Merrick Burrow, ‘The Imperial Souvenir: Things and Masculinities in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines & Allan Quatermain’

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.[1]

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.

Drawing of Rowland Ward's 'The Jungle'
Rowland Ward's 'The Jungle'. (C) British Library Board, The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, May 01, 1886; pg. 280; Issue 1299.

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.

Wardian Furniture: Dumb Waiter Bear
Wardian Furniture: Dumb Waiter Bear. Reproduced from William G. Fitzgerald, ‘“Animal” furniture’, Strand Magazine, Vol. 12, (July 1896), p. 280. By kind permission of University of Sheffield Library.

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.[2] 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.

Henry Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, ed. by G.C. Monsman, Broadview Literary Texts (Broadview Press, 2002), p. 243.

Bradley Deane, ‘Imperial Barbarians: Primitive Masculinity in Lost World Fiction’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 36 (2008), 205–225.

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.


  1. Great piece here, Merrick. I would like to add how long this desire for imperial souvenirs went on and how sometimes the ‘masculine’ nature of the hunting could be complicated. Priscilla Tweedsmuir, wife of the 2nd Lord Tweedsmuir (the first being John Buchan) wrote in her journal about a visit to Canada in 1955:
    “Suddenly there was a yell from Al. ‘A grizzly swimming the river!’ Rifles unloaded somewhere… When at last I had my rifle in my hand, I had one quick view of the bear’s head as it neared the bank among the ‘swimming trees’. I fired, too hasty, and ill-prepared, and missed. Oh the desolation. I fired once more as grizzly clambered up a steep bank, not more than 30 yards away, but he was off at full gallop. We hurled ourselves ashore, and hunted him in fairly open bush, in sun and the hot smell of pines, but we were on an island, and he had gone, maybe swum across the other river channel. I was sad, for hunting here is difficult, and maybe I’ll not see one again.”
    A few days later she shot an elk and a caribou, feeling these went some way towards redeeming her reputation. The caribou’s head was mounted at their family home at Potterton, near Aberdeen, which provided a showcase for their imperial hunting trophies. Lord Tweedsmuir called these the ‘reminders of the extent of our wanderings, mostly on duties concerned with Britain’s old responsibilities of Empire’.

  2. Thanks for this, Paul. It’s a nice example of the investment of cultural and emotional significance in these grim souvenirs. I’d very much agree that the ‘masculinity’ associated with them is complicated and problematic–not least because, as here, hunting was not an exclusively male pursuit. Your example of Priscilla Tweedsmuir is interesting because it flags up the importance of class as well as gender in this particular cultural formation. She differs very markedly from the representations of African women in Haggard’s fiction, but also from the conception of metropolitan femininity dismissively alluded to by Allan Quatermain when he proclaims that there is not a single ‘petticoat’ in the narrative of King Solomon’s Mines. I suspect the association of hunting with the aristocracy is relevant here, with Potterton as an instance of the same ‘barbarian’ taste of the upper classes as was on display in Sir Henry Curtis’s home at Brayley Hall and in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition at South Kensington. Lady Tweedsmuir’s investment in Empire seems to be broadly equivalent to that of her husband, too, which is interesting. Perhaps both are significant markers of change, even though–as you say–the desire for the imperial souvenir remains surprisingly potent even in the mid-1950s.

  3. Interesting… This was a helpful addition to a paper Im working on regarding the history of British collecting, the fetishization of material culture. Thanks

  4. This project looks fascinating, Merrick. I begin to wonder, though, whether we might be in the habit of collapsing together a wide range of possible experiences of material possessions into a single (if dynamic) model we derive from commodity culture. In other words, does the souvenir as commodity serve the same psychic ends, or signify the same kinds of personal investment, as the souvenir as trophy? To me, the trophy seems to represent a different role for the material possession, one that confirms an identity based on competition rather than ownership or simple mastery. The trophy fits into what you describe as Haggard’s feudal, atavistic masculinity better than into the commodity culture epitomized by the exhibitions, and it points back to an older discourse of honor in which one’s competitors were necessarily valued as peers and rivals (though of course in strictly limited circumstances) rather than reduced to objects to be owned in the ways that we see elsewhere in Victorian culture. At any rate, it seems to me that we don’t yet have a good theory about the material object as trophy among the Victorians, one that considers the possibility that its logic works differently from other categories of objects. Is this something you might pursue?

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking response, Bradley. I’m particularly grateful for your comments because your work on Haggard has played a significant part in the development of my own. The distinction you draw between the trophy and the commodity is important. I would tend to agree with much of what you say here, including your suggestion that there is probably more work to be done on theorizing the trophy as an element within Victorian material culture. My longer-term plan may include some aspects of this within the context of a more wide-ranging monograph on masculinity and the romance revival.
    I would perhaps recast the problem as you state it here, however. I agree that we should avoid collapsing the distinctions between different kinds of souvenir and their affective values. But at the same time I think it is important to recognize the porosity of these categories in late-Victorian culture. My interest in the current essay, for example, lies in the interplay between the categories of trophy, commodity and relic as types of souvenir. Rowland Ward’s animal furniture demonstrates, for example, the manner in which honorific values associated with the trophy migrated to the fetish value of the commodity. At the same time, the Thingness of such objects as relics of death imbues them with the capacity to evoke more equivocal responses, from pathos to laughter to horror. In a similar way, the Colonial and Indian Exhibition at South Kensington functioned, in my reading, as a liminal zone in which trophies attesting to atavistic masculinity entered into the spatial logic of the commodity spectacle. Such objects also retained the potential to evoke pathos or revulsion.

    Haggard’s fiction seems to me, on the other hand, to pull in the opposite direction (a point on which I suspect you would also agree). The narrative rejects traits of modernity and commodification quite explicitly, for example by juxtaposing Good’s dandyism with the primal violence of the elephant hunt from which Sir Henry takes the souvenir tusks for Brayley Hall. This hunt (and the inappropriateness of Good’s smart attire) is also the occasion of the horrific death of Khiva, the first of many instances in which the tribulations of white imperial masculinity are violently inscribed upon the bodies of Zulu, Masai and Kukuana. Like animal tusks, mutilated African bodies seem to serve in Haggard’s fiction as an alternative kind of fetishism to that of the European commodity, piling up alongside Sir Henry’s trajectory from the bored squire of the nineteenth-century metropole to the despotic regent of Zu Vendis.

    The conception of a masculine code that honours peers and rivals is explicitly invoked in these novels to legitimize their bloodthirstiness. In your essay ‘Imperial Barbarians’ you argue very persuasively that Haggard presents the Zulu warrior as an aspirational ideal for European masculinity on the basis of this barbarian appetite for violence with honour. I wouldn’t dispute any of that. But I am also interested in the more ambivalent ways in which the bodies of Africans are transformed into souvenirs of various kinds within the literary and material culture of the New Imperialism: as trophies (figuratively, in the case of the display of the axe that Sir Henry used to decapitate Twala), relics (in the embalmed corpse of Umslopogaas, upon which the new House of the Stairway is founded), and commodities (in the example, again from Rowland Ward, of Zulu skulls made into cigar holders). There is without doubt an atavistic concept of honour at work in the fetishism of the slaughtered Other. But the cultural formation of the mid 1880s, within which these objects and representations circulated, seems more equivocal to me and these Things possessed of unstable meanings within it. Perhaps that will be the starting point for my further reflections.

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