The African Queen by C S Forester
I acquired this beautiful little volume of The African Queen (MacMillan Collector’s Library) a couple of years ago, having been additionally attracted by its special presentation. It held comfortably in the hand, felt luxurious with its little blue ribbon book mark, and fine gold embossed pages – augmenting the great satisfaction of this “read”.
The story of The African Queen would be well-known to many, having been immortalised in the 1951 film made by John Huston, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, with some of it made near location in Uganda and The Congo.
C S Forester wrote this novel in 1935, just before he started the Hornblower series. The story is set early in World War 1, 1915, when German East Africa had control of Lake Tanganyika, in the west, and also had control of the adjacent Indian Ocean on its eastern border via the port of Dar es Salaam. Forester changed the names of the real name places and boats, giving us fictionalised, but thinly veiled versions of these real places, boats, and events leading to the loss of control of Lake Tanganyika by Germany to the British Forces.
Forester’s names and places in The African Queen:
Lake Tanganyika became Lake Wittelsbach.
The Ulanga River was probably the Ugalla River, with its source on today’s Ugalla Game Reserve.
The Königen Luise was the fictional name for the real ship patrolling the Lake, the Graf von Götzen. (The Graf Von Gøtzen was sunk by the British in real life; then, at Winston Churchill’s orders was refloated and rebuilt and re-launched in 1927, as The Liemba. This was the old name for Lake Tanganyika from Livingstone’s time. She still plies Lake Tanganyika.)
Our completely fictionalised protagonists were Rose (Sayer), a unmarried 33 year old woman “approaching middle age”!!, who, at the beginning of the story, had been helpmate for the previous 10 years, to her missionary brother, in the forest of German Central Africa, and (Charlie) Allnutt . Allnutt is a Cockney engineer employed by the Belgian gold-mining company a couple of hundred miles up the river. He and Rose are thrown together by circumstance just as Rose’s brother has died of fever, exhaustion and the devastation of his life’s work buy the arrival of the German military.
“It was at this very moment that Rose looked out across the veranda of the bungalow and saw Opportunity peering cautiously at her. She did not recognise it as Opportunity; she had no idea that the man who appeared there would be the instrument she would employ to strike a blow for England. All she recognised at the moment was that it was Allnutt……-a man her brother had been inclined to set his face sternly against as an un-Christian example.”
To escape the further incursions of the German Military, Rose and Allnutt set off in the dilapidated African Queen down the Ulanga River, and quickly contrive, that if they survive the perilous journey down-river they will attempt to destroy the Konigen Luise, the German patrol boat plying Lake Tanganyika, striking their blow for England.
The story is beautifully written with rich descriptive language. Rose takes to the tiller with aplomb, and guides the African Queen through numerous treacherous rapids, while Allnutt stokes and manages the engine. The description of their deprivation (except for Allnutt’s Gin and cigarettes), what each are doing and thinking, the state of the waters, banks, the boat, the mosquitoes and leeches, the heat, and eventually, the malaria, make the story compelling. I often felt I was Rose, revelling in her new skill and adventure, steering the African Queen through rapids. I could almost smell the water and hear its thunder.
“Rose silently took hold of the iron rod; it was so hot that it seemed to burn her hand. She held it resolutely, with almost a thrill at feeling the African Queen waver obediently in her course as she shifted the tiller ever so little.”
“Outside she could hear the noise of the African night, the howling of the monkeys, the shriek of some beast of prey, and the bellow of crocodiles down by the river, with, as an accompaniment to it all – so familiar that she did not notice it – the continuous high-pitched whine of the cloud of mosquitos outside her curtains.”
Rose had previously led a very ordered, confined life, with no prospect of personal happiness. Allnutt, also had an isolated and lonely life. In the intensity of their efforts to survive, they find each other as lovers. Forester is so deft with so few words, in conveying the deep comfort they experience in their eroticism. Allnutt becomes “Charlie” to Rose, and Rose is his new and familiar “Old girl”, in his Cockney accent.
The river finally descends from the highlands into the reeds, and then the waterlilies of the lowland, and finally, the restrictions of the river delta. With Rose’s determination and Charlie’s engineering skill, they make their chance to strike their blow for England.
My edition of The African Queen had a very informative afterward by author and academic Giles Foden. He tells us that there were three different endings for the book – the original ending which Forester himself preferred in which Allnutt dies in the last events of the book; the version which I read, in which Rose and Allnutt both survive, without the exact fulfilment of their mission for which they had hoped; and the third, which was the Hollywood version of that final event. I think I prefer the version which I read, which yet leaves us imagining further about Rose and Charlie.
Reading The African Queen was exhilarating.