Review: King Solomon's Mines

King Solomon's Mines
by H. Rider Haggard, 320pp, Public Domain, 1885
Full text available for free at Project Gutenberg

It's said that King Solomon's Mines was written because Haggard's brother bet him that he couldn't write a book as good as Treasure Island. It's a bet the brother must have won. While Treasure Island thoroughly deserves it's status as an enduring classic, Mines strikes one as more of a colonialist curiosity; it is a shallow, self-satisfied and profoundly racist book, which not only fails as piece of entertainment but is so mired in it's particular prejudices that it's difficult to come away from it without feeling, well, revolted. This was surprising to me because the book is so influential; first published in 1885, it is widely acknowledged as being the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones and had a huge effect on a generation of popular writers, whose ranks include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Of course, Indiana Jones probably stemmed more directly from the 1950 film version of Mines, which represented some significant improvements on the book. But still, Allan Quatermain, African explorer, is considered one of the great adventure characters of nineteenth century literature, and I can't help but feel disappointed at him turning out to be the cowardly, lying, hypocritical and, yes, racist schmuck portrayed in this book.

That said, what's interesting about the book, and what in the end makes it worth reading, is how Haggard can so easily be read as the voice of colonialism. Certainly his smug and cloying tone is like the false superiority that marked colonialism in general. He protrays the African natives as vicious and blood-thirsty caricatures, alternately praising them in the most patronizing way only to turn around and insult them in sweeping generalizations. After the white explorers cross the comically named mountains, "Sheba's Breasts" (complete with snow-capped nipples), they march into the "undiscovered" Kukuannaland, home of the eponymous mines. Once there they proceed to instigate a revolution, in which numberless natives die, and install their own puppet ruler, from whom they procure a promise that they may keep any diamonds and gold they may find in the mines. Quatermain, who calls himself a "born gentleman" at the beginning of the book, does nothing but lie constantly throughout his travels to any native he happens to come across, ultimately telling the Kukuannas that he and his companions are aliens from the stars. He wants us to think he's really racially enlightened;

...niggers--no, I will scratch out that word "niggers," for I do not like it. I've known natives who are, and so you will say, Harry, my boy, before you have done with this tale, and I have known mean whites with lots of money and fresh out from home, too, who are not.

However, when a native girl named Foulata falls in love with one of his white companions (who seems to reciprocate her affections), and then dies trying to save their lives, Quatermain offers us this little chunk of wisdom:

I am bound to say, looking at the thing from the point of view of an oldish man of the world, that I consider her removal was a fortunate occurrence, since, otherwise, complications would have been sure to ensue. The poor creature was no ordinary native girl, but a person of great, I had almost said stately, beauty, and of considerable refinement of mind. But no amount of beauty or refinement could have made an entanglement between Good and herself a desirable occurrence; for, as she herself put it, "Can the sun mate with the darkness, or the white with the black?"(emphasis mine)

Yes, it takes a great hero to say that he's glad that a girl died trying to save his life because we wouldn't want the complications of an interracial marriage. Allan Quatermain is not just a product of his time, he's the exemplar of it.

According to the bible, King Solomon's Mines were mines in the land of Ofir from which massive tribute was delivered to the Israelite king. Historians think that if Ofir existed it was probably in Yemen or Ethiopia, places that might realistically have been involved in trade with ancient Israel. Haggard puts the mines in South Africa, apparently simply because he knew a lot about South Africa (he even makes the Kukuannas an offshoot of the Zulus). This is interesting in retrospect given the subsequent history of South Africa, and one can only imagine what the government under Apartheid would have done with the poor Kukuannas, sitting on top of their fabulous mines. But really, they probably wouldn't have made it all the way to Apartheid. After Quatermain and his companions escape the mines (where they are trapped by an evil witch), Quatermain reflects,

I could have cried at the idea of leaving all that treasure, the biggest treasure probably that in the world's history has ever been accumulated in one spot. But there was no help for it. Only dynamite could force its way through five feet of solid rock.

So we left it. Perhaps, in some remote unborn century, a more fortunate explorer may hit upon the "Open Sesame," and flood the world with gems. But, myself, I doubt it. Somehow, I seem to feel that the tens of millions of pounds' worth of jewels which lie in the three stone coffers will never shine round the neck of an earthly beauty. They and Foulata's bones will keep cold company till the end of all things.

One wonders how he could be so stupid. With the "biggest treasure in the world's history" up for grabs, what hundreds of mining companies wouldn't make the trek to remote Kukuannaland with huge packs full of guns and dynamite? The natives would have probably been rounded up and forced to work or, if they fought back, wiped off the globe. But Quatermain, like the colonialists, was nothing if not short sighted. Though perhaps a "true" history of the Kukuannas to the present day might make an interesting book...