Rider Haggard’s Minor Achievement: Maiwa’s Revenge

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a lesser-known Allan Quatermain novella

Maiwa’s Revenge is not a major novel in the H. Rider Haggard canon. Indeed, it’s a ‘minor’ novel even in terms of size and scale, running to just over 120 pages in the wonderful Macdonald illustrated edition from the 1960s which I own. And yet despite its status as a minor work in his oeuvre, Maiwa’s Revenge is worth reading, and worth a review (of sorts) here, not least because it features Rider Haggard’s most enduringly popular character, Allan Quatermain, ‘the Indiana Jones of Victorian literature’.

Maiwa’s Revenge, first published in 1888 shortly after Rider Haggard had enjoyed runaway successes with King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain, and She within the space of just a couple of years, seems to have been churned out at speed. Set in South Africa, it’s really two loosely linked stories in one, which Quatermain relates to his friends as they have a story-sharing evening. The first story hasn’t aged well, involving Quatermain’s boasts about how he hunted and killed three elephants for their ivory. Just over a decade later, in 1899, Joseph Conrad would publish his novella, Heart of Darkness, which hinted at the corruption underlying much colonial activity in Africa, with a villainous ivory-dealer at its (dark) heart in the form of Kurtz. But in 1888, clearly the idea of big game hunting, now something uncritically enjoyed or countenanced by a dwindling number of (largely American) devotees, was something which the majority of Rider Haggard’s Victorian readers would have accepted without comment. In the end (minor spoiler alert), Quatermain loses his ivory tusks to some Portuguese thieves, but it would be generous to view this as Rider Haggard’s attempt to hint at the futility of ivory-dealing. This portion of Maiwa’s Revenge leaves a bad taste, but provides a valuable window onto Victorian adventure fiction set in colonial Africa, and the description of the hunt is, as ever with Haggard, written with consummate narrative skill.

In the second half of this short novel, things get back on track and we’re treated to something approaching classic Rider Haggard storytelling. A native African woman, Maiwa, approaches Allan Quatermain and tells him her tragic story: her father, Nala, agreed for her to be married to Wambe, a vicious and sadistic chieftain who kills his sons lest they should grow up and threaten his status as the ruler of his people. Such a fate has befallen Maiwa, who keeps the dead hand of her young son with her as a reminder of him – and of her burning desire for vengeance. Quatermain is asked to help her in her quest for revenge, and he reluctantly agrees, although only because another white Englishman, John Every, has been taken prisoner by Wambe and Quatermain wishes to free him. What follows are a series of Haggardian set-pieces: a near-death tussle over the side of a cliff, a battle, a narrow escape from the jaws (almost literally) of death, and … well, I won’t give too much away.

Although this second half of Maiwa’s Revenge is less objectionable from a modern perspective than the elephant-hunting narrative, it still has its problems: Quatermain is viewed as a white saviour by the native African people he helps, and he only agrees to help Maiwa because he wants to rescue a fellow white man from Wambe’s evil clutches. I’ve no intention of whitewashing these elements from this review of Rider Haggard’s novella; nor, though, do I think we should simply jettison any work of literature produced in a different era because some of the attitudes to race which are depicted strike us as problematic. That’s part of the reason literary criticism exists: to have a critical discussion about such attitudes and how and why they have changed. And in fact, from a character perspective, I think it makes Maiwa’s Revenge a richer novel that the hero’s motive is somewhat self-interested: as in many more complex works of fiction, the hero does the right thing but for the wrong reason. Or, at any rate, different reasons. This means that, if he is the ‘white saviour’ of Maiwa and her people, he is one who is in it for himself, or for all Englishmen (the name of the man he’s seeking to rescue, John Every, is a suitably Everyman name, which reminded me of Brian Griffin’s objection in Family Guy to the name ‘John Everyman’ being used in a Hollywood script for a film titled Death Spares Not the Tiger).

The point remains, however, that Maiwa’s Revenge is a minor work when set aside H. Rider Haggard’s major achievements, such as She and King Solomon’s Mines. Is it worth reading? Yes, especially for the second half. And it doesn’t take long to read. Sadly, the Macdonald editions of Rider Haggard’s books which I own are hard to find online. But Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg both have the full text of Maiwa’s Revenge.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

7 thoughts on “Rider Haggard’s Minor Achievement: Maiwa’s Revenge”

  1. On killing elephants for their tusks and ivory-dealing: to me, this is 1888, and “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. More concerning was the gratuitous prolonged assault on the head man at the end of Chapter 3. This was in line with Allan Quartermain’s generally coercive attitude, evidenced by threats and acts of violence, towards those working for him who had different priorities, most obviously Gobo. These are choices of the protagonist, which he has exercised on occasions when he could have exercised other, better, choices. And it is also disturbing to find these actions having the implicit consent of the author as well as of the dinner guests. Choices of this kind are available no matter what the era or historical background. Elephant shooting and ivory-dealing, however, were to those times what oil exploration and gas drilling are to ours: just one of the ways we earn our living.
    A smashing tale, though, and thank you for bringing it to us.

