The book was first published in September 1885 amid considerable fanfare, with billboards and posters around London announcing “The Most Amazing Book Ever Written”. It became an immediate best seller. By the late 19th century, explorers were uncovering ancient civilisations around the world, such as Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, and the empire of Assyria. Inner Africa remained largely unexplored and King Solomon’s Mines, the first novel of African adventure published in English, captured the public’s imagination.
One of the things we’ve discussed is the difficulty in overlooking the more racist remarks and references to the natives in Africa, as delivered by our protagonist/narrator, Allan Quatermain. Not to mention the wholesale slaughter that passes for “hunting.”
So I found the following interesting, which I read in a magazine I subscribe to, Wend Magazine. This is in a section called “Now & Then” and this bit relates to a piece in the article adapted from another book I own but haven’t read (though plan to start this week) called Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure by Julian Smith. I think this gives an idea of the kind of frightening stories that were coming back to England and America from Africa around the time Haggard, and the writers who followed him, were dreaming up their novels. . . .
Remarkable Discoveries by Explorer Grogan in Africa
Excerpted from: The New York Times, February 27, 1900
LONDON, Feb. 27 — Some of the morning papers…publish a remarkable interview with Mr. E.S. Grogan, who has just returned to England after a two years’ journey in Africa.
Mr. Grogan, who traveled over 6500 miles and represents himself to be the first European who has traveled through the continent from the Cape to Cairo, says that, after leaving Lake Tanganyika, with eight porters, he entered a region of active volcanoes, where he encountered “enormous lava streams, forming a veritable sea, forty miles by sixty, and a hundred feet deep.” This whole region he found devastated, forests and herds of elephants being buried in liquid fire.
The neighboring country, he says, is occupied by some 5000 Balekas, ferocious cannibals from the Congo, who live by man hunting. His guides told him that the country, covering 3500 square miles, had been until recently densely populated, but that the people had virtually all been killed and eaten by the Balekas.
Everywhere he found evidences of cannibalistic practices. The very paths in the jungle were marked out by lines of human skeletons. The streams were full of decomposing remnants of humanity, half eaten and horribly mutilated.
These cannibals, according to Mr. Grogan’s narrative, lived in grass cabins. He entered some of these habitations and witnessed horrible sights. He saw “cauldrons full of liquid with floating human skulls and the bodies of infants.”
One one occasion the savages attacked Mr. Grogan’s party, but he opened upon them with rifle fire. This staggered the cannibals, as they had never before seen a gun or a white man. Mr. Grogan shot two and the rest retreated. He says the Balekas are by no means repulsive to look upon. Although small, they are well built and have good features. Men and women go about stark naked. Their long hair gives them a peculiarly wild appearance.
Proceeding along the west coast of Albert Lake, Mr. Grogan found the natives terrorized by raids of the Belgians. He declared that he thoroughly investigated this matter, and found that the Belgian troops were in the habit of crossing the frontier, and had shot large numbers of the inhabitants, and had carried off the young women and cattle, tying up and burning the old women while white Belgian officers were present.
He adds, “From the north of Albert Lake to Lake Mweru the whole country is in a state of chaos. It is administered by incompetent Belgians. Often the non-commissioned officers and troops are of the lowest type of native and they are almost invariably cannibals.”
I find this fascinating. What a different world, and, really, it all happened not so long ago.