H. Rider Haggard's Hero Umslopogaas
Where is he buried?
by Stephen Coan
Is the mighty Umslopogaas, the axe-wielding hero of Sir Henry Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain and Nada the Lily, buried under the playing fields of Clarendon Primary? Possibly. But what is a fictional hero doing in a grave, known or unknown, in the first place?
Well, Umslopogaas was based on a real person, his name was M'hlopekazi, & the young Haggard met him in Pietermaritzburg in the 1870s. When Haggard accompanied Sir Theophilus Shepstone on his mission to annex the Transvaal in 1877 the sixty-year-old M'hlopekazi was one of the small party.
Haggard described him as a "a kind of head native attendant to Sir Theophilus." A son of M'Swazi, king of Swaziland, he was a "tall, thin, fierce-faced fellow with a great hole above the left temple over which the skin pulsated, that he had come by in some battle. He said that the had killed ten men in single combat ... always making use of a battle-axe ... He was an interesting old fellow from whom I heard many stories."
M'hlopekazi came to Natal from Swaziland in 1859 claiming to be an ambassador from his father to the British, possibly a deliberate diplomatic move as he was too close to the throne for his own safety.
The young M'hlopekazi had fought in the Nyati Regiment - "the crack corps of the country," according to his obituary in the Natal Witness published after his death in 1897. On his arrival in Pietermaritzburg "being a 'Prince of the Blood' & a warrior of some renown, Umhlopekazi (sic) appears to have commanded a considerable amount of respect from the first & shortly after his arrival he was taken into the service of the late Sir Theophilus Shepstone accompanying that gentleman as a kind of aide-de-camp in his travels & mission through the Cape Colony, Basutoland & the Transvaal."
M'hlopekazi & his battle-axe were inseparable, he referred to it affectionately as nkosi-kaas, the iron Chieftainess, or Woodpecker - for reasons which Haggard makes graphically clear in Allan Quatermain: "it was but rarely that (he) used the crashing doubled handed stroke: on the contrary, he did little more than tap continually at his adversaries head, pecking at it with the pole-axe end of the axe as a woodpecker pecks at rotten wood..."
"He apparently cherished his Inkosikaas like a wife," writes Lilias Rider Haggard in her biography of her father. M'hlopekazi said the axe "was evidently a woman because she pried so deep into things - that she was clearly a chieftainess as so many people fell down before her. When asked why he talked to her when puzzled or heavy of heart he replied: 'She must needs be wise, having looked into many men's brains.'"
Lilias describes the axe as "a beautiful weapon, long light & slender, the haft fashioned from an enormous rhinoceros horn, flexible as cane, bound at intervals weith brass wire & a knob at the end to prevent the hand from slipping."
In the Rider Haggard display room at Fort Amiel in Newcastle (Haggard lived briefly in the area) there are photographs of M'hlopekazi/Umslopogaas with his axe. The axe itself is in a display case, though it bears little resemblance to the one described by Haggard or his daughter.
Changed from a Swazi to a Zulu, & under the name Umslopogaas, M'hlopekazi featured in three books by Haggard: Allan Quatermain (1887), Nada the Lily (1892) and She & Allan (1921).
Allan Quatermain finds Umslopogaas joining up with the heroes of King Solomon's Mines on an expedition to the land of the Zu-Vendi where he meets his death after a heroic battle in the chapter "How Umslopogaas held the Stair."
His earlier life is featured in Nada the Lily. This is Haggard's only "all black" novel. Set during the reign of Shaka, it is the tale of Umslopogaas's love for the Nada of the title & his friendship wtih Galazi, a warrior-shaman who lives on Tshaneni or Ghost Mountain near Mkuze & runs with a wolf pack (for wolves read hyenas). The tale inspired Rudyard Kipling to write The Jungle Books.
By the time Haggard wrote She & Allan his popularity had waned &, in a bid to fan his literary flame, he resurrected his most popular heroes - She, Allan Quatermain & Umslopogaas.
M'hlopekazi was aware of his pseudonymous literary fame. In a conversation with Melmoth Osborn he asked whether Haggard received any remuneration for these stories which featured him. Being told "yes" he suggested some of this might be passed his way. Haggard sent him not money but a knife with his name engraved upon it.
