Even though I have been teaching H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) for a few years now, it seems I have not written about this novel here. A bit odd. Since I am most likely saying goodbye to it, this is perhaps the right moment to discuss its racist, colonial content, the issue on which my students need to write a short essay for assessment.

            My good friend Esther Pujolràs and I proposed to our colleague David Owen to include Haggard’s popular text in our syllabus not at all for the students to admire, but to read it critically, as I have explained in class often. King Solomon’s Mines is not really the start of imperial colonial adventure in English (it is preceded by a variety of fiction for boys such as The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1857) by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne, or even by Robinson Crusoe (1719)). Besides, Haggard wrote it following a bet with his brother, who dared him to write something as popular as R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), having already published two novels and a non-fiction volume (Cetywayo and His White Neighbours, 1882, on the Zulu king that defeated the British army). Yet, King Solomon’s Mines defined colonial adventure in so many ways that one might mistakenly believe it is full of clichés, when actually Haggard originated tropes still today indispensable in its myriad successors. This is why it’s worth reading.

            If I were to write the essay my students need to write (or an academic article) I would focus on the queer expression of the colonial ideology of Haggard’s text. In fact, this is exactly what I am going to do here. The word ‘queer’, which simply means ‘curious’ or ‘peculiar’ started being used to mean ‘effeminate’ apparently in the 1890s, a few years after the publication of King Solomon’s Mines, so I’ll assume that the diverse points in which Haggard uses ‘queer’ this is done innocently. When Sir Henry Curtis prepares for battle and says goodbye to his white companions, the narrator Allan Quatermain (a hunter and explorer) and Navy officer John Good, he describes their participation in the civil war unleashed by Ignosi’s claim to the Kukuanaland throne as its lost heir (the trio had hired him as their servant ‘Umbopa’) as “a queer business.” This is ‘queer’ indeed considering that the three white men basically want to rob Kukuana of its treasure, the diamonds hidden in King Solomon’s Mines, but it is also ‘queer’ because Quatermain (or Haggard) peppers his text with diverse references to the beauty of Sir Henry and of Ignosi. In an alternative modern version, Sir Henry would stay in Kukuanaland to be Ignosi’s couple for life, but I don’t think we have reached the point in which adventure can end with a happy, gay, bi-racial couple.

            King Solomon’s Mines is dominated by the basic homosocial intention of the author, whose narrator dedicates his “faithful but unpretending record of a remarkable adventure” to “all the big and little boys who read it.” In Chapter I he courts his all-male audience by stressing that “I am going to tell the strangest story that I remember. It may seem a queer thing to say, especially considering that there is no woman in it—except Foulata. Stop, though! there is Gagaoola, if she was a woman, and not a fiend. But she was a hundred at least, and therefore not marriageable, so I don’t count her. At any rate, I can safely say that there is not a petticoat in the whole history” (original italics). Indeed, the two Kukuana women Foulata and Gagool (or Gagoola) are the only female characters in the text; their fellow native women, who are “for a native race, (…) exceedingly handsome,” are only mentioned as chattel to be given to the three white explorer both by the cruel usurper Twala and the good king Ignosi. Quatermain rejects the offer twice for fear of miscegenation.

            The queer, or gay, subtext surfaces most insistently in relation to Sir Henry and Ignosi since the moment they meet. Quatermain is in possession of the map which leads to the treasure, drawn in his own blood by a dying Portuguese explorer three hundred years before, but he lacks the money to organize an expedition. Sir Henry contributes that as he happens to be searching for his lost younger brother George, the McGuffin in the tale, and also another treasure hunter. As a rich English gentleman, Sir Henry is described by Quatermain in highly admiring terms (“I never saw a finer-looking man, and somehow he reminded me of an ancient Dane”). What is striking is that the same admiring terms are used in the description of the “tall, handsome-looking man, somewhere about thirty years of age, and very light-coloured for a Zulu” who asks for a job in their expedition.

            The man, calling himself Umbopa, does not hesitate to strip down to the “moocha” that covers his loins before the three white gentlemen during his job interview. “Certainly,” Quatermain enthuses, “he was a magnificent-looking man; I never saw a finer native.” Interested, Sir Henry approaches the almost naked man to declare “I like your looks, Mr. Umbopa, and I will take you as my servant.” John Good has just observed to Quatermain that “They make a good pair, don’t they? (…) one as big as the other.” As for the unfazed ‘Umbopa’, who seems to know very well what he is doing to Sir Henry, he glances “at the white man’s great stature and breadth” and declares he accepts the job: “We are men, thou and I.” I might argue that he has used his body essentially to entice his three white ‘brothers’ to help him regain his throne, somehow knowing about their ‘queer’ tastes for handsome black men. The word ‘honeypot’ comes to mind.

            Umbopa/Ignosi’s body is again an object of the erotic male gaze when, to prove his identity as the right heir, he again strips down, this time already in Kukuana before the three white men and his own uncle Infadoos with quite a sexy gesture: “Then with a single movement Umbopa slipped off his ‘moocha’ or girdle, and stood naked before us.” He points out then at “the picture of a great snake tattooed in blue round his middle, its tail disappearing into its open mouth just above where the thighs are set into the body.” This phallic snake, incidentally, is not seen in the previous scene when Sir Henry hires him, which might be simply due to Haggard’s authorial negligence. Whatever the case, “Infadoos looked, his eyes starting nearly out of his head. Then he fell upon his knees. ‘Koom! Koom!’ he ejaculated; ‘it is my brother’s son; it is the king’.” I had to clarify to my students that ‘ejaculate’ means here ‘cried out’, though I kept quiet about the proximity of the Kukuana expression ‘koom’ to ‘come’ or ‘cum’. Maybe after all Infadoos is ejaculating at the sight of his attractive lost nephew Ignosi.

