Maiwa’s revenge, or The War of The Little Hand by Henry Rider Haggard (1888)

28 July 2012

Maiwa’s Revenge is the third Allan Quatermain novel (in order of writing), and an innovation in the series in that is a) short b) set within a frame narrative – Quatermain is on a shoot at his Yorkshire home with friends and, after bagging three woodcock in flight is persuaded to tell the story of how he bagged three elephants on one hunt. This anecdote leads on to a bigger story which Quatermain tells in the first person in the same fast-moving conversational style as the previous books.

Once again, as in KSM and AQ, the core of the story is the white man bringing war and slaughter to an African kingdom. Quatermain decides to go hunting into the interior of Natal. He pushes on into uncharted territory in pursuit of buffalo, and then is charged by a rhinoceros, only just escaping. On the basis of this feat local villagers ask if he can rid them of three giant elephants which are eating their crop. Again, Quatermain manages to kill all three, though only after some dicey moments. As his natives are cutting the ivory tusks from the dead elephants, a statuesque native girl appears. This is Maiwa and she explains that the area is ruled by the Matuku tribe, led by the wicked Wambe, who lord it over their neighbour tribe, the Butiana, led by the timorous king Nala. Maiwa was coerced into leaving her native Butiana to go and be married to Wambe, since when he has beaten her and then, when her baby by the king was eighteen months old, he brutally killed it by putting it in the “thing that bites”, a steel lion trap. the baby’s hand was severed and Maiwa has kept it ever since as a gruesome spur to revenge.

Now she has fled Wambe’s kraal and come to Quatermain with her tale of woe, carrying a message from a white man, John Every, who Wambe has held prisoner for seven years. In every way, then, Quatermain is incentivised and justified in leading a Butiana attack on Wambe’s heavily defended camp, against overwhelming odds, and attack he does! It is a glorious goulash of imperial cliches:

Thoughts Once again a white man entering an African kingdom brings war and death on a large scale. In all three narratives Quatermain’s arrival prompts civil war and the eventual triumph of his (White) side.  Haggard always makes sure the wars are elaborately justified; that they are righting egregious wrongs: the cruel tyrant Twala is not the rightful king; the cruel queen Sorais is trying to murder her sister; the cruel tyrant Wambe is, er, a cruel tyrant.

1. Forget the sexism or the (surprisingly mild) racism, the repeated message of Haggard’s books is that the White Man is justified in intervening in native affairs, in fighting small colonial wars to establish Peace and Security, to set his choice of king or queen upon the throne to ensure the territory becomes safe for White hunting and trading.

2. And the second message is in the medium itself: his prose is amazingly supple and fluid for the time; compare and contrast with the denser, slower style of literary writers such as Hardy or Conrad or Henry James. Haggard’s prose style itself conveys the attitude of derring-do, stiff upper lip, and thrills and excitement, especially in fast-moving battle scenes. Generations of boys must have been inspired to go off to Britain’s umpteen small colonial wars their heads full of Haggard’s thrilling, vivid descriptions.

“There too on the wall stood Maiwa, a white garment streaming from her shoulders, an assegai in her hand, her breast heaving, her eyes flashing. Above all the din of battle I could catch the tones of her clear voice as she urged the soldiers on to victory. But victory was not yet. Wambe’s soldiers gathered themselves together, and bore our men back by the sheer weight of numbers. They began to give, then once more they rallied, and the fight hung doubtfully.

“‘Slay, you war-whelps,’ cried Maiwa from the wall. ‘Are you afraid, you women, you chicken-hearted women! Strike home, or die like dogs! What—you give way! Follow me, children of Nala.’ And with one long cry she leapt from the wall as leaps a stricken antelope, and holding the spear poised rushed right into the thickest of the fray.

“The warriors saw her, and raised such a shout that it echoed like thunder against the mountains. They massed together, and following the flutter of her white robe crashed into the dense heart of the foe. Down went the Matuku before them like trees before a whirlwind. Nothing could stand in the face of such a rush as that. It was as the rush of a torrent bursting its banks. All along their line swept the wild desperate charge; and there, straight in the forefront of the battle, still waved the white robe of Maiwa.”

As a 21st century adult I am conflicted; the pleasure of the text derives from the schoolboy mentality it embodies and enforces; the battle scenes are thrilling; the stakes are black and white. But since Haggard’s innocent times we’ve had over a century of grotesque wars, starting with the Boer War and going rapidly downhill thereafter. If you stop to consider the bloodshed at the core of all of these stories, the grown-up in you can’t help but be appalled.

Illustration of Allan Quatermain (centre) following bearers carrying ivory down to the coast at the triumphal conclusion of ‘Maiwa’s Revenge’

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