She: a history of Adventure, and commentary on Africa, Cultural Appropriation and African Queens

Ursula Andress, c.1965

Ursula Andress, c.1965


Calafia, Queen of California

Henry Rider Haggard’s novel, She,  is among the first “adventure” novels written. Along with the author’s first novel, King Solomon’s Mines, which is said to inspire  such gems as the Indiana Jones franchise. It takes place in colonial-era Africa, in the kingdom of Kor, an Egypt-type civilization on the African east coast. 

Kor is a stand-in for Kush, the former kingdom that flourished in East Africa, which is also the setting for the author’s other novel, King Solomon’s Mines.The story centers on a Greco-English man (Leo), who, along with his legal guardian, set on his father’s quest to find the lost civilization of Kor. In Kor, they meet an immortal, 2000-year-old queen (Ayesha), dubbed, simply, She (Hiya), or she-who-must-be-obeyed. The immortal queen is convinced Leo, the Greco-English hero, is her long lost Greek lover (Kalikrates) reincarnated. So sure of this she is that she kills her rival, Ustane,  believed to be the reincarnated Egyptian princess, Amenartes, with whom Kalikrates fell in love. Ayesha insists on convincing Leo he’s Kalikrates and turning him immortal, too.

The focus for me is not so much the story, but the the racial and gender politics of this story, which are hard to ignore and read through for the twenty first century reader; and in particular, someone like me, a black woman. I wanted to read this book for two reasons. In December 2013, TCM aired the 1960s Ursula Andress movie, and in the introduction to the film, TCM’s host explained it was based on a novel. I had never seen the film before, and I did not know of the novel–though I knew of King Solomon’s Mines.

Following this, I stopped by my parents’ place, where I found a book I bought at a thrift store years earlier–The Ancient Kingdom of Kush. In it I came across a long forgotten story of the Candaces of Kush,  ruling African queens. Reading about the Candaces, it is then that I realized Haggard’s novel, She, was in fact loosely based on the Candaces, who were mistakenly believed to be immortal. Turns out that Greco-Roman and biblical sources mistook the title Candace (queen) for a proper female first name (Acts VIII: 26-34). Since all the Candaces, ruling hundreds of years apart, were called Candace, it was  assumed that there was a single immortal queen named Candace, who ruled the Kushites.

This inspired Haggard, who briefly lived in Africa, to dream of the idea of an immortal African queen, ruling an Egypt-type civilization (Kush). The problem was that Haggard was a white man of  his times. In the story, Ayesha is white, and her whiteness is viewed as an important aspect of her power. Leo’s guardian, the narrator, crudely points out, when he’s first told he’ll meet the queen, that he does not want to meet “their swarthy and dusky queen.” When he meets her and sees she’s white, he falls in love. Ayesha insists she’s  true Arab (from the tribe of Yarab in Yemen, whose name lends itself to the word Arab). She is quick to point out that the brown-skinned/ black-skinned people she rules are “savages” and not her people. In fact, it is promoted that the brown-black skinned people did not rule or design Kor, but rather, a white-skinned people did (their remains are kept in caves in Kor).

It’s hard to look past the racism here, even if you get past the “head of the Ethiopian/negro” rock, and ignore the use of “Kafir” or savages to describe the  brown-skinned/black-skinned people who toil the kingdom. The author has turned a black queen (s) into a white woman. Even if she’s Arab, she’s still whitened, as the Arabs of Yemen, of today, are quite dark, and do not have the milky white complexion attributed to Ayesha.

I suppose I am saying that She would’ve been a better novel with a black queen, considering the source material is rooted in a mistaken tale of real black queens. Sadly, the racism prevalent in Haggard’s novel is still around. Consider also,  the Clash of the Titan movies (1980 and 2010). The movies center on the story of Perseus, the Greek hero who kills Medusa and the kraken sent to devour the princess Andromeda, after her parents–Cepheus and Cassiopeia–insult the gods. In the Ancient Greek tale, Andromeda ‘s parents are Aethiopian (Greek for ‘burnt face’–used to refer to blacks). In other words, Andromeda is black. Yet, in both movies, she’s played by white actresses.

The author’s mentality is sadly too indicative of the common attitude about Africa and Africans. In the face of history (The Candaces were real), the author still made his queen white, and cruel and jealous (misogynistic–nothing worse than a beautiful woman with power). Archeology, as it pertains to Africa, also dismisses signs of ‘civility’ among black Africans. The belief is that blacks lack the intelligence to build civilizations, and wherein they come across hints of black civilization, it spawns debates. Conclusively,  they then give credit to some non-black sources. The stone monuments of Zimbabwe were said to be built by Arabs or Indians (no evidence backs this up). The early debates on Ancient Egypt centered not on its greatness, but whether blacks built it or not. The consensus, from Egyptologists (most of whom are white) is that the only blacks in Egypt were slaves, except for the 25th Dynasty. To further separate blacks from Egypt, Europeans started using the term, “Sub-Saharan Africa,” which means, in racialized dialect, black Africa. More, they even attempted to claim the Kushites were not black, insisting on classifying East Africans as ‘not blacks,’ but dark-skinned Caucasians.

 Meanwhile, cultural appropriation continues.

The Gods of Egypt is still in pre-production. The Scottish actor Gerard Butler is still playing Seth. Danish actor Nicolaj Coster Waldau is still playing Horus, and British-Australian actor, Geoffrey Rush is still Ra/Osiris.  No doubt the black people will be playing slaves/servants.

  Recommended Readings

1. Haggard, H.R., She: a history of adventure 

2. Haggard, H.R. King Solomon’s Mines.

3. de Montalvo, Garci Rodríguez. The Adventures of Esplandián– this novel introduces us to Queen Calafia, ruler of the mythical African island of California (from which the U.S. state  of California got its name)Queen Calafia is a patron of the state of California (see mural above). The African island of California is Amazonian, with all female warriors.

4. The Candaces of Kush Wikipedia.

5.  Snowden, Frank M. Blacks in Antiquity: ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.


About TCDH

Blogger with an opinion.
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