When 19-year-old Rider Haggard, an underachiever straight from the crammer, secured his first job in 1875, his mother addressed an earnest poem to him. He had now finished drifting 'adown Life's vernal tide' and faced a stiffer challenge. 'Rise to thy destiny!' she exhorted. 'Awake thy powers!' His father, Squire Haggard (a crusty fellow, but otherwise unlike the old villain invented by Michael Green), had viewed him as fit only to be a greengrocer. The post found for him was that of junior aide to the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal. Within two years, as a sort of legal odd-jobs man, he had been deputed to raise the Union Jack for the first time in the Transvaal, and had helped to hang a Swazi chieftain for murder (taking over from the drunken executioner, according to his own story). This was good going for a greengrocer. Why, then, did he not rise to his destiny and become a great judge, a tribune or a proconsul? He had the imperial instincts in abundance. His misfortune was that it was the time of the gross military disasters of Majuba Hill and Isandhlwana, with the Boers waiting to snatch the lands the Zulus claimed. Britain could not, or would not, hold on to the Transvaal. Disenchanted, the young adventurer decided that the time had come to make money out of Africa, like everyone else. Instead of digging for gold or diamonds, he turned to supplying ostrich feathers for fine ladies back home. Four years after hoisting the Union flag he and his wife (a 'brick' of a girl, not his first choice) rented their house at £50 a week to the members of a Royal Commission organising the cession of the Transvaal, leaving Queen Victoria to enjoy that most nebulous of assets, suzerainty. Then he was back in Britain, with a confident presence and a good moustache, an imagination topped up by strange sights and 'the highest sort of shame, shame for my country'. And perhaps a touch of shame at having made £50 a week out of the national climb-down?
LRB 23 September 1993 | PDF Download