fabric of European civilisation, is permeating it through and through,’ Haggard said. ‘He is beginning to think for himself and to demand a fair share for the rewards of his labour.’

Returning to his old haunts, Haggard tried not to play Rip van Winkle. In Cape Province he saw a sight which would have been unthinkable in his day – a white man and a kaffir working together over a vat of grapes. The innocence of ox-wagon days had departed. Around the kraals children who would once have been naked played in dirty shirts – ‘alas, here civilisation is doing its work.’ The women wore ‘the most horrible garments, broken stays and ill-fitting dresses out of which they burst and bulge. I prefer the fig-leaf, or rather mucha (loin-cloth) costume.’ He told an Africa Club audience: ‘You cannot build up a civilisation by importing shiploads of broken-down European corsets.’ War-dances laid on in his honour – the overclad watching the underclad – suffered because the warriors had substituted umbrellas for assegais. Ever alert to signs of degeneracy, Haggard noted that his ‘dusky housemaids’ were reading Elinor Glyn’s torrid Three Weeks. In the wide open spaces of Rhodesia there was more disillusion. No vultures circled in the skies, for wild life had been wiped out along with trees. This was the work of the natives but – the reader may wonder – what sort of example had they been set? In King Solomon’s Mines Allan Quatermain’s party shoot half a herd of elephant for sport, tearing out the hearts from two of them for food and leaving the rest. If vultures were absent, mosquitoes and tsetse were not, and ‘the ten plagues of Egypt were still endemic’ (with a more horrific scourge two or three generations ahead).

The commissioners were fêted, perhaps too freely, by the millionaire raptors of the Rand. ‘Almost everybody seems to have a title,’ Haggard notes. In the marble halls of Sir Abe Bailey, the mine-owner, famous in Britain for his racehorses, dinner guests discussed the Jameson Raid. Haggard said he thought it had been a wretched failure, but Bailey insisted it had been a ‘splendid success’, since it had led to the war which was its whole object and all that followed. Haggard said it had cost Britain £350 million and twenty thousand lives. ‘What does that matter?’ Bailey replied, ‘lives are cheap,’ adding that South Africa did not have to pay the money. For his part in the Raid Bailey had been sentenced to two years’ jail, commuted to a fine; he was proud enough of this to log it in Who’s Who. Under his opulent roof Haggard met Louis Botha, the former Boer general and first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, who impressed him enormously – ‘A very fine man’. Botha assured him that but for Lord Milner the second Boer War would have ended eighteen months earlier; Kitchener, unlike Milner, was ready to amnesty the rebel Boers, who were amnestied in the end. The two men talked of the ‘gold-reef city’ of Johannesburg, which had not existed in Haggard’s youth. According to Botha it contained ‘many of the most evil people on earth’, including Red anarchists. Recent rioting by mine-workers had severely endangered the town. The General favoured employing more blacks and fewer white troublemakers; the whites were paid nine times as much as the blacks, who were ‘the worst-treated men in South Africa’. Haggard got on splendidly with Mrs Botha, who believed that race suicide was creeping in, even among the Boers. Not only were their families shrinking, but they lacked the virility and femininity of old. She surprised him by saying the deportation of captured Boers had been a good thing, because the sight of other lands had opened their eyes and minds. ‘We both agreed,’ Haggard said, ‘that time and experience were wonderful softeners of strong views.’ Overdue for softening were the views of men like Henry Nourse, a prominent mine-owner, who wanted all natives segregated and barred even from domestic service. In their place female domestics were to be ‘emigrated’ from Britain.

Haggard was very proud of an interview he had with a ‘Zulu of high blood’, the Rev. John Dube, who was to become the first leader of the African National Congress. Like his interviewer, Dube was bitter about the injustices which gave whites huge tracts of land and left displaced blacks as homeless squatters condemned to forced labour. The black man’s inferior status was shown in insulting ways. ‘White women,’ Dube said, ‘allow natives into their bedrooms when they are half-naked, which they would never do in the case of white men. A native is a man as much as a white.’ (In the American Deep South Frances Trollope had been shocked to see black male slaves allowed into boudoir and bedroom.)

As a fact-finder Haggard could be a bit of a fact-grinder. His Diary is peppered with the measurements of harbours, the costs of dynamiting virgin lands to grow vines, the lactation periods of cows, the wages of clove pickers. He is at his best when seeking out human interest, which often means inhuman interest. At Kimberley, where society looked on diamonds as too vulgar to be worn ‘even by Jewish ladies’, he visited the great mining compound where ‘numberless kaffirs lived for four or six months at a time in a state of strict imprisonment.’ They worked eight-hour shifts for two shillings a day spending-money. When not underground courting pneumonia they were free to shop, play the banjo or read the Bible, and seemed happy and content. Occasional tribal wars were firmly suppressed. ‘To isolate thousands of men without their womenfolk cannot be good,’ Haggard says. Before eventual discharge the men were shut up for four or five days in case they had swallowed any diamonds, ‘a horrid and humiliating business for all concerned, but perhaps necessary’ (and still practised by Customs at leading airports). Rather wider horizons were enjoyed by the black workers who were shipped by Cadbury’s from Mozambique, 1500 at a time, round the Cape to the cocoa plantations on the other side of Africa. After three years’ apprenticeship the survivors were shipped home again.

