King Solomon’s Mines
by H. Rider Haggard
One of the delights of writing these Adventure classics posts has been seeing how stories written decades, even centuries ago, linger in our cultural imagination. One of the banes of writing these posts has been the not infrequent squirminess of running headlong into old prejudices. And the even squirmier sensation of realizing how much of those prejudices still lingers.
Last Friday I discussed the way H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 bestseller, King Solomon’s Mines, rediscovered – actually, reinvented – the preoccupation with lost civilizations that had intrigued storytellers and their listeners for centuries earlier, and how its fascination continues. The post was illustrated with a film poster of the British 1937 film (and the first movie version) of Haggard’s story, and anybody who looked closely enough may have noticed that one of the stars listed by name was Paul Robeson. (If you want to take another look, the illustration is online here.) What is even less obvious is that, of the dozens of named native African characters in Haggard’s story, only one merits a starring credit in the film poster, Paul Robeson.
(The blonde heroine pictured in the poster never appears in Haggard’s version, although the British-American actress Anna Lee who played the love interest set a precedent that subsequent versions of the story followed.)
Back to Robeson, and how an African-American actor in the 1930’s received a starring role in a British adventure film. And how Haggard’s story, despite exhibiting the prejudices of its era, could have given scope for such a role.
As biographer Benjamin Ivry points out in his introduction to the 2004 Barnes & Noble Classics edition I’m reading, “At the start of the book, (narrator Allan) Quartermain announces that he doesn’t like calling natives by the term that today has become known as ‘the –word’ and yet he abundantly uses another term, kafir, which in South Africa is hardly less offensive…yet the nobility of Umbopa/Ignosi (the character portrayed by Paul Robeson) as depicted in King Solomon’s Mines is undeniable,” adding with possibly unintended humor, “ Haggard does not have a uniformly low opinion of Africans, at least not much lower than his view of humanity in general.”
It is the nobility of Umbopa (who will later reveal his true name of Ignosi) that prompted the casting of Robeson as the rightful king of the land where the fabled mines lay. Robeson, an African-American, was, rather amazingly, among the ten most popular actors in England in the late 1930’s.
A native of Princeton, New Jersey, he won an academic scholarship to Rutgers College. He later graduated from the Columbia Law school and worked briefly as a lawyer before beginning a theatrical career with the encouragement of his wife (and later agent), Essie Goode. It was while performing in the London production of the musical Show Boat that Robeson became a popular actor in England, leading among other roles, to his casting in King Solomon’s Mines. (He could also portray less noble rulers as he did in The Emperor Jones, a role originated by Charles Sidney Gilpin.)
However, Robeson’s increasing political activism in the late 1930’s eventually led to his blacklisting during the McCarthy era and a subsequent physical breakdown in the early 1960’s that lasted until his death in 1976.