            When the three white men prepare to wage war on Ignosi’s side in the scene to which I have already alluded, Quatermain again compares the two men. “Sir Henry,” Quatermain notes, “went the whole length about the matter, and dressed himself like a native warrior,” in a way thus fulfilling the narrator’s fantasy that the younger Englishman is, somehow, the descendant of ancient (Dane) warriors. After giving a detailed description of the African native warrior outfit (complete with chainmail!), Quatermain further shows his enthusiasm: “The dress was, no doubt, a savage one, but I am bound to say that I seldom saw a finer sight than Sir Henry Curtis presented in this guise. It showed off his magnificent physique to the greatest advantage, and when Ignosi arrived presently, arrayed in a similar costume, I thought to myself that I had never before seen two such splendid men.” I forgot to say, by the way, that Ignosi’s Kukuana nickname for Sir Henry is Incubu, meaning elephant; make whatever you want of this. Size matters, they say.

            My argumentation is in part undermined by the lack of a specific bromance between Ignosi and Sir Henry. The newly crowned Kukuana king treats the three men as “brothers,” making no distinction between them, though he deals mostly with Quatermain, and bows down to his decision to leave Kukuanaland to go back home. Ignosi offers to welcome the trio as visitors (not conquerors) if they ever wish to return and guarantees that their memory will be cherished among his subjects for ever. Ignosi also declares that “If a white man comes to my gates I will send him back; if a hundred come I will push them back; if armies come, I will make war on them with all my strength, and they shall not prevail against me.” Poor thing! Zimbawe, where Kukuanaland is supposed to be, was chartered to the British South Africa Company, led by Cecil Rhodes, who occupied it with his Pioneer Column in 1890, just four years after the farewell scene.

            Oddly, the letter that Sir Henry sends to Quatermain once he is back in England, inviting him to buy a house near his own mansion, makes no mention of Ignosi. Sir Henry does mention in the postscript, however, that among the new trophies adorning his studio is “the axe with which I chopped off Twala’s head,” now “fixed above my writing-table.” Once he had been defeated the deposed Twala asked to fight Sir Henry in single combat and the fierce confrontation ended when “swinging the big axe round his head with both hands” Sir Henry “hit at him with all his force.” Twala’s head, Quatermain reports, “seemed to spring from his shoulders: then it fell and came rolling and bounding along the ground towards Ignosi, stopping just at his feet.” Sir Henry, wounded and bleeding, faints, a situation that allows Quatermain to step up, pick up the royal diamond on Twala’s forehead and offer it to Ignosi, in a scene that seems designed to show the new king has the seal of approval of the British Empire through Sir Henry and Quatermain. My view is that Ignosi if absurdly robbed to the retribution scene in which he should have killed Twala only to give Sir Henry a chance to prove his warrior credentials and Quatermain to remind Ignosi of his debts to the white men.

            So, where does the queer, or gay, subtext of King Solomon Mine’s come from in view of its clear racist, colonial ideology? I believe that Quatermain (and Haggard) is more misogynistic than racist, which means that whereas any possible interest in the native women is trumped by the combination of his racism and his deep dislike of women, he quite likes the native black men: at least, the good-looking ones. Not as his equals, as friends or true brothers, but as objects of a homoerotic curiosity and a certain homosocial loyalty, prompted in this case by Ignosi’s beauty. Both character and author, Quatermain and Haggard, are heterosexual married men (Quatermain is a widower) and fathers; but there is something clearly queer in their approach to the beauty of men, visible first in Sir Henry Curtis’s characterization and then in Ignosi’s. As I have hinted, though I grant this is a far-fetched reading, Ignosi uses his body to secure Sir Henry’s attention and thus be hired as the Englishman’s servant, though, as the Kukuana heir, he is actually his social superior. You might argue that the deal favours everyone, as Ignosi gets his kingdom back and the three white men the diamonds, yet this is a gross misreading. The throne is Ignosi’s by (patriarchal) right, whereas the three Englishmen are thieves. If I were Ignosi, I would take the diamonds from the white men, put them in the market and set the foundations for Kukuanaland to become… Wakanda.

            The colonial ideology, in short, of King Solomon’s Mines is expressed in many ways along the text, but we should not miss how the white male gaze focuses on Umbopa/Ignosi’s body with an unmistakable queer lust, as big as the lust for his diamonds. There may be a certain resistance to this gaze in Ignosi’s pretence that he is just a servant, only to reveal his real identity once in Kukuana, though he never resents his condition as Sir Henry’s servant. The whole notion that Ignosi is the rightful heir and deserves the help of the white men depends, in any case, on his beauty (and the fact that his skin colour is not really dark). Twala, in contrast, is described as a disgusting man, mixing in his person racism (his thick lips) with the ableism typical of the villain (he is missing an eye). Just as the native women are praised as handsome “for a native race,” Ignosi is valued as handsome for a black man. And this is central to Quatermain/Haggard’s racist, colonial, but also queer discourse.