Riding in an Overland car Haggard visited the Golgothas and Aceldamas of the Boer and Zulu Wars. At Ulundi, scene of a great Zulu defeat, he remarked on the absence of skeletons and was told that white men had removed them in wagons, presumably to be ground into bone dust for manure. Well, Ulundi was not perhaps the place to build a mighty ossuary like the one the white men would be building at Verdun. How sacred are the slain? Many Britons had proudly worn ‘Waterloo teeth’, gathered in sacks on the field of honour. At Isandhlwana, scene of a great Zulu victory, the 24th Regiment (South Wales Borderers) had only just completed its monument. Most haunting of all, near Bloemfontein, were ‘countless mounds of brown earth, some of them only two or three feet in length’, which covered the remains of Boer women and children, some 26,000 in all, who perished in the nearby concentration camp. In Pretoria Haggard called in at the cemetery where Oom Paul (Kruger) was buried, along with ‘others I had known’. The diary does not identify these others, but Coan does, and provides a photograph of the memorial to a law officer’s wife by whom Haggard had a short-lived child, Ethel Rider, buried alongside. The affair seems to have aroused no scandal. Vastly to Haggard’s credit is the story of how, in late life, he came to the rescue of his first great love Lilly, whose runaway stockbroker husband left her with three children and a dose of syphilis. Haggard found the family a home in Suffolk and attended Lilly’s death-bed.

Among old friends revisited was Sir John Kotze, who had been a young judge at the time of the flag-raising escapade. Once again the well-informed Coan fills in what the diarist omits. Haggard had described in one of his books how, when called to attend the execution of a chieftain for murder, he had been left alone to compel a drunken hangman to perform his duty, the high sheriff having retired sick to a corner of the jail yard. Not so, according to Kotze; the hangman was not drunk and it was Haggard who retired sick. In his memoirs Kotze said Haggard was a man of honour and truth, but he was emotional and much given to romancing, his imagination impelling him into a world of fancy which took complete hold of his sense. Haggard the diarist concedes that Kotze’s recollections of those days were clearer than his own. This comes as a real jolt. Who could forget how he behaved at his first, and probably only, hanging? How much of Haggard the fact-finder and anecdotalist is to be trusted?

If Haggard had been falsifying the past, he could hardly complain that local guides and guidebooks had been misrepresenting African landmarks as his sources of inspiration. In King Solomon’s Mines the map instructions said the treasure-seeker should ‘climb the snow of Sheba’s left breast till he comes to the nipple, on the north side of which is the great road Solomon made’ (saucy stuff for those days). Haggard was shown at least two pairs of Sheba’s Breasts. He was also informed that the great Zimbabwe ruins had been the residence of She-who-must-be-obeyed. At Bloemfontein he learned how certain witch-doctors’ practices had been the source of mystic practices in She, like the one in which Ayesha conjures up scenes from afar in the waters of a font. Now Colonel Du Toit, head of the Bloemfontein police, tantalised him with the tale of how an eminent witch-doctor had created a screen of smoke against which, on request, he projected a picture of the new government buildings in Pretoria, with the clock on the tower showing correct time. Understandably, Du Toit asked that his name be not linked to this story. Haggard was as reluctant to dismiss it outright as he was to disbelieve the tale of the man whose head was buried in a fire-pit for an hour, with the ground firmly trodden round the neck, and who emerged unharmed.

Haggard suspected that his reports and special briefings to Whitehall ended up on the rubbish heap. This would not have surprised Edward Harding, secretary to the Dominions Commission, in whose view Haggard had very ordinary imperial ideas but thought them extraordinary – ‘Perhaps that is the result of being a novelist with a really keen imagination.’ Harding was sardonic about the practised way in which the old romancer greeted reporters everywhere. Haggard for his part complained, notably in a letter to his friend Kipling, that he was at the mercy of small minds, officials who hated the outsider with ideas. In the same letter he professed to deprecate the Government’s practice of ‘decorating the tails and manes of old work-horses with ribbons’. His second ribbon came in 1919, in recognition of his wartime tour to promote the postwar settlement of homeless heroes, fired in the furnace of war, in the barren wastes of empire. The heroes had other ideas. In a church at Ditchingham, in Norfolk, a stained-glass window in Haggard’s honour has an inset showing Hilldrop, the farm in which the hand-back of the Transvaal was negotiated. It seems an unhappy choice; even Sheba’s Breasts would have been better.

In my local library Haggard’s romances are kept on the teen shelves. Re-reading them was no hardship. King Solomon’s Mines is the tale in which Allan Quatermain saves the life of the girl Foulata by threatening the barbarians that he will extinguish the moon, well aware that an eclipse is imminent; in which ‘our great Englishman’, Sir Henry Curtis, in single combat beheads a black tyrant with one stroke of an axe; and the venturers are trapped in a mine with enough diamonds to build a fleet of ironclads. Throughout Quatermain insists on blacks calling him Baas (master) and is severe on uppity variants. Foulata very prettily discourages any male impulses to miscegenate with ‘Can the sun mate with the darkness?’ In She there is a bracing account of a feast lit by the fires of burning mummies, continually replaced like Nero’s living Christians. The 2000-year-old white queen is a hot and wicked dish and she does not wear broken-down corsets. As Freud said, the tale is full of light on the eternal feminine. Today, when there are complaints about Western women getting out of hand, it is worth mentioning how Ayesha’s tribe tackled the problem. Their spokesman tells the narrator:

‘In this country the women do what they please. We worship them, and give them their way because without them the world could not go on; they are the source of life . . .’

‘We worship them,’ he went on, ‘up to a certain point, till at last they get unbearable, which,’ he added, ‘they do about every second generation.’

‘And then what do you do?’ I asked with curiosity.

‘Then,’ he answered with a faint smile, ‘we rise, and kill the old ones as an example to the young ones, and to show them that we are the strongest.’

To the suggestion that this is a bit cruel, the reply is that ‘they brought it on themselves.’