King Solomon’s Mines

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King Solomon’s Mines

by H. Rider Haggard


A novel set in southern Africa; first published in London in 1885.


Three Englishmen seek a fabulous lost diamond mine in the remote interior of southern Africa.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

The prolific late Victorian author Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) mesmerized the British public with his stirring, romantic tales of adventure. He wrote 68 books altogether, many of which are set in Africa. Along with his friend Rudyard Kipling, who also set his stories in far-off corners of the British Empire, Haggard both defended and glorified Britain’s imperial aspirations. King Solomon’s Mines, the book that brought him overnight celebrity in 1885, is based on the author’s personal experience in British South Africa. Haggard went to South Africa in 1875 as a 19-year-old assistant to the lieutenant-governor of the British colony of Natal. Holding posts of increasing responsibility, he traveled widely in Africa over the next six years, returning to Britain in 1881. His experiences gave him material not only for King Solomon’s Mines, but also for his later books, which include She (1887), Allan Quatermain (1887), Maiwa’s Revenge (1888), Nada the Lily (1892), and Queen Sheba’s Ring (1910). A number of them feature Allan Quatermain, the big-game hunter who narrates King Solomon’s Mines and who became Haggard’s most popular character.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Zulus, Boers, and British in South Africa

By the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of conflicting populations were struggling for land and power in South Africa. Bantu-speaking Africans, of whom the Zulus would later become the most powerful, had entered from the north, perhaps before 300 C.E., driving the indigenous Khoikhoi and San peoples into less fertile regions of desert and scrub. Europeans arrived more than a millennium later—first the Portuguese, who founded trading settlements such as Delagoa Bay in Natal on the eastern coast in the early 1500s, and then in greater numbers the Dutch, who founded the first permanent white settlement at Cape Town in 1652. During the golden age of Dutch commercial expansion in the seventeenth century, Cape Town served as a stopover for Dutch East India Company ships that sailed between Europe and Asia. Cape Town and the fertile land around it were settled by Dutch merchants and farmers. Their descendants called themselves Afrikaners (the Dutch word for “African”; their language, derived from Dutch, is Afrikaans, and they are known also as Boers from the Dutch word for “farmer”). The city and its adjacent territory remained in Dutch hands until 1795, when the area was captured by the British, who made Cape Town the capital of what became the new British-ruled Cape Colony. For a brief few years (1803-06), the Dutch regained control, after which Britain remained the reigning colonizer until 1910.

As large numbers of British immigrants began arriving in the early nineteenth century, both groups of white Europeans (the Afrikaners and the British) competed for land against each other and against black African peoples. Displaced Afrikaners moved northeastward from the Cape Colony into the interior, at first in scattered groups, but after 1835 in a mass migration of large, organized groups called the “Great Trek.” By 1840 about 6,000 Afrikaner men, women, and children had migrated from the Cape Colony. Crossing the Vaal River, many of these so-called Voortrekkers (“pioneers”) occupied the area known as the Transvaal (“across the Vaal”). Others moved into Natal on South Africa’s eastern coast, where thousands of British settlers also arrived beginning in the 1840s and 1850s. Meanwhile, under their kings Shaka (1816-28), and Dingane (1828-40), the Zulus conquered much of the interior between Natal and the Transvaal, using new tactics and combat techniques to create a powerful military force. Shaka (also spelled Chaka) is said to have organized and trained his troops in innovative ways and to have put to effective use a new shorter spear, the assegai, used for stabbing in hand-to-hand combat. But there were some unhappy troops under him. Shaka had a disaffected lieutenant named Mzilikazi, who led a group of the Zulus’ allies north into the Transvaal, then further into today’s southwestern Zimbabwe. Called the Ndebele, the group was Haggard’s model for the Kukuana in King Solomon’s Mines, the people deep in the interior who welcome the English explorers.

