Imperial fiction: Sanders of the River

In the good old times before the English came there were many wars, tribe against tribe, people against people. There were battles, murders, raiding, and wholesale crucifixions, but the British changed all that. There was peace in the land.
– Edgar Wallace, Sanders of the River (1911)

Sanders of the River may or not be a good story from the point of view of the ethnological expert; but it is certainly a most entertaining one from the novel reader’s standpoint.
The Scotsman (1911)

At the peak of his success, Edgar Wallace was perhaps the most popular writer Britain has ever known; at the turn of the 1930s, it is said, he was the author of one in every four books read in this country. Books read, you will notice, not books sold, for Wallace was the king of the circulating libraries, but even so, his dominance of the market was such that it will probably never be equalled.

EdgarWallaceWhat was truly remarkable about his popularity was that of the 170-plus novels he wrote, most were stand-alone pieces; he didn’t rely on the continuing series or the recurring character. He didn’t even stay within the same genre; his speciality was crime, but he also produced science fiction, comedy and adventure tales. His name alone was the attraction.

An exception to this was Sanders of the River, a collection of short stories that had all previously appeared in the Windsor magazine and that were published in volume form in 1911. It proved so successful that a further eleven books followed and, after Wallace’s death in 1932, the series was continued by Francis Gérard; there were also three movies to come, with Leslie Banks (1935) and then Richard Todd (1963-5) as Sanders.

Wallace is not very widely read these days, and his name carries little weight, though the London Press Club does still give an Edgar Wallace Award for Fine Writing – recipients have included Alan Watkins, Hugh McIlvaney and Caitlin Moran. For the most part, the neglect of his work is no great loss. The crime stories, in particular, really aren’t very good at all, and certainly don’t fall into the category of fine writing. But, again, Sanders of the River is the exception: it’s well crafted, often very funny and entirely fascinating.

Commissioner Sanders is responsible for the administration of a large chunk of West Africa, with a population of some quarter of a million. Officially he’s the representative of the British government, for this is part of the Empire, but actually he pretty much rules his territory as he pleases, displaying a healthy disregard for all those in authority over him. His subjects understand this: as far as they are concerned, his word is law. Particularly when he turns up in their villages on his river-boat, complete with a couple of Maxim guns.

sanders2Having lived most of his life in Africa, he ‘took native people seriously’. Or, to put it another way, he ‘was a man who knew the native; he thought like a native, and there were moments when he acted not unlike a barbarian’. His attitude is that if the Empire is a family, he’s acting in loco parentis: ‘I am as your father and mother,’ he often tells the villagers, and they in turn accept him as such.

Actually, even by the standards of the time, he’s a bit too strict to be a father figure – maybe more of a headmaster, one who’s been in office long to have seen every schoolboy trick played by several generations and has developed a drily cynical sense of humour as a result. Admittedly, his powers go further than those of a regular headmaster: he does sometimes sentence men to be whipped, but he’s also liable to punish a troublesome local king by hanging him from a nearby gum-tree. But even in these circumstances, he maintains a level of decency and civilization: he executes people ‘very quickly so that they feel little pain’. And his approach is, we’re told, effective:

You may say of Sanders that he was a statesman, which means that he had no exaggerated opinion of the value of individual human life … Hesitation to act, delay in awarding punishment, either of these two things would have been mistaken for weakness amongst a people who had neither power to reason, nor will to excuse, nor any large charity.

It obviously doesn’t need pointing out that the attitudes and actions of Sanders (and the narrator’s enthusiasm for those attitudes and actions) are not the kind of thing that would find favour in modern Britain. Whichever way you cut it, this is racist stuff, founded on an unquestioned assumption that there is a hierarchy of races and of cultures. And some might see the fact that Wallace has put all his very considerable story-telling talent into these tales as only aggravating the offence; as a collection of yarns, it’s so wonderfully readable. But beyond the immoral entertainment of the narrative, Sanders still has things to recommend it.


First, there’s the unvarnished account of imperialism. Wallace depicts the Empire in terms of naked power and greed. On one occasion, a military expedition to quell a rebellious village is clearly needed, but Sanders can’t persuade his superiors to authorize such an enterprise; until, that is, he discovers a gold deposit in the area – at which point, expense proves to be no object.

The motive of the Empire having been spelt out, so too is the methodology. Sanders appoints kings at his own discretion, ‘but the kings he made were little ones – that is the custom of the British-African rule, they break a big king and put many little kings in his place, because it is much safer’. In return for his patronage, he obviously expects loyalty and obedience from the likes of Bosambo, the man he installs as the king of the Ochori people, even though Bosambo is a Kru (as well as being an escaped prisoner from Liberia).

