Haggard stands at the fountainhead and nexus of what I call “exotic adventure fiction.” Such fiction moves beyond the sort of stories told up until that time —adventures of pirates, cowboys, swashbucklers, explorers and whatnot — and adds something extra, something over the top, something truly exotic. One strand leads to tales of Indiana Jones, another to James Bond, another leads to John Carter or Tarzan… and another leads to Conan of Cimmeria. Haggard looms titanically behind all of that.
— Deuce Richardson, Forefathers of Sword and Sorcery: H. Rider Haggard
H. Rider Haggard, an Englishman who had worked for several years in Natal in southern Africa, created one of the the quintessential Frontier Partisan heroes of fiction — white hunter and adventurer Allan Quatermain, hero of King Solomon’s Mines and a whole series of what Deuce Richardson calls “exotic adventure fiction.” A hunter of wild game and hidden treasures; a “Man Who Knows Indians” (or, rather, African tribesmen); an English gentleman by heritage and termperament, yet one who sought out the wild places of the earth to wander.
Haggard’s writings whispered like a seductress into the ear of an American frontiersman named Frederick Russell Burnham, calling, calling, calling him to Africa. Burnham had hunted commercially, cowboy’d, and prospected in the Arizona Territory in the 1880s, when it was still the dark and bloody ground of Apache warriors, outlaws and feudists. He had developed a lifelong wanderlust, combined with a lust for mineral riches. It was not greed for wealth that drove Burnham; he was addicted to the potent drug of the treasure hunt, and by the 1880s, there was no frontier that beckoned the treasure hunter more seductively than Africa.
Burnham thought he had escaped the siren’s call of the Dark Continent, which had sounded in his ears since his youth — but he had not. He wrote:
“After my marriage in 1884, I believed that the beckoning spirits of Africa would fade away and no longer haunt me, but softly as the falling dew, they kept returning… In the end I allowed myself to share with my wife the music they poured into my ears by night and often by day. Their magic won my wife completely, until in January, 1893, together we set out to make our dreams come true.”
The Burnhams’ African dreams would plunge them into a nightmare of war and personal tragedy — but Africa would never entirely be purged from the scout’s bloodstream.
In his biography of Burnham, A Splendid Savage, Steve Kemper notes that:
Several springs fed those dreams. Burnham was captivated by H. Rider Haggard’s best-selling African adventure tales, particularly King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and Allan Quatermain (1887). Quatermain, the hero of these exotic romances, is an educated Englishman and a sharpshooting outdoorsman who detests cities and prefers the rough life of Africa — a man after Burnham’s own heart.
The quest for treasure in King Solomon’s Mines was surely a heady draught for the mineral-obsessed Burnham. Again, Kemper:
Haggard’s tales also intensified Burnham’s gold fever. King Solomon’s mines posed the intriguing notion that the biblical land of Ophir, whose gold and silver mines had enriched Solomon, could be rediscovered in the interior of southern Africa.
The connection to the lost mines of Solomon might be fanciful, but the continent’s mineral wealth was proving very real…
The conduit between myth and legend and real life adventure was wide open and flowing in both directions in late 19th century southern Africa. Burnham would explore the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, which at that time were believed by white explorers to be evidence of a lost white tribe’s sojourn in the African interior. “Lost cities” would become a trope of pulp fiction through the first half of the 20th Century.
African hunters informed the fiction of Haggard and others — who in turn self-consciously sought to model themselves after heroes such as Quatermain. Academician Andrew Offenburger, in his tome Frontiers in the Gilded Age: Adventure, Capitalism & Dispossession from Southern Africa to the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands, 1880-1917, rather sniffily observes Burnham’s “immersion in romanticized frontier literature” and his yearning to “embody … fictional characters like Quatermain.”
Of course, men have aspired to emulate heroes of legend from time immemorial, and Haggard’s ability to accesses and update heroic archetypes for a Victorian audience (and beyond) speaks to the abiding power of heroic myth, despite the efforts of academics to demystify, debunk, and undermine that power.
Burnham was certainly not in any way abashed at his conscious desire to connect himself with Haggard’s tales. He and his wife Blanche named their daughter Nada after the titular Nada the Lily, the Zulu protagonist of Haggard’s 1892 novel.
