The Legend of “She”

Maurice Greiffenhagen’s original book illustration from the first edition of “She”

Snippets 148 / Guest Post 13. Major Tudor Trevor, known to his friends as “Toodles”, was born in 1865, the sixteenth of seventeen children. The Trevor family was Welsh and could trace its history back centuries. Trevor spent forty years living and working in southern Africa. During those years he met many famous and influential men as well as some rather odd characters who scraped a living in Victorian Africa. His 1932 autobiography “Forty Years in Africa” is crammed with fascinating anecdotes and stories of the famous, the infamous, and men of influence. In 1903 he was involved in problems with the Malabok, Magoeba and Madjijie people.

Far more interesting than Malabok was Madjijie.

Most startling was the fact that although Madjijie ruled, there was no such person as Madjijie!

The Madjijie people consisted of seven small tribes, whose indunas [leaders] were supposed to visit Madjijie in a cave, where she gave them orders. She was said to be a white woman and over two hundred years old. It is believed that the legend, actually, gave Rider Haggard his inspiration for ‘She’.

The legend was vague, but, pieced together it was to the effect that at a time when the tribe lived on the coast and was starving and the men were away, a white girl with blue eyes appeared at their kraal. She led them to ‘great plenty’ as the natives put it. They thought that she was a goddess. Later they trekked under her guidance to the Woodbush mountains, their present location. When she had learned their language, she told them that she was not a goddess, but the messenger of one. She would never marry, and when they prayed her to do so in order that her children might rule them, she declined, but promised that her spirit would continue to direct their destinies.

She lived in a cave, and as she got older, she appeared less and less often, until at last she was never seen at all. Before the war against her people, as a great favour, I had been taken to ‘see Madjijie’. It was one of the most theatrical, even melodramatic scenes I have ever witnessed.

The time was nightfall. There was a rough stone enclosure at the base of a beetling cliff, under which were some rock shelters of unknown magnitude. In front of these were two conical altars, about three feet high, on top of which fires were burning. I and my two guides took our seats on the ground far in the front, and there were many others present.

So soon as the sun was down, two or three companies of girls, whitened with ashes and draped in queer reed veils, commenced dancing to the time of unseen drums. Monotonously the audience clapped. This went on without a break until it was pitch dark, but more and more fire was thrown on the altars – and more and more did I get the sensation that they were trying to mesmerise me. At last, as the moonlight began to appear, some material was thrown on the fire that caused dense aromatic smoke, like the light of a setting sun on clouds, and at once I began to see outlines that shaped themselves like dream castles. But the castles and all the larger shapes dissipated until I saw only a woman’s left hand.

I was speculating as to what would come next when there was a roll of drums followed by a dead silence. I shook myself out of my dreamy state and became thoroughly awake. The place was empty save for the two men who had brought me, one of whom was a witch-doctor of repute.

He looked at me very hard and asked me what I had seen.

I did not tell him that I had gone into a semi-trance and said prosaically, that I had noticed a lot of smoke.

“Was there nothing else that you saw?” he persisted. “Nothing?”

I admitted that I had been dreaming and had dreamed that I saw a woman’s hand and forearm.

He replied swiftly, “You are good – but not good enough!”

Did that mean that I was not so bad that I was to be denied a glimpse of Madjijie, but that, on the other hand, I was not good enough to deserve a complete vision of the woman ruler? I don’t know.

(Forty Years in Africa, p.81-82)

According to Tom Pocock’s 1993 biography of Rider Haggard “Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire”, halfway on a journey between Pretoria and the ruins of Zimbabwe Haggard had been less than a hundred miles from “the curious tribe of the Lovedu…They, it was said, were ruled by a white queen with magical powers, who was said to be immortal.” (p.66), although: “Even Haggard himself was uncertain how he came to invent such a parable” (p.67). The story of the immortal white queen ruling over a secretive tribe is one that was told by other African tribal storytellers.

Trevor’s opinion was that Madjijie was the survivor of a shipwreck from long in the past who led the tribe to the wreck where they could salvage the cargo. As to what he believed he saw, one has to wonder whether what was thrown on the fire could have been some hallucinatory drug.

Wherever the story originated, Rider Haggard’s “She”, published in 1887, was a phenomenal success and is still read today.

The guest post article above has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print).


About Roger Pocock

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