There’s little attempt here by Wallace to reassure his readers in Britain that the Empire is much of a civilizing enterprise. Sanders has no belief that the peoples he rules can be reformed, his only aim is to prevent or punish the most extreme behaviour: murder, child sacrifice, cannibalism and, above all, war – the latter was the worst possible occurrence, since it meant ‘solemn official correspondence, which his soul loathed’. There’s something here to offend everyone: not only a casual acceptance that this is what ‘even the best behaved of the tribes’ will resort to if they’re left unsupervised, but also the violence with which he enforces his law.

When it comes to the behaviour of his junior officers, he has an objection to white men consorting with African women. ‘As to the sort of things that are done in black countries,’ he tells one of his subordinates, ‘they don’t do them in our black countries – monkey tricks of that sort are good enough for the Belgian Congo, or for Togoland, but they aren’t good enough for this little strip of wilderness.’ His concern, however, is simply that the racial hierarchy will be undermined by those of mixed race; he has no worries about morality.

And certainly, he has no desire to convert anyone to Christianity. Indeed, he has a deep dislike of those who seek to make such conversions. He recognizes that he is – by his office – bound to tolerate some of them, but his patience has limits: ‘White missionaries, yes, but black missionaries I will not endure.’ Confronted by one such, he concedes: ‘You may speak to my people, but you may not address the Kano folk nor the Houssas, because they are petrified in the faith of the Prophet.’

Which is another reason why this is worth reading. Sanders has a certain respect for Islam, but very little for Christianity. ‘It is written in the books of your gods,’ a Christian African tells him, ‘that the river is for us all, black and white, each being equal in the eyes of the white gods.’ His reply is not entirely within the spirit of the Gospels: ‘When you and I are dead, we shall be equal, but since I am quick and you are quick, I shall give you ten strokes with a whip to correct the evil teaching that is within you.’

Imperialism and Christianity are clearly at loggerheads, and Sanders knows which side he is on. Further, Wallace suggests, Christianity is inimical to Africa itself. One man who is converted reflects ruefully that the requirements of the faith are so restrictive: ‘You must needs go on, never tiring, never departing from the straight path, exercising irksome self-restraint, leaving undone that which you would rather do.’ Which is quite a nice joke at the expense of the Book of Common Prayer’s confession: ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.’

As for Sanders’ own faith, well, that’s a bit vague, but it certainly isn’t Christian:

Queer things happened in Sanders’ territory – miraculous, mysterious things, but Sanders was never surprised. He had dealings with folks who believed in ghosts and personal devils, and he sympathized with them, realizing that it is very difficult to ascribe all the evils of life to human agencies.

sanders4He recognizes the power of magic and the supernatural, and is happy to call on the assistance of a witch doctor for pragmatic reasons. In one of the most extraordinary episodes, he himself encounters the ghosts of two Roman centurions, who – nearly nineteen centuries earlier – had been shipwrecked in Africa and had remained, ‘being worshipped by the barbarians, teaching them warlike practices’. His response to the incident is to shake his head, and conclude monosyllabically that it was all a bit ‘rum’.

There’s something here, I think, that’s quite interesting. Obviously, there are elements of Orientalism, of using Africa as an exotic backdrop, of paternalism – but maybe there’s something else as well. Elsewhere we’re told that Sanders has an admiration for the talking drum: ‘He could not understand it, no European could; but he had respect for its mystery.’ And maybe that’s it: there’s a respect for mystery that flickers through from time to time. The chapter with the Roman centurions is a very good ghost story in its own right, and the best ghost stories require a respect for mystery.

It’s also worth noting that, even if Wallace’s portraits of the individual tribes are reductive caricatures, he does at least try to make the point that generalizations about ‘Africa’ are liable to be misleading. The territory comprises ‘some sixteen distinct and separate nations, each isolated and separated from the other by custom and language. They were distinct not as the French are from the Italian, but as the Slav is from the Turk.’ Which doesn’t, of course, stop him from generalizing about Africa on other occasions.

Wallace had spent some time in South Africa as a soldier and then, during the Boer War, as a correspondent for the Daily Mail, but his principal qualification for writing Sanders of the River was a trip he made as a reporter to the Congo in 1907. His subject then had been the atrocities committed by the Belgian regime, compared to which the fictional Sanders really was a paternal figure.

How much his own experience shaped the stories in Sanders is doubtful. But there is at least one unmistakable echo in a knockabout episode where the Hon George Tackle, son of the proprietor of the Courier and Echo (and therefore possessed of influence ‘which no amount of competitive talent could hope to contend with’), gets the job of investigating alleged atrocities on Sanders’ patch. Tackle turns out to be more inept even than William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938), and manages to visit the wrong village – one that shares the same name but happens to be in German Togoland. His shock exposé of British brutality consequently ends up in the high court, with Sanders winning a libel action.

