Recommendation: This is the kind of thing you read as a cultural and anthropological artefact not because you just fancy a tale of derring do
Where to read: Find a veranda somewhere
Read with: A gin and tonic
In brief: This is quite the blast from the colonial past, and that is not a good thing. If you are looking for a good adventure story, there are plenty of better options without the racism.
King Solomon’s Mines is reminiscent of one of those “boys’ own adventures” pumped out by the Victorians to fill young boys with a love of Queen, Country and Empire. It takes a slightly more cynical tone than some, and is marginally more respectful of the locals than you might expect, but the overall “rip roaring colonial yarn” feel is very much present.
The tale runs thus – elephant hunter Allan Quatermain is recruited by Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good to help find Curtis’ brother, who has gone missing seeking his fortune in Africa. They employ a couple of African servants/porters in Durban, including a mysterious Zulu with a less deferential attitude towards his white “masters” than usual (tellingly described in contemporary reviews as a ‘noble savage’). From there, we journey through deserts, mountains and a lost African civilisation in search of both the brother and the legendary diamond mines of King Solomon.
This may not sound ground breaking today however King Solomon’s Mines actually was – it took the treasure hunting premise in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (which I adored as a child) and added the “lost world” element, inspiring a whole new genre. Some modern interpretations of the book have also noted that it is actually quite progressive by the standards of the time, which is probably true if you take progressive to mean paternalistic colonialism rather than advocating casual murder and segregation.
If you are reading from a historical perspective, this is all worth examining. If, on the other hand, you are a casual reader, it should be both distinctly uncomfortable and very jarring – there are plenty of other options, even ones out of copyright and therefore free online, without the racism and sexism.