Thus, by about 1870 the situation stood as follows:

  • Britain exercised colonial rule over the highly developed Cape Colony (population about 30,000) and over Natal, with its seaport city of Durban (where Quatermain and the other Englishmen arrive by ship in King Solomon’s Mines.) In addition, the British controlled much territory indirectly, through client states such as Griqualand, southeast of the Transvaal.
  • Voortrekker farming settlements had been contested and often curbed both by the British and by African peoples such as the Zulus. Nevertheless, the Afrikaners had established two independent states in the interior: the South African Republic, in the Transvaal (1852), and the Orange Free State, south of the Transvaal (1854).
  • Having absorbed many neighboring peoples, the Zulu nation controlled the territory between Natal and the Transvaal. Persistent border disputes occurred between the Zulus and the Afrikaner descendants of European settlers. Other indigenous peoples who resisted the Europeans included the Xhosa (on the Cape frontier), the Swazi (north of Natal) and the Pedi (in the northern Transvaal).
  • The Ndebele (also called Matabele) occupied a wide strip of land in today’s southwestern Zimbabwe, along the border with Botswana.

Diamonds, British annexation, and the Zulu War

The region’s unsettled situation was exacerbated by the discovery, in 1870, of rich diamond deposits in territory already contested by various groups: the two Afrikaner states, a breakaway Griqua (mixed race) state, and chiefs of the neighboring southern Tswana peoples. A diamond rush ensued, and by the end of the following year nearly 50,000 fortune seekers had arrived, creating the sprawling boom town of Kimberley. British adjudication awarded Kimberley to the Griqua, who then requested British protection. Britain formally annexed the area as Griqualand West in 1871, incorporating it into the Cape Colony nine years later.

The annexation of Griqualand West marked a shift in British policy; the British were taking a new, aggressively imperial stance. This change in attitude sprang not only from events in South Africa (such as the discovery of diamonds and, in 1886, of gold), but also from a growing sense among the British of their own place at the head of a worldwide empire. For the most part, the British Empire before the 1870s had grown haphazardly and without conscious design; from the 1870s to the early 1900s it would grow as the result of self-conscious and deliberate purpose.

The 19-year-old Haggard arrived in South Africa in 1875, at a critical period in this transition. In his first year, as assistant to the lieutenant-governor of Natal, Sir Henry Bulwer, Haggard accompanied Bulwer on visits to a number of Zulu kraals, or villages. The following year, he went with Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the influential secretary for native affairs, on a fact-finding mission into the Transvaal. Shepstone, having just returned from meetings in London with the British colonial secretary Lord Carnarvon, had instructions to see if conditions favored British annexation of the unstable Afrikaner state there. Under threat from the formidable Zulu king Cetewayo (whose accession Shepstone had helped secure in 1872), the Afrikaners agreed to annexation. On May 24, 1877—Queen Victoria’s birthday—Haggard himself hoisted the British flag in the Transvaal capital of Pretoria.

With the Transvaal in British hands, the Zulus became a British problem, not an Afrikaner one. In December 1878 the British high commissioner for Southern Africa, Sir Bartle Frere, issued an ultimatum to Cetewayo, ordering him to disband his troops and accept British government. As anticipated, Cetewayo ignored the ultimatum, which then gave Frere a pretext to invade Zululand. Early the following year, under the inexperienced Lord Chelmsford, a British expeditionary force of some 1,700 men was almost completely wiped out by the Zulus at Isandhlwana. Although the Zulus were defeated later that year, and Zululand was eventually incorporated into Natal, the battle of Isandhlwana remained a strong memory for the British in South Africa. Shepstone, Haggard, and other experienced colonists had opposed Frere’s making an ultimatum to the Zulus. Haggard’s fictional narrator, Allan Quatermain, served as “one of Lord Chelmsford’s guides in that unlucky Zulu War,” though he had the good fortune to be away from the camp when the Zulus attacked (Haggard, King Solomons Mines, p. 46). Like his narrator, Haggard had friends who died at Isandhlwana, and he viewed the expedition as a tragic error. After the British victory in the Zulu War, Haggard’s respect for the Zulus—the “Romans of Africa,” he called them—remained undiminished (Haggard in Pocock, p. 21).