Nada was the first white child born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, in May 1894. She died of fever and starvation during the Siege of Bulawayo two years later, in the 1896 Matabele Uprising.
Haggard, who had met and befriended Burnham in London in 1895, was deeply touched by the tragic death of the two-year-old. He dedicated The Wizard (1896) to her memory:
“To the Memory of the Child: Nada Burnham, who ‘bound all to her’ and, while her father cut his way through the hordes of the Ingobo Regiment, perished of the hardships of war at Buluwayo on 19 May 1896, I dedicate these tales — and more particularly the last, that of a Faith which triumphed over savagery and death.”
He would dedicate two more novels to Nada as well — Elissa: The Doom of Zimbabwe (1899), and Black Heart and White Heart: A Zulu Idyll (1900).
Haggard and Burnham would remain friends for life. On a 1905 visit to Burnham’s Pasadena, California, home, Haggard fired the scout’s imagination with a proposal to follow up on an apparently reliable report of a cache of Montezuma’s treasure located deep in the Mexican jungle. How could either man resist a venture that so closely emulated one of Haggard’s own tales? Haggard and Burnham enlisted the legendary mining engineer and “Cowboy Capitalist” John Hays Hammond in the project, but the Mexican adventure got shunted aside by other endeavors in Burnham’s never-ending quest to find his El Dorado.
Burnham would eventually find himself in Mexico — but rather than seeking Montezuma’s lost gold, he would work on a land development and irrigation project in the Yaqui Valley. Haggard was an investor.
Deuce Richardson acknowledges the profound influence of H. Rider Haggard on Texas pulpster Robert E. Howard:
…we know that Robert E. Howard named HRH among his “favorite authors.” The volumes of Haggard in Howard’s personal library that were recorded or have survived until today probably represent a fraction of the HRH that Bob actually read. In the early twentieth century, Haggard’s fiction was ubiquitous, appearing in pulps as well as being bought by public libraries. I’ve only read around twenty of Haggard’s novels and I’ve spotted an astonishing number of elements from them that REH likely borrowed.
There is no evidence that I am aware of that Howard knew of Frederick Russell Burnham’s exploits — but REH would certainly have found the American frontiersman a simpatico spirit. In fact, whether there is a direct connection or not, I posit that Howard’s adventurer Francis Xavier Gordon — El Borak — is poured out of the Burnham mold. Both are American frontiersmen of the desert Southwest roaming the wild hinterlands of Britain’s wide-flung Empire; they are compactly-built men with profound capacity for physical endurance and preternaturally attuned senses…
From Blood of the Gods:
The American was not a large man, but he was square- shouldered and deep-chested, with corded sinews and steely nerves which had been tempered and honed by the tooth-and-nail struggle for survival in the wild outlands of the world. His black eyes gleamed in the starlight like those of some untamed son of the wilderness.
“Burnham in real life is more interesting than any of my heroes of romance!”
— Sir H. Rider Haggard
Burnham would eventually find riches — in oil rather than gold and diamonds. He wrote one of the classics of Frontier Partisan literature in his memoir Scouting on Two Continents. It is true, as Offenburger asserts, that Burnham self-consciously sought to cast himself in the mold of Hunter Quatermain and other scouts and hunters of old. While the academic world tends to denigrate the aspiration to the heroic, especially in an imperial context, we here at Frontier Partisans celebrate it as essential to culture and manhood. And thus we tip our hats to Haggard and Burnham, and drink to the shades of men who bestrode the frontier between myth and history as titans.
ADDENDUM: John Maddox Roberts sent out a crack team of scouts to locate Burnham’s Pasadena home. They got it done in a day.
My guys located Burnham’s digs at 500 South Rafael Avenue in San Rafael Heights in Pasadena. The house is still there, still palatial, and they even got a photo of its den with Burnham’s African souvenirs decorating it. Didn’t I tell you these guys know their stuff? Incidentally, Arroyo Seco is where the Rose Bowl is located, and the Linda Vista neighborhood directly overlooks the Rose Bowl.
And Zillow has a picture. Frederick Russell Burnham and H. Rider Haggard slept here…. The nerd cup runneth over…