The Lost World genre really hit its stride with this one. The story goes that the brother of fledgling novelist H. Rider Haggard bet him five shillings that he couldn’t write a novel half as good as Robert Louis Stevenson’s recently published Treasure Island (1883). Haggard arguable succeeded with this tale of high adventure set during the scramble for Africa. It was a massive bestseller.
Most people know the deal with the biblical King Solomon; the incredibly wealthy ruler of Israel, builder of the first great temple in Jerusalem and the final ruler of the kingdom before its split into the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah respectively. The idea is that somewhere in Africa lies the undiscovered source of Solomon’s wealth; mines of gold, silver and copper. Why Africa? Well the Bible mentions Solomon receiving cargoes of wealth from Ophir every three years and ever since people have been trying to figure out where Ophir is. The rediscovery of the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe in the 19th century sparked theories that this was indeed the source of Solomon’s wealth. It wasn’t until later that it was known that Great Zimbabwe reached its height about two millennia after the time of King Solomon and although it was a great trading center, it hardly possessed the level of wealth suggested by legend.
Africa in the time of Haggard was a continent of conflict and mystery with large areas on its map blank spaces. The 19th century had seen an increasing squabble for control over its resources and trade routes by the European powers. The British had been present in Southern Africa since 1795 and struggled to keep down the Zulus and the Boers, the latter revolting in 1880. Truce was called in 1881 and the British agreed to Boer self-government in the Transvaal. Meanwhile, Henry Morton Stanley, who became something of a successor to the famous explorer David Livingstone, was delving deep into the Congo region on a secret mission from Leopold II of Belgium who was keen to exploit its ivory and rubber. The treaties he struck with various tribal chieftains resulted in the Congo Free State; a personal colony for the Belgian King which was ruled from 1885 with increasing brutality and atrocity. 1885 also saw the bestseller, Through Masai Land by geologist and explorer Joseph Thomson, a book that clearly had an effect on Haggard, so much so that he reused the amusing true story of Thomson terrifying the Maasai warriors by removing his false teeth in King Solomon’s Mines (an act that outraged Thomson). Haggard was no stranger to the continent himself, having been sent there by his father at the age of nineteen. As well as being influenced by famous explorers of the time like the great game hunter Frederick Selous, Haggard was personally involved in the British annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 (hoisting the Union flag in Pretoria himself) which led to the aforementioned First Boer War.
Haggard’s protagonist, Allan Quatermain, became the Indiana Jones of the 19th century, appearing in fourteen novels and a collection of short stories. This, his first adventure (in terms of publication), begins on a steamer headed to Durban where we find Quatermain in possession of a map to the fabled mines of King Solomon, penned in blood by the Portuguese explorer José Silvestre. Approached by Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good of the Royal Navy, Quatermain is recruited to use his map and knowledge of Africa to help them search for Sir Henry’s brother who vanished while seeking the mines. Passing between ‘Sheba’s Breasts’ (the Queen of Sheba was a known associate of King Solomon), the company arrive in the lush country of ‘Kukuanaland’; domain of the ruthless King Twala which is where the trouble really begins.