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Authors: John Buchan

Prester John

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led a truly extraordinary life: he was a colonial administrator, soldier, barrister, journalist, historian, politician, publisher, poet and novelist. He was born in Perth in 1875, the eldest son of a Church of Scotland minister, and educated at Hutcheson's Grammar School in Glasgow. He graduated from Glasgow University then took a scholarship to Oxford. During his time there – ‘spent peacefully in an enclave like a monastery' – he wrote two historical novels.

In 1901 he became a barrister of the Middle Temple and a private secretary to Lord Milner, the High Commissioner for South Africa. In 1907 he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor; they had three sons and a daughter. After spells as a war correspondent, Lloyd George's Director of Information and a Conservative MP, Buchan was appointed Governor-General of Canada in 1935 and became the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield.

Despite poor health throughout his life, Buchan's literary output was remarkable – thirty novels, over sixty non-fiction books, including biographies of Sir Walter Scott and Oliver Cromwell, and seven collections of short stories. His distinctive thrillers – ‘shockers' as he called them – were characterised by suspenseful atmosphere, conspiracy theories and romantic heroes, notably Richard Hannay (based on the real-life soldier Field Marshal Lord Ironside) and Sir Edward Leithen. Buchan was a favourite writer of Alfred Hitchcock, whose screen adaptation of
The Thirty-Nine Steps
was phenomenally successful.

John Buchan died in Canada in 1940, the year his autobiography
Memory Hold-the-Door
was published.

is an Honorary Fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Two World Wars at the University of Edinburgh and is the author of a number of books on military history including
Flowers of the Forest
Scotland in the First World War
. He is currently writing
In the Time of Tyrants
, a story of the Scots in the Second World War.

Prester John
Introduced by Trevor Royle

This ebook edition published in 2011 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road
First published in 1910
This edition published in Great Britain in 2009 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd
Copyright © Lord Tweedsmuir and Jean, Lady Tweedsmuir
Introduction copyright © Trevor Royle, 2009
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.
ebook ISBN: 978-0-85790-162-0
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

On 7 August 1901 during the dog days of a London summer a young man called John Buchan received an unexpected summons to a meeting at the Colonial Office. It came from Lord Milner, the British High Commissioner to South Africa who was busily recruiting ‘first-class men of experience' to serve with him as he began the task of reconstruction in the wake of the Boer War. Even though Buchan had no experience of colonial administration he had read Greats at Oxford where he had taken a First and was therefore one of the young men with ‘brains and character' whom Milner had singled out to work for him. In time, that select number would be known as ‘Milner's young men' or, somewhat disparagingly, as ‘Milner's kindergarten'.

For Buchan it was a life-changing moment. When he received the invitation he was training to be a barrister but he had also taken his first steps as a writer, contributing reviews and essays to
Blackwood's Magazine
The Spectator
. More importantly, he had built up a circle of influential friends at Oxford and had transmogrified himself into that instantly recognisable figure of the late Victorian and Edwardian period – a Scotsman on the make. The son of a Church of Scotland minister Buchan had shone at school and then at Glasgow University before winning a scholarship which took him to Oxford and access to a wider world. As a friend from his Oxford days told him, going to South Africa was simply another spur to his ambitions: ‘With your usual good fortune (like most good fortune, mainly an eye for the true opportunity) you seem to have done it at precisely the best junction.'

When Buchan left for South Africa the country was still gripped by the conflict which had broken out in October 1899 when the Boers of Transvaal and Orange Free State had invaded Natal and plunged South Africa into a disastrous war. Although large-scale military operations had come to an end by the late summer of 1901 the British Army was still engaged in a vicious counter-insurgency war against Boer commandos and the mission awaiting Milner's staff involved both restitution and pacification. It proved to be hard and unyielding work – as a rule Buchan woke at 5 a.m. and worked until 10 p.m. – but it was also intensely rewarding. Not only did Buchan gain profound satisfaction from the knowledge that he was helping to rebuild a shattered country but he also fell in love with southern Africa for its wide open spaces, big skies and above all the ‘wonderful mulberry gloaming' at the day's end. Buchan quickly conformed to the dictum that you can take the man out of Africa but you cannot take Africa out of the man.

Being a writer, albeit in his formative years, Buchan also used the experience to fuel his literary talents. ‘I am writing a book!' he told his friend the classical scholar Gilbert Murray early in 1903. ‘I could not help it. I am so much in love with the country, and have so many things to say which I think ought to be said.' The result was
The African Colony
, an account of his experiences which appeared later that year and received respectable reviews, but by then he had already started work on a novel and a number of short stories. The most important of these fictional efforts was an adventure novel for boys which eventually saw the light of day in the summer of 1910, seven years after he returned from South Africa. Published under the title
The Black Generals
it appeared serially in
The Captain
, a magazine for ‘boys and old boys' whose contributors included P. G. Wodehouse. Later that year the story was published in book form by Thomas Nelson under the title
Prester John
and then in the United States by Dodd Mead under the title
The Great Diamond Pipe
. It was an immediate success, being translated into several languages: not a bad outcome for a piece of work which Buchan admitted in
his autobiography had come about while he was working as an editor at Nelson and ‘being appalled . . . by the dullness of most boys' books, I thought I would attempt one of my own, based on my African experience'.