On another occasion he was asked if he was proud of his name being in books. "No," he answered, "to me it is nothing. Yet I am glad that Indanda (Haggard) has set my name in writings that will not be forgotten, so that when my people are no more a people, one of them at least, will be remembered."
M'hlopekazi died on Sunday, October 24, 1897 at the age of 80 after being bed-ridden with rheumatism for two months. He was reported to have died of rheumatism of the heart.
In an address given on January 1, 1898, the Maritzburg architect William Lucas recalled "the final handshake I received not many hours before Umhlopekazi (sic) passed away."
"Ah! What a handshake. Few hands, in fact or fiction, I thought, had played more stirring parts in the conflict of life than that I then grasped for the last time. In the extreme weakness of Umhlopekazi I had no intention of touching it, but was contenting myself with waving a farewell. He, however, gradually drew his arm from beneath his covering & moved his hand towards me. The pathos of the last glimpse of that historic right arm was intense. I grasped the hand, hardly as tenderly as I might have done, it gave him a twitch of pain, yet the interpreter assured me his goodbye was most affectionate. The sense of kingliness supremely displayed linked with the simplicity of that life, impressed me much."
According to the Natal Mercury M'hlopekazi "was buried in the Native Cemetery on the Town Hill, Pietermaritzburg." And this is where the confusion arises concerning his final resting place.
Where was this cemetery? Nobody seems to know. In Pietermaritzburg 1838-1988, edited by John Laband & Rob Haswell, reference is made to the fact that "Maritzburg's non-Christians were banished to a burial ground which was set aside on the Town Hill in 1963." This was for Hindus, Muslims & Jews. Was it also the "Native Cemetery." According to the same source in 1896 this cemetery "was reduced in area to make way for suburban growth on the hill, & builders unearthed unmarked graves & skeletons in the process."
But M'hlopekazi died in 1897, a year after the date given for the dismantling of what might have been the "native" section of the cemetery. I have not been able to pin down a source for the 1896 removals. Today, though no longer in use for burials, the are still a Muslim & Jewish cemetery off Roberts Road, adjacent to Clarendon Primary. Other graves lie untended nearby. Were the Clarendon playing fields the site of the "Native Cemetery"? Can any readers provide an answer?
Whatever the whereabouts of M'hlopekazi's remains, perhaps his most enduring resting place is within the pages of Allan Quatermain where, as the fictional Umslopogaas, he is buried, facing towards Zululand, "at the top of the stair he defended so splendidly ... There he sits, & will sit for ever, for they embalmed him with spices, & put him in an air-tight, stone coffer, keeping his grim watch beneath the spot he held alone against a multitude. The people say that at night his ghost rises & stands shaking the phantom Inkosi-kaas at phantom foes. Certainly they fear during the dark hours to pass the place where the hero is buried."
The following correspondence was received from the essayist by way of an addendum:
Dear Jessica: Yes, the Umslopogaas story is a sad one - another illustrative of South Africa's apartheid past. Thanks for putting it on your website. A number of telephone calls were received following publication of the article "A fictional hero in a city grave" in The Natal Witness concerning the real identity of Sir Henry Rider Haggard's hero Umslopogaas. In reality a Swazi called M'hlopekazi, the article suggested his bones lay under the playing fields of Clarendon Primary School. One reader recalled her father digging up "loads of bones" during the building work at the school in 1963. Another caller, a pupil at Clarendon in the 1970s, remembered that when graders came to level the lower playing field work was halted while human remains were removed. Unless further information comes to light it seems that the bones of Umslopogaas/M'hlopekazi were or are indeed under the playing fields of Clarendon Primary.
Recently a friend found a reference in a local magazine to a plaque being unveiled in Pietermaritzburg in 1947 to mark the 50th anniversary of Umslopogaas/M'Hlopekazi's death. However it doesn't seem to exist any more. When I get some time I will go through the papers of the year to see if I can find out more.
This article first appeared in The Natal Witness, November 2, 1999, & is copyright © 1999 by Stephen Coan. The author has annotated a previously unpublished Haggard diary of his Natal days & Violet Books will be importing copies for sale the instant this is in print from its South African publisher.
The portrait of Prince M'hlopekazi of Swaziland was
borrowed from Peter Berresford Ellis's H. Rider Haggard: A Voice from the Infinite.
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