Afrikaner rebellion

Following a visit to England (where he got married in 1880), Haggard returned to Africa. Buying a home in eastern Natal near the Transvaal border, he switched from a career in colonial government to one as an ostrich farmer. His decision to leave colonial government was partly influenced by the extreme


Haggard himself identified the Ndebele as his model for the novel’s Kukuana, though he portrays his fictional people as having settled Kukuanaland long before the Ndebele’s trek north to Zimbabwe in the mid-1800s. Like the Zulu, from whom they split, the Ndebele suffered from frequent civil wars between leaders, Mzilikazi’s son Lobengula displaced his rival in one such war, perhaps providing a model for the novel’s war between Twala, the usurper, and lgnosi, the Kukuana’s rightful king. The character Quatermain in Haggard’s novel refers to Lobengula as a great scoundrel (King Solomon’s Mines, p 50). In real life, Lobengula was responsible for the deaths of two of Haggard’s African servants, Khiva and Ventvögel Haggard had sent them to accompany some English friends on a friendly expedition to the Ndebele, but the whole party was wiped out by lobengula’s soldiers Haggard paid tribute to the two by reproducing them as the faithful servants Khiva and Ventvögel who die in King Solomon’s Mines

unpopularity of the British administration in the Transvaal. Shepstone had handled the annexation with tact and deftness, but his superiors had removed him from office after the debacle against the Zulus at Isandhlwana. British policy afterward ignored the demands of the Afrikaners, who, once the British defeated the Zulus, no longer needed British protection against them in any case. By the time Haggard returned to the area, the Afrikaners had broken out in open revolt against the British. The tough, heavily armed farmers defeated the British in a series of battles, most notably at Majuba Hill in 1881, and shortly after that Britain restored self-rule to the Transvaal. Haggard viewed this so-called Retrocession (“giving back”) as a betrayal of the British colonials by the government in London. Ironically, at his house in Natal, Haggard—who had personally raised the British flag in Pretoria—also personally hosted the five weeks of negotiations that returned the Transvaal to the Afrikaners.

Abandoning the dangers of South Africa, Haggard and his family went back to England, where he turned his hand first to a legal career and then to writing. Cetywayo and His White Neighbors (1882), his first book, provides a history of the Zulu War and a defense of Shepstone’s policies. The book, which has been highly praised by modern historians, argues that British rule was necessary in the Transvaal to protect the black Africans from abuse at the hands of the Afrikaners. It also predicts that political strife will continue to trouble South Africa, a prediction that


In contrast to his respect for the Zulus, Haggard had contempt for the Afrikaners, like many British colonials in South Africa, he Saw the Afrikaners as a backward people who were racist, and brutal in their treatment of blacks Modem historians generally agree with this assessment Haggard was chastised by his superiors for portraying the Afrikaners unfavorably in a magnine. article at a lime of sensitive negotiations over the fate of the Transvaal, which (along with his hostility) may partly explain why King Solomon’s Mines has few references to them

would be fulfilled when the British and the Afrikaners clashed again in the long and bitter South African or Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. That war, which Britain won only with difficulty, would mark the final stage in Britain’s colonial conquest of South Africa.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The story begins as Allan Quatermain, the 55-year-old trader and big-game hunter who narrates the novel, returns home to Durban from Cape Town by ship after an unsuccessful elephant hunt. On board the ship he meets two Englishmen traveling together from Britain to Natal, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good. He strikes up a shipboard acquaintance with the two friends, who are opposites in physical appearance. Sir Henry, a large muscular man with blond hair, looks like a Viking, while Captain Good, an officer in the British navy, is short, heavy-set, and dark-haired. They have come to Africa in hopes of tracing Sir Henry’s missing brother. He disappeared five years earlier while searching for King Solomon’s mines, the legendary lost diamond mines that supposedly belonged to the ancient Hebrew monarch.

Quatermain once met the missing brother, it turns out, who at the time was traveling under the name Neville as he searched for the lost mines. Quatermain himself had heard of the mines from another elephant hunter 20 years earlier. But since this was well before the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley, there was no proof of diamonds in the region, so he discounted the story at the time. Then, years later in Manicaland (today’s eastern Zimbabwe), Quatermain met a Portuguese prospector named Jose Silvestre, who emerged from the western desert and, dying of fever, gave Quatermain a map, which had been drawn in blood, to the mines. The map had been drawn 300 years earlier by an ancestor of Silvestre, one of the first Portuguese in Natal. With the map, which directed seekers to cross the desert to the land of the Kukuanas and pass between two mountains called Sheba’s Breasts, came instructions. The instructions warned readers to beware “the treachery of Gagool the witch-finder” (King Solomons Mines, p. 28). Quatermain did not take the map seriously, but he relayed directions to the mines to Neville’s black servant, Jim, to pass along to Neville. Quatermain had never seen or heard of Neville again.