The result,
Prester John,
is what was once known as ‘a rattling good yarn', a simple but compelling story which fascinates from start to finish. From the moment that the hero David Crawfurd encounters the mysterious black stranger on the Kirkcaple shore in eastern Scotland to the same man's tragic death in the hidden fastness of the Rooirand in southern Africa the reader is invited into an exciting but entirely credible world of adventure involving fabulous treasure, violence, double-dealing, a native uprising and David's eventual triumph over the forces of evil as represented by the enigmatic Reverend John Laputa who is described as ‘a second Napoleon . . . a born leader of men and as brave as a lion'. It is not surprising that
Prester John
received a warm welcome by the critics or that immediate comparisons were made with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and Rider Haggard.

In addition to the South African background which is lovingly depicted with a countryman's eye for landscape there is much else of Buchan in the tale. The Kirkcaple shore at the outset is based on his childhood memories of his father's ministry at Pathhead, a small Fife town between Kirkcaldy and Dysart where the stark red cliffs, firm sand and rock pools became a boy's playground. David Crawfurd, the minister's son with a taste for adventure and hopes for a university education could have been Buchan himself and the story is underpinned by his powerful conviction that civilisation is a thin veneer, a sheet of glass beyond which lie the forces of chaos. Or as another Buchan character Maitland puts it in the short story ‘Fountainblue' ‘there is a very narrow line between the warm room and the savage out of doors'. (Coincidentally, this story was published in
Blackwood's Magazine
in August 1901 on the eve of Buchan's departure to South Africa.)

This latter point is important as it colours much of Buchan's philosophy. To him imperialism was as much about imposing
civilisation as it was about creating economic or political power. Buchan's thinking was also based on an insistence that there can be no privilege without responsibility, that those who govern on behalf of others must have their best interests at heart. In such a world the figure of John Laputa is something of an anachronism. On the one hand Captain Arcoll, a typical Buchan character, part military spy, part adventurer, respects Laputa as a noble specimen, who possesses ‘fineness and nobility'. On the other he regards him as little more than a half-educated savage who ‘can see the first stage of a thing, and maybe the second, but no more'. Even Crawfurd is in two minds about the man, admiring Laputa's ‘splendid proportions' but recoiling from the elemental cruelty which encourages him to ‘wipe out the civilisation of a thousand years, and turn us all into savages'.

By any standards the character of Laputa is a magnificent creation; he also provides the link to the legendary figure of Prester John, the fabulous Christian emperor who features in the writing of Marco Polo and whose name was adopted by a later ruler in Abyssinia. This historical connection provides Laputa with his sense of destiny, the great snake necklet of the long-lost emperor being the totem which allows him to rally the tribes of southern Africa to drive out the white man. However, it also belies Laputa's position as an educated man of God who received his education in the United States and who became ‘a great pet of missionary societies'. Laputa might have taken on the cloak of civilisation but as Arcoll tells Crawfurd ‘at full moon when the black cock was blooded, the Reverend John forgot his Christianity. He was back four centuries among the Mazimba sweeping down on the Zambesi. He told them, and they believed him, that he was the Umkulunkulu, the incarnated spirit of Prester John.'

In that guise he cannot be allowed to survive, and Crawfurd and his friends have to foil Laputa's attempts to raise a rebellion amongst the tribes and drive out the white man. They do this both for the sake of the plot – it is after all an adventure story – and to preserve the civilising influence of colonial rule in
southern Africa. Crawfurd comes to that understanding in a key passage after he has played his part in ending Laputa's life and putting a stop to the rebellion amongst the tribes.

I knew then the meaning of the white man's duty. He has to take all the risks, recking nothing of his life or his fortunes, and well content to find his reward in the fulfilment of his task. That is the difference between white and black, the gift of responsibility, the power of being in a little way a king; and so long as we know this and practise it, we will rule not in Africa alone but wherever there are dark men who live only for the day and their own bellies.

In the post-colonial world Crawfurd's words have a disturbing ring but even if they do not exactly mirror Buchan's own thinking they are an accurate reflection of the New Imperialism of the period before World War I. Imperialists like Frederick Lugard who opened up much of east and west Africa, creating British protectorates in Uganda and Nigeria, saw nothing wrong in claiming that white intervention was an ‘assertion of superiority which commands the respect and excites the emulation of the savage' and he insisted that the Pax Britannica which cemented the empire was ‘the greatest blessing that Africa has known since the Flood'. Lugard tempered his thinking by arguing that the British presence stopped inter-tribal conflicts and opened up Africa's heart of darkness to civilising influences but the underlying message echoes Crawfurd's words, namely that all that was beneficial in Africa was European and all that was bad was African. Applied to
Prester John
, Crawfurd and his ilk bring prosperity and order while Laputa represents the primal forces of darkness and barbarity.

BOOK: Prester John
12.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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