The African Queen is a ripping yarn (one reason, by the way, for the success of the 1951 film). Two ill-suited people struggle against incredible odds on an impossible quest, striking a blow for the right against imperial might. But I think The African Queen, by C S Forester (1899-1966), is much more than a Boy’s Own – or rather, in this case, Girl’s Own – story.
It is the early days of the First World War. In German East Africa* Charlie Allnutt is bullied by Miss Rose Sayer into taking up arms for the British Empire. He is a Cockney engineer, she a patriotic missionary. The plan is to sink the Königin Luise, a gunboat guarding the lake giving access to the German territory. To do this, they need to take Charlie’s boat, the African Queen, on a dangerous journey downriver.
The tale is an exciting one. The African Queen is an old and temperamental boat. Rose and Charlie shoot rapids and push through rotting mangrove swamps. They have no charts for this treacherous river. They endure tropical heat and rain, stinging mosquitos and (oh, worst of all) leeches. The journey takes weeks, and the obstacles seem insuperable.
C S Forester generally handles this expertly and efficiently. We share the excitement of progress and despair of setback. The pace is fast down the rapids and slow through the swamps. We feel the heat, smell the rank vegetation, shiver through the malaria attacks. There is just enough mud to appal us, not enough to bore us. The only place where Forester falters is the curiously anti-climactic ending. This disappoints after all the derring-do, but it is closer to the real story (see here for a sister ship of the Königin Luise, still sailing on Lake Tanganyika; and here for Giles Foden’s 2004 book, Mimi and Toutou Go Forth).
What really keeps us reading is character. Rose and Charlie easily win and keep our interest.
Charlie is a drifter. Born to a poor family, he is an engineer at a gold mine. He is not stupid but he is not quick and, outside his work, shows no initiative. He is easily pushed around by Rose, who takes full advantage of her higher social status: he doesn’t think the plan will work but it is his way to comply. In fact, the plan depends upon his skills, and the sense of achievement this gives him is the making of him. Charlie will never be a leader but, as they travel down the river, his confidence and commitment develop before Rose’s bracing affection and determination.
Rose is in a sense the African Queen. She has all the leadership qualities and strategic sense Charlie lacks. She pushes forward all the time, no matter how difficult the way ahead. But the Rose we first meet is very different: dominated by her narrow-minded missionary brother, dutifully religious, unthinking, without joy. The developing relationship with Charlie (they quickly become lovers) warms up her personality. In truth, Rose’s transformation is not quite believable. Her managing personality is well-founded and there is a convincing emotional basis for her actions in her brother’s death (not a spoiler – it happens in the first chapter). But that this daughter of a repressive church should take so quickly and unreservedly to sex, even given the trauma she suffers, is unlikely. As is her speedily-acquired skill in steering the African Queen down a river reckoned to be unnavigable.
The most interesting aspect of The African Queen is the treatment of empire. It provides Rose’s motivation and therefore the plot’s mainspring. Rose knows little about the causes of the war, which included imperial ambition, or the actual position in Europe. She just wants to strike a blow for England (which is home, and therefore must be right), and against the Germans who made life difficult for her and her brother. Quite why English missionaries are in a German colony is unclear, but this usefully suggests imperial jockeying for position. Then, when we meet the Germans, towards the end of the book, they turn out to be not the evil Huns Rose imagines, but quite humane by the standards of the day and rather similar to the British forces who also appear.
Rose doesn’t stop to think, as we do with hindsight, about the irony of this European war affecting the inhabitants of African colonies to whom it must mean nothing. Interestingly – tellingly – we meet no Africans in the novel, though we learn that the Germans have ‘recruited’ all the men of Rose’s village into their forces, leaving the village in ruins. Is this omission of Africans a careful comment on the ludicrous artificiality of empire? Or is it just that C S Forester, always an efficient writer, didn’t need Africans to tell this story?
A ripping yarn then, dated but very enjoyable, but also a novel in which we see the absurdity of empire and the harm it does to people thousands of miles from its heart. I can’t decide if this is only my view or if it’s a point C S Forester wanted to make. What do you think?
* an area nearly three times the area of Germany today, including Burundi, Rwanda, and part of Tanzania.