After telling them this story and showing them the map, Quatermain agrees to help Sir Henry and Captain Good find the mines, in hopes of also locating Neville. Staying at Quatermain’s home in Durban, the three prepare supplies for the long expedition north into the interior, including weapons and ammunition. They also hire five black servants, among them a Khoikhoin tracker named Ventvögel, a Zulu named Khiva, and a man named Umbopa who describes himself as “of the Zulu people yet not of them” (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 48). Umbopa says that he wants the job because he wishes to return to his people in the north, who were “left behind when the Zulus came down here ‘a thousand years ago’” (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 48). Quatermain remembers Umbopa from the British camp at Isandhlwana, where Umbopa had commanded a unit of “native auxiliaries,” black African troops fighting under British command (King Solomon’sMines, p. 47). Umbopa, in fact, had warned him that the camp was in danger. Quatermain had ignored the warning at the time but remembered it later, after the Zulu attack. Umbopa is a large and “magnificent-looking man,” every bit as impressive as Sir Henry, who likes him and decides to take him as his personal servant (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 49).

It takes the group nearly four months to make the more than 1,000-mile journey from Durban north to Sitanda’s Kraal, the remote village in Manicaland where Quatermain had met Silvestre years earlier. Quatermain skips over most of the trip, though he does pause to relate the events surrounding an elephant hunt that the group engages in on the way. At the end of the hunt, Captain Good—who insists on wearing formal clothes or “civilized dress” in the bush—slips in his smooth-soled boots and falls while fleeing a charging elephant (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 62). Khiva, his young Zulu servant, bravely stops and hurls his assegai, or long-bladed spear, at the enraged animal, which seizes him and tears him in two. After burying Khiva, the group moves on.

Finally the men reach Sitanda’s Kraal, on the edge of the western desert. There they hear of a white man and his black servant named Jim who went into the desert a few years ago and never returned. Making arrangements to leave their elephant rifles and other heavy gear with an old man in the village, they venture into the desert, resting by day and traveling by night. Their only hope of survival is to find a single water hole that is marked on the map halfway across the desert, for without replenishing their water supply they cannot complete the journey. The experienced Ventvögel saves them by finding water. Now their problem is food, for they have eaten the last of their provisions. They reach the mountains and begin climbing, and as it gets colder they suffer all the more for not having nourishment. They find the little cave that marks the entrance to the mines and sleep in it, losing Ventvögel who dies during the night.

The next morning they find another body besides Ventvögel’s inside the cave. It is Silvestre’s ancestor, the man who drew the old map that led them there and whose remains have been preserved by the cold. That day they shoot some antelope, eating the meat raw since there is no wood for a fire. Taking some of the meat with them, they press on, using a mysterious 50-foot wide highway marked on the map as Solomon’s Great Road. The road, artfully carved out of the solid stone, appears abruptly at the bottom of the mountain and runs through the plain that lies ahead. As they camp that evening, they encounter a group of men who identify themselves as Kukuanas and who speak a language very similar to Zulu. The Kukuanas are about to kill them when Captain Good terrifies them by pulling his false teeth down and letting them snap back (a habit of his in times of stress). Quatermain further shocks them by shooting an antelope with his rifle. Convinced that the whites must be gods, the Kukuanas escort them back to their king, whose name is Twala.

Their Kukuana escort is led by Infadoos, King Twala’s half-brother, and by Scragga, his son. Infadoos tells Quatermain that Twala seized power years ago in a civil war, overthrowing the rightful king, Twala’s older twin brother Imotu. Imotu was killed, but his wife escaped with their infant son, Ignosi. The two disappeared in the desert and were never seen again. If he had survived, however, Ignosi would be the rightful king of the Kukuana. As Infadoos answers his questions, Quatermain notices Umbopa, Sir Henry’s servant, listening attentively.

They travel for three days through Kukuana-land before arriving at Loo, the large town where the king makes his residence. They meet Twala and the “wizened monkey-like figure” named Gagool, a terrifying old woman who acts as the king’s prophetess (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 147). In a trancelike state, Gagool foresees rivers of blood, and she seems to recognize Umbopa before collapsing in a fit and being carried away. The travelers are told that in the evening they will witness “the great witch-hunt,” in which the leading Kukuanas assemble and Gagool singles out those she identifies as witches, who are killed on the spot (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 151). In reality, Infadoos tells them, she points out those who have property the king covets or who have in some other way incurred his wrath. Twala is a harsh tyrant. “The land,” says Infadoos, cries out with his “cruelties” (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 151). Twala has been tolerated by the people only because the son, Scragga, is even more cruel than the father.

