H. Rider Haggard: A voice from the infinite by Peter Berresford Ellis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I read Henry Rider Haggard’s novels as a child at school, and mine was probably the last generation to do so. He wrote fantasy/adventure novels, which he called, probably more accurately, “romances”. His was probably the last generation in which such books could be written about our world, and the next generation of fantasy writers moved them off-planet in science fiction.
H. Rider Haggard (1856-1825) was born in Norfolk in England, and came to Natal in 1875 at the age of 19 as an aide to Sir Henry Bulwer, the Lieutenant Governor. The Conservative government in Britain believed in big government, and had plans to create a confederate south Africa along the lines of the Canadian confederation in 1867. Bulwer was preceded by Sir Garnet Wolseley, who prepared the ground, softening up the British colonists in Natal by “drowning their liberties in sherry and champagne” to ensure that control was kept firmly in the hands of London. To Bulwer it fell to take over the independent Boer republic in the Transvaal, and the independent kingdom of Zululand under Cetshwayo. The former proved easier than the latter, and Rider Haggard accompanied the military expedition, and in May 1877 raised the Union Jack over Pretoria in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday, though the annexation had been proclaimed a month previously.
In January 1879 combined British and Natal forces invaded Zululand, but met with more resistance, being repulsed at Isandlwana and besieged at Eshowe. Many of those who were killed in the campaign were known personally to Rider Haggard. Perhaps encouraged by the Zulu resistance, insurgents in the Transvaal began to demand that the British leave.
By this time Rider Haggard had gone back to Britain, got married, and returned to Natal to try his hand at ostrich farming. His farm was near Newcastle and the Transvaal border, and when Britsh reinforcements passed through on their way to the Transvaal the Haggard family could hear the guns from their home. The Transvaal Boers had their Isandlwana at Majuba mountain, and the new Liberal government in Britain had no taste for ruling the world, and some of the peace negotiations took place in the Haggards’ house.
A few months later the Haggard family returned to Britain, with Rider Haggard feeling that there was no future in south Africa, and that the retrocession of the Transvaal was a big mistake. He decided to study law, but took to writing novels instead.
His early novels were based on his experiences in South Africa, and they ended up being the most popular ones, far more popular than his later ones. The best-selling ones were King Solomon’s mines and She.
I read both of those as a child and others that I read were Nada the Lily and Allan Quatermain. The last I re-read quite recently. The main thing I liked about it was its description of a journey down an underground river into an unknown country — a device that has been used by other novelists since, such as Enid Blyton in The secret of Kilimooin.
Like many of his generation, Rider Haggard was a convinced British imperialist, as was his close friend and fellow author Rudyard Kipling. He did not lose his imperialist ideals even when he encountered the dark side of imperialism, as Ellis describes on page 198, when Haggard returned to South Africa in 1914 as part of an official commission.
Rider was invited to a dinner party at which he met Sir Abe Bailey and other wealthy financiers, many of whom had recently made their fortunes in diamonds and gold in the former Boer territories. Here, for a moment, Rider came face to face with the grim reality of imperialism. Empire was made and ruled by financiers and was not created by the ‘civilizing mission’ of one nation. When Rider expressed is ideals he was soon told ‘You are old fashioned.’ In speaking particularly about the Jameson Raid, Sir Abe disagreed with Rider’s estimate that it was a failure. ‘On the contrary it was a great success as it led to the war and all that has followed from the war.’ When Rider pointed out the cost to England in lives, Bailey, with a frankness unusual for a financier, merely replied: ‘What matters; lives are cheap.’ Rider was shocked. This was not his empire, an empire beneficial, spreading peace throughout the various warring nations of the world. But had his empire ever existed, or was empire merely the sordid business empire envisaged by the financiers?
And I think back to 2003, in the lead-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq, and how much it seemed to parallel British imperialism in the Anglo-Boer Wars, and how the outcome of the Iraq invasion was predictable, and predicted, and came to pass as predicted, and it was indeed clear that the one lesson we learn from history is that we don’t learn any lessons from history.
Rider Haggard (1856-1925) was almost an exact contemporary of my great-grandfather, Richard Wyatt Vause (1854-1926), who, like Rider Haggard, was known by his middle name. His father, Richard Vause, was mayor of Durban when Sir Garnet Wolseley was drowning their liberties in sherry and champagne, and Sir Garnet, in his diary, described Richard Vause as “an active, shrewd man” and “an offensive snob” and noted that he, like so many others he had met in Natal, was weak in his h’s.
The son, Wyatt Vause, fought in the battle of Isandlwana while Rider Haggard was holding the fort in Pretoria as a member of the Pretoria Horse, and perhaps they had met and knew each other. Haggard certainly mentions knowing Colonel Durnford, Lieutenant Vause’s commanding officer, who died at Isandlwana.
Wyatt Vause survived, and married Maggie Cottam, and their daughter Lily Vause married my grandfather, Percy Hayes, in Doornfontein, Johannesburg, in 1904. I still have a copy of Allan Quatermain given to my father as a Christmas present when he was 11, inscribed in my grandfather Percy’s hand: “Frank Hayes Xmas 1918”.
I suspect that my grandfather read Rider Haggard’s books as a child, growing up in Axbridge, Somerset. Perhaps they even influenced him to seek his fortune in South Africa. He gave one to his son as a Christmas present. And when I was at school, one headmaster, Wally Meears, who was roughly the same generation as my grandfather, made sure that the school library was well-stocked with Rider Haggard books. I suspect that it may partly have been because though Rider Haggard had little time for the Boers, he had quite a lot of sympathy for the “natives”, especially the Zulus.
Another headmaster, Henry Nathaniel Beckwith, who was the same age as my father, was also a believer in the rightness of the British Empire, and also stocked the school library with books by Rider Haggard and also with magazines like the Illustrated London News and Sphere, which, in between the numerous photos of ancient Greek pottery unearthed at archaeological digs, occasionally had pictures of more exciting events like John Derry, test pilot, crashing his DH 110 at the 1952 Farnborough Air Show.
But, apart from the imperialist sub-text, Haggard was a pretty good story teller, and his description of the end of She still gives Stephen King a run for his money.
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