And that is the final reason why the book’s worth reading. The best jokes are aimed not at Africans, but at British visitors and their failure to understand this world. At heart, the book is a social comedy.

sanders3When, for example, reports filter back to Britain that a nine-year-old boy has become king of the Isisi, ‘dear old ladies of Bayswater wept, and many dear young ladies of Mayfair said: “How sweet!”’ Well-meaning readers of the magazine Tiny Toddlers raise the money to fund a mission by Miss Clinton Calbraith, ‘who was an MA and unaccountably pretty,’ so that she might provide moral guidance to the poor orphaned infant. Sanders, typically, has some practical advice: ‘Learn the language,’ he tells her. ‘Go home and learn it. It will take you about twenty-five years.’ She rejects this suggestion, goes up-river and lasts just three days before fleeing in a state of horror. ‘It is disgraceful! He lives in a mud hut and wears no clothes,’ she shudders. ‘Of course, I knew he would be black; and I knew that… oh, it was too horrid!’ She returns home, where she writes ‘her famous book, Alone in Africa: by an English Gentlewoman’.

Similarly, a young man named Torrington is sent out to be a Deputy Commissioner. ‘He was a Bachelor of Law, had read Science, and had acquired in a methodical fashion a working acquaintance with Swahili, bacteriology and medicine.’ His intention is to convert the locals ‘from unproductive vagrancy to a condition of good citizenship’, but his endeavours come to naught. He tries to teach them about steam, using a tin kettle: ‘They understood the kettle part, but could not quite comprehend what meat he was cooking, and when he explained for the fortieth time that he was only cooking water, they glanced significantly one at the other and agreed that he was not quite right in his head.’

Best of all, there’s Claude Hyall Cuthbert who wishes to secure, on behalf of a group of investors called the Isisi Exploitation Syndicate, exclusive rights to rubber, kola-nut, mahogany and tobacco in the region. Bosambo, king of the Ochori, happily sells him everything for which he asks, knowing full well that none of it can be delivered – apart from anything else, he’s sold concessions to land that is not his, and even to the river itself. Cuthbert leaves in a state of exhilaration, but it doesn’t last…

Some time later, Sanders comes upon the would-be capitalist, living alone in a hut, half-mad, convinced that he’s contracted sleeping sickness and can do nothing but die a horrible death in a foreign land. It transpires that his problem stems from the one legitimate gift that Basambo gave him: a big bag of ‘native tobacco’, which he smokes compulsively in a black wooden pipe. ‘I admit I gave the white man the hemp,’ shrugs Bosambo. ‘I myself smoke it, suffering no ill. How was I to know that it would make him sleep?’

All of which leads us to the obvious conclusion that, whatever the do-gooders and deluded fools back home might think: ‘There is one type that can rule native provinces wisely, and that type is best represented by Sanders.’


When first published, Sanders of the River got very positive reviews, many of them praising the authenticity of the setting. ‘Mr Wallace has produced a book of peculiar interest, and it shows remarkable insight into native life and character,’ noted one, and the theme was taken up by others:

Mr Wallace has been called the Kipling of South Africa, and this story of the labours and remarkable adventures of a West Central Commissioner is so enthralling that the reader’s interest is never allowed to flag. It has evidently been written from close knowledge of the country and its people, and therefore has particular merit as a work of fiction.

As to whether Sanders was to be seen as the very model of a modern imperial administrator, there was some division of opinion. He was ‘a man who has spent his life amongst the black races of Africa, one of those men who have made a deep study of those races and whose energy and promptitude in doing the right thing at the right time has made the British Empire in Africa what it is,’ according to one reviewer. But another saw something else, perhaps an echo of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899):

No doubt a good deal does go on in the relations of a certain class of government officials and the natives which will not bear too close scrutiny. In fact, the tendency of the higher civilized to drop to the level of the lower is common knowledge, in particular among native and especially negro races. Mr Wallace does not precisely raise considerations like these in his lively story, but they lie beneath the surface all the same.

And I think that’s about right. There are some serious questions about the nature of imperial power lurking beneath the words. They are only fleetingly to be glimpsed before being swept away by the rush of the tales, but they make the book that rare thing: an Edgar Wallace work that deserves to survive.

The film versions, on the other hand, are terrible – though, to be fair, the original 1935 movie did see the only ever screen pairing of Paul Robeson and Jomo Kenyatta.

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