Before the witch-hunt begins, Umbopa reveals that he is Ignosi, the rightful king, and that he plans to overthrow Twala. Infadoos swears loyalty to him and says that he will speak with the Kukuana chiefs, who will in turn speak with their soldiers. After they witness the horrible spectacle of the witch hunt—and are themselves nearly singled out by Gagool—they are met in their hut by a number of Kukuana chiefs. Believing them still to be gods, the chiefs ask for a sign to show that Umbopa is in fact Ignosi, the rightful king. After they leave, Captain Good reads in his almanac that a solar eclipse will happen the next day. Returning later, the chiefs agree that if the white “gods” can block out the sun, the chiefs will accept Umbopa as Ignosi. The eclipse occurs, and under cover of darkness Ignosi and the whites escape to prepare for battle against Twala, taking a young Kukuana girl named Foulata, whom they have rescued from death at the hands of Twala’s son Scragga.

Sir Henry, Captain Good, and Quatermain fight bravely on the side of the victorious Ignosi, and after the battle Sir Henry kills Twala in single combat. Calling Gagool “the evil genius of the land,” Ignosi states his intention to execute her, but he has also promised to take the whites to the diamond mines, and Quatermain points out that Gagool can show the way (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 245). Captain Good develops a fever from his wounds, and is nursed back to health by Foulata, the young Kukuana girl. After he heals, they all set out for the mines, taking the muttering and cursing Gagool with them. She hints that she is the same Gagool the old Portuguese warned them about (beware “the treachery of Gagool, the witch-finder”), and that she may be hundreds of years old.

The travelers approach the three towering mountains that surround the mines, and as they get closer, they find a pit that Quatermain recognizes, having seen similar mining pits at Kim-berley. On the other side of the pit they come upon three huge statues of stone, one female and two male figures, which the Kukuana call the “Silent Ones” (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 258). Past the Silent Ones lies the cave called the “Place of Death,” where all the kings of the Kukuana are entombed and where Gagool says they will find “the store of bright stones” (King Solomon’s Mines, pp. 259, 260). Led by Gagool, they enter the cave, where they find numerous stalagmites created by water dripping from the ceiling over the centuries. They go through a passage to an inner cavern, where one stalagmite has been sculpted into a huge skeleton that presides over a massive table. Around the table are nearly 30 stalagmites that contain the bodies of the Kukuana kings, slowly encased by the minerals in the dripping water. Even Twala is there, a thin mineral film already covering his body.

Gagool triggers a secret mechanism, and a stone wall at the back of the cavern slowly rises, creating an opening into the treasure chamber. Inside they find crates of gold and huge stone chests filled with diamonds. Suddenly, the men hear Foulata cry out from the passage, where Gagool has returned and triggered the secret mechanism again to lower the massive stone wall. She stabs Foulata, who grapples with Gagool, delaying her, so that just as Gagool wriggles free and scrabbles under the wall it closes on her with “a long sickening crunch” (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 280). Gagool is dead. Foulata dies too, declaring her love for Good, and shortly afterward their only oil lamp slowly goes out. They realize that although Gagool is dead, she has left them entombed in the treasure chamber.

Sparingly using the eight matches they have left, the men desperately begin to search for a way out. They find a stairway, and before exploring it Quatermain fills his pockets with diamonds. At the bottom, Captain Good notices a draft of air, which they walk against, encountering numerous intersecting tunnels and an underground stream and retracing their steps several times. Finally they see a patch of light, which turns out to be a small hole in the ground. Gratefully, they climb out and rejoin Infadoos, who has been waiting at the pit. After two days spent recovering their strength, they are unable to find the small hole through which they escaped, nor can they discover the secret mechanism with which Gagool opened the stone door to the treasure chamber. Returning to the town Loo, they bid a sad farewell to Ignosi, who says he will allow no other white men to come into Kukuanaland.