    • That’s a fair point about the hunting, Barry (and thanks for the comment). As I say in the piece, it’s something which few people would countenance now, but then concern for the welfare of animals (especially wild animals) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Quatermain’s motives and behaviour are often questionable, and he clearly has the confidence of the British colonialist and doesn’t care who gets manipulated or trampled on to get there. As you say, this is still a smashing tale – Haggard’s a captivating storyteller, as long as we take into account that he was writing in a very different age!

  2. Interestingly, I love Haggard’s writing just as I love Kipling’s and find their colonial perspectives to be palatable despite being different to mine – as long as context of their writing is allowed, as you’ve said here. Bur Conrad, despite trying to write a pseudo-anti-colonial novel in ‘Heart of Darkness’, I find really repulsive. I’m not wholly certain if this is to do with disliking his literary style (whereas Haggard and Kipling are pretty much dreamy to read) or if there’s more to the attitude that I haven’t yet analysed. At the very least, I’m not too alone in this thinking from what I gleam of the opinions of others, so maybe there’s something in it…

    • I must say I prefer reading Haggard to Conrad too, because Haggard was much the better good old-fashioned storyteller (one of the greatest of that golden age that also included Kipling, as you say, but also Wells, Doyle, and various others). But I think Conrad wasn’t interested in straightforward storytelling – like so many writers who are grouped under the ‘modernist’ umbrella, he wants to frustrate us rather than entertain us! As for colonial attitudes, it seems many find Conrad less objectionable because they think he’s seeking to expose the evils of colonialism as a mission, while others argue that actually what he’s saying is that it is the environment itself that has corrupted those good Europeans (‘spend enough time in Africa and you’ll become uncivilised’, etc.). Which is less positive an outlook. So it’s a tricky one. I think your point about their styles is at the heart (as it were) of this: because Conrad is so elliptical and subtle, we can never be sure what his ‘message’ is. Is he critiquing the Belgians and others for going to Africa in the first place, or upholding the mainstream view at the time that such parts of the world were naturally uncivilised? Whereas Haggard we can readily accept at face value, albeit with the rider you mention. I know you’re not a fan of Conrad, Ken, though I will have to tackle Heart of Darkness one day!

      • Ha ha yes I’m trying to wear my biases on my sleeve and be honest about them! I first read Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim’ and my opinion of him then was only re-confirmed by ‘Heart of Darkness’. I’m not convinced about the ambiguity of his meaning, I’ll confess. Both books paint colonised people as savages which may, or may not, be good and noble in their own way but most certainly inferior to the white man (not woman of course). Kipling is a fine line for me as I spent many years in Bangladesh (his beloved Bengal) and read books like ‘Kim’ while out there. I know many quote his love for the Empire but I think that was a fervent belief that it was a good thing. What comes out in his books is a greater love – and understanding – of the Indian people themselves. Similarly, Haggard may write from a colonial view but it feels to me that he respects and admires the African people he describes (at least in King Solomon’s Mines anyway, and She, if I recall correctly). This is the difference for me – I don’t feel Conrad’s respect for non-whites. If that all makes sense?!

        • That absolutely makes sense. I agree that Haggard does appear to have loved the African people he writes about, and that’s borne out by his other writings on Africa as well as his time spent on the continent. I’m not sure about Conrad – if I recall correctly, he also portrays the plight of African people living under the boot of colonialism (contrasting them with the carefree and well-heeled European explorers and businessmen) and the biggest villain of them all, Kurtz, is a symbol of the corrupting nature of imperialism. Or, alternatively, the corrupting nature of Africa itself, which is less palatable. I must write about it at some point – it needs revisiting, with some close attention to key passages. I do agree that it’s problematic, though!

          • Take a look at my review on my site for the new production on stage of Heart of Darkness. I recommend seeing it! The actors literally struggle through issues of Conrad as they perform a reinterpretation making the central character of Marlowe a black woman finding her way to kurtz in a post-apocalyptic Europe and London full of dangers from ‘the savages’! Best thing Conrad never wrote!


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