By Merrick Burrow (University of Huddersfield)
This post accompanies Merrick Burrow’s Journal of Victorian Culture article published (2013). It can be read in full here.
H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines ends with a letter in which Sir Henry Curtis, one of the main protagonists, highlights the significance of hunting and battle trophies brought back from the ‘lost world’ of Kukuanaland for his renewed sense of his own hegemonic masculinity:
The tusks of the great bull that killed poor Khiva have now been put up in the hall here, over the pair of buffalo horns you gave me, and look magnificent; and the axe with which I chopped off Twala’s head is stuck up over my writing table. I wish we could have managed to bring away the coats of chain armour.
This itemization of imperial souvenirs seems calculated to convey a euphoric homosociality that glorifies primal masculinity stripped of the ‘veneer’ of civilization. But Burrow argues that this constellation of things needs to be situated in the wider context of metropolitan material culture in the mid 1880s in order to grasp its full implications.
Burrow’s main point of focus in this respect is the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, held at South Kensington in 1886 (the year between the publication of King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain). Like Haggard’s novels the Exhibition was a great popular success, attracting over five and a half million visitors. The entrance to the Exhibition was dominated by a vast habitat diorama constructed by the pre-eminent taxidermist of the day, Rowland Ward, depicting the violent scene of a tiger attack on an elephant. Ward also specialized in furniture and ornaments made out of hunting and battlefield trophies—including, it was reported, the skulls of Zulu warriors killed by British soldiers. Burrow’s reading of masculinity is situated within the symmetry between these imperial souvenirs and those in Sir Henry Curtis’s display.
Sir Henry’s enumeration of hunting trophies leads seamlessly into proud contemplation of the axe above his desk, which functions as the substitute for the Kukuana chief’s severed head. It is the figurative counterpart to the chopped-out horns and tusks from the hunting episodes that foreshadow the climactic battle of the novel in which white male power is consummated.
Critical debates regarding Haggard’s treatment of race and gender have questioned whether his ideological focus was primarily upon the colonial politics of South Africa or the putatively enfeebled masculinity of England. It has been suggested, in this context, that Haggard rejects conventional imperialist hierarchies of race in favour of a common underlying barbarianism, of which the Zulu was his exemplar and ideal. But such a conclusion does not sit comfortably with the souvenir of the axe, pointing like an index to the grotesque thingness of Twala’s mutilated corpse, or with the countless other instances in the two novels in which violence is enacted upon black bodies for the glorification of Sir Henry, Haggard’s ‘white Zulu’.
The imperial souvenir performs important ideological work in the culture of the New Imperialism. In Haggard’s fiction it validates an atavistic model of feudal masculinity while negating the humanity and autonomy of the Zulu. The Other is transformed into a series of things to be put on display: the axe, the tusks that recall the death of Khiva and, at the end of Allan Quatermain, the corpse of the slain Zulu warrior, Umslopogaas, wrapped in beaten gold and made into a fetish on which the future of Sir Henry’s new dynasty is founded.
Merrick Burrow is Head of English at the University of Huddersfield. He is currently working on a monograph, provisionally entitled Extraordinary Gentlemen: Masculinities and Other Problems in Late-Victorian Culture. He tweets at @HudEnglish.