The travelers start across the desert, making their way toward an oasis to which the Kukuanas have directed them—where they find none other than Sir Henry’s brother and his servant Jim. The two had been marooned at the oasis after Sir Henry’s brother broke his leg badly. Together they manage to transport the brother back across the desert to Sitanda’s Kraal and thence to Durban, where the Englishmen catch a ship back to Britain. They apportion the diamonds that Quatermain pocketed, which are enough to make them all rich men. As he finishes writing his account of the adventure, Quatermain receives an invitation to join his friends at Sir Henry’s home in Yorkshire, where Quatermain’s son Harry (who attends Oxford University) will be spending his Christmas vacation. Quatermain ends his story with plans to sail to England.

Race, greed, and imperialism

In his classic study of imperialism, the British historian J. A. Hobson has written that although “the year 1870 has been taken as … the beginning of a conscious policy of Imperialism … the movement did not attain its full impetus until the middle of the eighties” (Hobson, p. 19). As the remarkable career of the South African diamond magnate and imperialist statesman Cecil Rhodes illustrates, events in South Africa were central to this gathering momentum, and diamonds were central to events in South Africa. When Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines in 1885, Rhodes was still in the process of consolidating his control of the Kim-berley mines, which would form the cornerstone of his economic and political power. Haggard showed remarkable insight in putting diamonds at the center of King Solomon’s Mines, a deceptively simple adventure story published at the exact historical moment (according to Hobson) of imperialism’s full impetus.


The quintessential imperialist Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902}, was 17 years old when he landed in Durban, South Africa in 1870, He had planned a career in law, then fallen HI; to recwperate, he took a voyage to see his brother Herbert, a recent immigrant to South Africa, Rhodes proceeded, with his brother, to seek his fortune in the Kimberley diamond fields hi the 1 870s. First buying a number of small mines, he formed the De Beers Mining Company, which acquired other mines until Rhodes controlled 90 percent of the world’s diamond production, He parlayed his economic success into a political career, becoming Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1096 and engineering British commercial and political expansion Into two vast areas that were named for him: Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe; and Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. “Expansion Is everything,” Rhodes declared, continuing, “I would annex the planets if I could” (Rhodes in Arendt, p. 4).

Haggard is often cited as an imperialist writer, and King Solomon’s Mines as an unabashedly imperialist work. Yet in its portrayal of European motives in Africa, the novel’s sense of romance and adventure is balanced by its often stark acknowledgment of greed and racism. For example, as the African king Ignosi (a complex and sympathetically drawn character) bids goodbye to his white friends, he delivers a perceptive anti-imperialist speech that explicitly links white expansion in Africa to greed for diamonds:

If a white man comes to my gates I will send him back; if a hundred come, I will push them back; if an army comes, I will make war on them with all my strength, and they shall not prevail against me. None shall ever come for the shining stones; no, not an army….

(King Solomon’s Mines, p. 306)

Elsewhere both Ignosi and Gagool deride the whites’ hunger for the shining diamond stones, which seems ridiculous to them. Perhaps Sir Henry captures Haggard’s ambivalence when he responds indignantly to Ignosi that “wealth is good, and if it comes our way we will take it; but a gentleman does not sell himself for wealth” (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 155). Yet a gentleman, it seems, has trouble taking wealth even when it is there for the picking; it is Quatermain, the


Throughout the nineteenth century, a series of highly publicized British expeditions ventured into the African interior, helping to feed an appetite for romance and adventure in the British public. The most sensational of these expeditions was that of the British-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley, who located the missing explorer and missionary David Livingstone in 1871. To European audiences, one intriguing element in their lore about Africa was a speculative connection between Africa and ancient white races. In 1871 the German geologist Karl Mauch suggested that the giant stone ruins at Great Zimbabwe had been built by the ancient Phoenicians; for centuries Portuguese traders speculated that the rock mines near Great Zimbabwe had been built by King Solomon. Modern historians have discounted these theories, attributing such remains to indigenous African peoples.

practical trader, not the gentlemanly Sir Henry, who will soon fill his pockets when diamonds come their way in the treasure chamber. Race, too, is subject to similar ambivalence. When pondering what makes a gentleman, Quatermain refuses to use the derogatory word “nigger,” explaining that he has known blacks who were gentlemen and whites who were not. Yet Quatermain chides Ignosi (very much a “gentleman” in behavior even when he is still Umbopa the servant) for speaking too familiarly to the whites. He also decides that Foulata’s death, while tragic, was a blessing in disguise, because “no amount of beauty or refinement could have made an entanglement between Captain 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?’” (King Solomon’s Mines, p. 300). Quatermain thus exemplifies a common attitude among British South Africans: horror at the allegedly open and brutal racism of the Afrikaners, paternal affection and respect for some black Africans, yet revulsion at the idea of mixing too closely with them.

