Friday, March 13, 2015

Colleagues in the “Red Trade”

Solomon Kane appears for the first time in Robert E. Howard’s novella Red Shadows (1928) and subsequently in eight other stories, as well as three poems.  (See also The Soul of the Jungle )  The famous Puritan hero was also featured in several fragments, three of which were edited by the famous English horror writer, Ramsey Campbell.  One of these fragments was Hawk of Basti, published posthumously in 1968.  The piece is interesting in that it contains some biographical material about Kane.  It might have served well as an introductory chapter to a more elaborate work.

In Hawk of Basti, Kane is wandering again through Africa, not far from the Slave Coast, a region the Puritan returns to several times in Howard’s fiction.  Why this location?  Why does the image of enslavement appear so frequently in Howard’s stories?  This time, Kane is not with his wizened old comrade in arms, the ju-ju man N’Longa.  But there is mention of N’Longa when Kane explains the origin of the strange staff he carries:

It was given me by a strange creature—one N’Longa, a fetish man of the Slave Coast, whom I have seen perform nameless and ungodly feats.  Yet beneath his black and wrinkled hide beats the heart of a true man, I doubt not.

(See also Solomon Kane, Emancipator for additional detail about the staff.)

In an eerie forest, Kane encounters another Caucasian, whom he does not initially recognize because of the man’s outlandish attire.  It is an Englishman ‘gone native’, a boisterous ex-pirate named Jeremy Hawk.  “His nose was thin and aquiline,” explains the author, “and his whole face was that of a bird of prey.”  This is the ‘hawk’ of Basti.

Kane’s old colleague refers to him as “my sober cutthroat” and “my melancholy murderer”.  Hawk reminisces about the early days when “…when we harried the Dons [that is, the Spanish] from the Azores to Darien [in Panama] and back again…” Kane points out that they were on two different ships at that time, under different captains.  Both commanders perished; Kane’s captain went down with his ship, while Hawk’s took to piracy, as did he.  Different ships, different lives: this is what the author is suggesting in this comparison.

Solomon Kane’s noble but doomed captain is the subject of one of Howard’s poems, The Return of Sir Richard Grenville (1968).  Wakened from his sleep by the apparition of his dead captain, Kane is warned that he is in imminent danger from a horde of murderous natives.  They soon emerge from the jungle and Kane fights valiantly.  Afterwards the carnage is much greater than what Kane could have accomplished on his own.  When he reaches out to shake Grenville’s hand in gratitude, he is alone in the dark.

Kane and Hawk discuss politics, as colleagues might do after some time apart.  Queen Elizabeth the First is still on the throne, but Kane never liked her because of her policies toward the Puritans.  Then Hawk cuts to the heart of the matter and explains his situation.  Following a disastrous shipwreck off the Slave Coast of Africa, Hawk became the sole survivor of his crew.  But his white skin and knowledge of magic tricks brought him celebrity and later political influence among the locals. 

He helped the native black Africans overthrow a brutal, repressive regime of “brown-skinned devils”—Howard implies that these were some sort of invading tribe, possibly a remnant of an ancient civilization.  A hero, Hawk ruled the island community of Basti until very recently, when a coup d’état threw him out of power and sent him fleeing for his life.  Hawk proposes that he and Kane use their exotic racial features and superior firepower—Kane’s two pistols—to terrorize the people of Basti into putting Hawk and Kane on the throne as co-despots.  Kane is ambivalent:

But I wish no earthly throne of pride and vanity.  If we bring peace to a suffering race and punish evil men for their cruelty, it is enough for me.”

But can Hawk be trusted?  There is an initial bloody skirmish, and the fragment ends with Hawk and Kane heading to Basti with some terrified converts to their cause.  It is an effective beginning with some intriguing openings to a number of plot directions.  Why do the “brown skinned devils” wear bronze helmets?  Where did they come from?  Will Hawk eventually double cross Solomon Kane?  (At this time I am unsure if another author has taken this fragment and developed it into a complete story.) 

The notion that two white men with advanced weapons are equal to an entire community of indigenous people is consistent with the racism and colonialist attitudes of the 1920s and 1930s.  So is the assumption that a white despot, even a pirate, is preferable to local rule by Africans, or that Caucasians are needed to rescue oppressed Africans, even from each other. 

And yet I read an interesting story in The New York Times today (“Mercenaries Join Fight Against Boko Haram”) concerning white soldiers of fortune—“relics of apartheid” as one expert called them—coming from South Africa to do battle against the Islamic insurgency in northeast Nigeria.  “They love this gung-ho kind of stuff, and they’re good at it.”  It is not hard to imagine modern day Jeremy Hawks and Solomon Kanes among them.      



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