The White Queen’s Burden

H. Rider Haggard seemed quite fond of his immortal sorceress Ayesha, the titular antagonist of She, and featured her in three sequels to the 1887 novel. But Haggard does not simply explore and exploit the implications of gender dynamics. Rather, he depicts Ayesha as an essentially western monarch lording over a weaker and darker race. Ayesha might be cruel and decadent, but her Amahagger subjects require someone-who-must-be-obeyed.

Betty Blythe as The Queen of Sheba (1921).

Betty Blythe as The Queen of Sheba (1921).

While Ayesha is ostensibly an African monarch, she hardly looks the part. Haggard emphasizes the “milky beauty” of her skin, the “snowy robes” wrapped about her, and her “perfect and imperial shape”. “Take me feature by feature, forgetting not… the whiteness of my skin,” she tells Holly. Ayesha speaks Latin and Greek, in addition to Classical Arabic. She has a keen interest in the memories of Rome and Greece, as well as numerous grievances with “those Jews whom [she] hated”. She claims Arabic ancestry, but it is clear that Haggard views this as an extension of her western characteristics. Ayesha connects Holly’s academic prowess to “those old philosophers with whom in days bygone I have disputed at Athens, and at Becca in Arabia…” Ayesha also seems to follow a sort European naturalism, despite her obvious preternatural powers. “Have I not told thee that there is no such thing as magic,” she insists, “though there is such a thing as understanding and applying the forces which are in Nature?”

The Amahagger people do not share Ayesha’s milky skin, terrifying and deific demeanor, or her penchant for the foundations
of western culture. With a few reservations, Holly refers to them as “the most terrible savages that I ever heard of”. Ayesha shares Holly’s distaste for this “savage race”. “It is but a rude life that thou must live here, for these people are savages, and know not the ways of cultivated man”. They speak “bastard Arabic” or “Amahagger talk” and are cut off from any of the learning more complex than forging iron tools. But moreover, the Amahagger are contrasted with the ancient people of Kôr. This empire, in contrast to the Amahagger’s superstition, cannibalism, and gender equality, Holly marvels at “these old people of Kôr for their capital, and at the marvelous amount of labour, ingenuity, and engineering skill”. These people outpaced the ancient Egyptians in building and corpse preservation. Moreover, like Ayesha and Holly, they are white — their incredible mummification saving their “ivory faces”. It appears that  industry, advancement, and ruling are the domain of white people. Ayesha theorizes about the degeneration of the locals. “…barbarians from the south, or perchance my people, the Arabs, came down upon them, and took their women to wife, and the race of the Amahagger that is now is a bastard brood of the mighty sons of Kôr, and behold it dwelleth in the tombs with its fathers’ bones”. In short these degenerate people are required to have a white ruler. Even after Ayesha’s death, the Amahagger continue to labor under the belief and memory of their white queen.

Works Cited
Fox Film Corporation. Betty Blythe in The Queen of Sheba. 1921. Photograph. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
Haggard, H. R. She. N.p.: Longmans, 1887. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 4 Apr. 2006. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
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