Sources and literary context

In addition to well-known and exotic lore about the African interior, Haggard’s own experiences in Africa provided many of the novel’s details and background. The characters of the two servants Khiva and Ventvõgel, he records elsewhere, were as true to life as he could make them. For the cave he calls the “Place of the Dead,” Haggard drew on a visit to a real stalagmite cave at Wonderfontein, where he saw rows of glistening pillars formed by dripping, mineral-laden water. A friend’s description of a Zulu ceremony served as a model for the novel’s witch-hunt. As Haggard recalled the tale, there stood “some five thousand armed warriors in a circle,” with “witch-doctors” dancing around them: “Everyone was livid with fear, and with reason, for now and again one of these creatures would come crooning up to one of them and touch him, whereupon he was promptly put out of this world by a regiment of the king’s guard” (Haggard in Higgins, p. 19).

Haggard’s childhood in England also offered inspiration. One of his schoolteachers told a strange tale about a friend who had come upon an ancient burial site in Peru, where the corpses were seated around a table. Haggard combined this image with the caves at Wonderfontein in his rendering of the “Place of the Dead.” Also, as a boy he had known a farmer named Quatermain, whose name he appropriated for the novel’s hero. Scholars have suggested (though Haggard himself denied it) that Quatermain’s character was based on the well-known explorer and hunter Frederick Selous, whose popular book A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa (1881) Haggard had probably read. Around this time a number of “boys’ adventure” novels about Africa captured the public’s imagination, such as the prolific G. A. Henty’s By Sheer Pluck: A Tale of the Ashanti War (1884), and these too may have influenced Haggard’s writing of the novel. Finally, Haggard owed at least some inspiration to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island (1883) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886; also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). It was after discussing Treasure Island with his brother that Haggard boasted he could match it. His brother bet him he could not, and King Solomon’s Mines—written, Haggard later said, in some six weeks—was the result.


Haggard won the bet, for like Treasure Island, King Solomon’s Mines—Haggard’s first deliberate attempt at children’s fiction—was an immediate success. Published by Cassell (Stevenson’s publisher) in September 1885, King Solomon’s Mines sold an impressive 31,000 copies in its first year. “KING SOLOMON’S MINES—THE MOST AMAZING STORY EVER WRITTEN,” Haggard’s publishers proclaimed on advertising posters in London, and most reviews were nearly as enthusiastic. The Athenaeum declared the novel “one of the best books for boys—old or young—that we remember to have read” (King Solomon’s Mines, vii). A reviewer for The Spectator compared it favorably to similar works by Jules Verne and Herman Melville, and Stevenson himself thought it showed “flashes of a fine weird imagination and a fine poetic use and command of the savage way of talking: things which both thrilled me” (Stevenson in Cohen, p. 95).

Ultimately, the novel’s influence was profound if unmeasurable, for (as historians point out) an entire generation of British children—along with many adults—took their impression of Africa directly from King Solomon’s Mines. Like other budding empire-builders, the young Winston Churchill read it as a schoolboy, sending Haggard an avid fan letter: “I hope you will write a great many more books,” the future leader announced (Churchill in Cohen, p. 96). As a later observer wrote in 1926, by creating a powerfully romantic vision of Europeans in Africa, Haggard’s novels (of which King Solomon’s Mines remained the most popular) “helped to accomplish the dreams and aims of [Cecil] Rhodes,” encouraging young males to support and later advance the cause of British empire-building (Hutchinson in Katz, p. 1).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Arendt, Hannah. Imperialism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

Cohen, Morton N. Rider Haggard: His Life and Works. New York: Walker, 1960.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. H. Rider Haggard: A Voice from the Infinite. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

Etherington, Norman. Rider Haggard. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Haggard, H. Rider. King Solomon’s Mines. 1885. Reprint, World’s Classics Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Harrison, J. F. C. Late Victorian Britain 1875-1901. London: Routledge, 1991.

Higgins, D. F. Rider Haggard: A Biography. New York: Stein & Day, 1981.

Hobson, J. A. Imperialism, A Study. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965.

Katz, Wendy R. Rider Haggard and the Fiction of Empire: A Critical Study of British Imperial Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Pocock, Tom. Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1993.