Summer has almost gotten away while I've procrastinated over this book review. It makes me feel guilty because "Men of Men" belongs in the summer book bag. It is one of those fine adventure stories that let the reader feel virtuous while enjoying himself: a historical thriller, in other words. Wilbur Smith is more artful than John Jakes and less pedantic than James Michener but the genre is the same.
I first came across Smith's books at a newsstand in a little hotel in Matabeleland, the tribal name for the western provinces of Zimbabwe. He had written a dozen or so adventure novels and I became addicted to them. They were all set in Africa, where Smith was born and has lived most of his life.
"Men of Men" is the second volume of a trilogy that recounts the white man's exploration, conquest and ultimate loss of the rich and beautiful land between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, the country now called Zimbabwe.
The historical events on which this novel moves are essentially true and in many ways remind me of the conquest of the American West. The time period is roughly the same--the last decades of the 19th century. The motivations of the white pioneers and settlers were roughly the same--greed, opportunity, adventure. Their methods of conquest were roughly the same--mining concessions and land grants from gullible or indifferent tribal chiefs, and when that failed, fire and the sword.
A central historical figure in the trilogy is Cecil Rhodes, the anguished pederast whose genius, ruthlessness and imperial vision were one of the wonders of the age. He built an immense fortune from diamonds and gold in South Africa and that was but the beginning of his fevered dreams. In his mind, he constructed a British empire in Africa that would extend from the Cape to Cairo, bringing enlightenment or death to the Africans and glory to himself and the Crown. Death cut him off but not before he had created a nation that bore his name--Rhodesia. He is best remembered now for his endowment of the coveted Rhodes scholarships; Smith's books refresh our memories on what the endowment is based on.
In 1888 a Rhodes agent signed a treaty with Lobengula, the king of the Matabele, a Zulu tribe that had trekked north from South Africa into Zimbabwe a half-century earlier. The Matabele asserted dominion over the Mashona tribes of Zimbabwe and in their dealings with Rhodes gave away concessions throughout the country. The 1888 treaty granted "complete and exclusive charge over all metals and minerals situated in my kingdom, principalities and dominions together with full powers to do all things that they may deem necessary to win and procure the same." It was a better deal than the purchase of Manhattan Island. In the end, Lobengula and his people lost not only the minerals and metals but most of their land and cattle. And many lives were lost, too, in that process.
Novelist Smith puts flesh and bone on all this history through the stories of Lobengula, his ancestors and descendants and the stories of the fictional Ballantyne family and their intimate involvement with Rhodes. It is history made easy, to be sure, but it illuminates brilliantly the origins of the recent war of independence in Zimbabwe and the enmity that exists today between the Matabele and the Mashona.
One of the obsessions of various generations of Ballantynes in Smith's books is the Zimbabwe Ruins, a magnificent and mysterious temple or fortress or town (no one is sure) built of stone many centuries ago in the southwestern part of the country. It contained a number of stone sculptures of the "Zimbabwe Bird," which appears to be a stylized rendering of a falcon. The Ballantynes, in the novel, steal the birds and take them to South Africa. Some one in fact did steal the birds and they ended up in various South African museums. In legend, they brought a curse to the thieves. However that may be, they recently were returned to Zimbabwe where they belong and that is a true and fitting end to Smith's story.