Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, November 17, 2020


"The Education of the King" by Edgar Wallace (first published in The Weekly Tale-Teller, February 26, 1910; included in Wallace's story collection Sanders of the River, 1911).  It has also been reprinted under the title "The Education of King Peter."

Ah, the "White Man's Burden" has a lot to answer for but in the early part of the twentieth century, Imperial England did not see it that way.  It was an age of political and social xenophobia with a politically incorrect attitude that washed over the Empire like a flood.  (Not that history has shown us to do much better in this day and age, but we have made some progress, albeit greater lip service.)  The duty of God-fearing Christians (practicing or not) was plain when it came to Africa.  It's poor, benighted peoples needed a strong hand to raise them up out of poverty and ignorance and if the Empire can make a pound or two while doing so, so much the better.

Into this hodge-podge of primitives, superstition, and barbarism came Mister Commissioner Sanders, representing the British government in West Central Africa.  Sanders is a practical, wise, and firm man.  He is also a callous bigot with a vicious streak, although Wallace certainly did not expect to portray him that way.

"Now, there is a subtle difference between all these [African] races, a difference that only men like Sanders know.

"It is not necessarily a variety of colour, although some are brown and some yellow, and some -- a very few -- jet black.  The difference is in character.  By Sanders' code you trusted all natives up to the same point, as you trust children, with a few notable exceptions.  The Zulu were men, the Basuto were men, yet childlike in their grave faith.  The black men who wore a fez were were subtle, but trustworthy; but the browny men of the Gold Coast, who talked English, wore European clothing, and called one another "Mr." were Sanders' pet abomination.

"[...] You may say of Sanders that he was a statesman, which means that he had no exaggerated opinion of the value of human life.  We he saw a dead leaf on the plant of civilization, he plucked it off, or a weed growing with his 'flowers' he pulled it up, not stopping to consider the weed's equal right to life.  When a man, whether he was capita or slave, by is bad example endangered the peace of his country, Sanders fell upon him.  In their unregenerate days, the Isisi called him "Organi Isisi," which means "little butcher  bird," and certainly in that time Sanders was prompt to hang.  He governed people three hundred miles beyond the fringe of civilization.  Hesitation to act, delay in awarding punishment, either of these two things would be mistaken for weakness amongst a people who had neither power to reason, nor will to excuse, , nor any large charity."

Sanders "kept a watchful eye upon some quarter of a million cannibal folk, who ten years before regarded white men as we regard the unicorn..."

Edgar Wallace was one of the most popular writers of his time.  Among his most popular series were the Just Men, the J. G. Reeder. the Educated Evans, and (of course) the Sanders stories (including those about Sanders' compatriot, Lieutenant Bones, more formally known as Lt. Francis Augustus Tibbetts).
The African stories eventually filled twelve books by Wallace and at least two written by Francis Gerard after Wallace's death.  The adventures of Sanders was also made into a disquietingly dated film in 1935, Sanders of the River, staring Leslie Banks as Sanders and Paul Robeson as a native chief -- Robeson was the best part of the film.

Anyway, that's the background.  I'm not sure if "The Education of the King" was the first Sanders story that Wallace wrote or published, but it was the lead story in the first Sanders collection, Sanders of the River.

The previous Commissioner, whom Wallace politely disguises as "Commissioner Mister Niceman," was one of the meek type of official who felt that soft words can persuade the natives into behaving.  While jaw-boning the rather obnoxious native chief of the Akasava who had stolen women and goats from a weaker neighboring tribe, Niceman got the chief to agree to return both women and goats.  Niceman wrote up a glowing report about his efforts and promptly left the country, leaving the native chief free to ignore the agreement, as he had always intended to, and the weaker tribe in a state of disarray.  At the same time, Sanders was making his way to Isisi, whose king was harboring a witch doctor who had poisoned a man, when he was dispatched to resolve the kerfuffle that Mr. Niceman has caused.  Sanders easily and firmly resolved the problem, earning the enmity of the native chief.  Meanwhile, Commissioner Mister Niceman returned and soon found his head hanging on a pole outside the hut of the native king that had been harboring the murderer.  Sanders had to act on that and British troopers wreaked their vengeance on the tribe; buried in the rubble were the bodies of both the murderous chief and the poisoner witch doctor that he had harbored.

Now the problem is who is to lead the tribe?  The dead king's brother is more than willing to take leadership, but Sanders vetoed that idea.  The king had a nine-year-old son whom Sanders felt should be named king, Peter (he had been given a proper English name, you see), with the uncle to serve as regent.  Sanders also hinted at dire consequences if the dead king's brother should betray the King's Peace.

The fact that a nine-year-old should be named king made a splash in the British and European papers.  One woman felt compelled to travel to Africa to give the young King Peter a proper education, leaving after a few days because the boy was naked and dirty, living in a mud hut, and was apt to do the most shocking things.  A group of missionaries was next -- soon to be expelled by Sanders for fomenting insurrection.  

Now the chief of the Akasava (remember him?), who was bearing a heavy grudge against Sanders, travelled to the Isisi and began to flatter King Peter with all sorts of grandiose claims about his (King Peter's) powers.  Aided by the boy's regent, King Peter is convinced that he can attack and loot neighboring tribes and Sanders would not be able to do a thing about it.  Big mistake.  Sanders came down on them like a ton of bricks, banishing both the chief of the Akasava and the regent.  Sanders then took it upon himself to educate the young king.  The boy soon learned how to judge grievances and rule properly, African-style.  His admiration for Sanders begins to grow, but the banished bad guys have gathered a force against the boy king and Sanders.  What happens next leaves a mark on Sanders.

Wallace laced this story with a bit of humor, but is that enough to outweigh the dated and racist writing?  For myself, I read such stories with an awareness of the bigotry that was common for the time.  I make allowances that I would not make for a modern story.  Your mileage may differ.


  1. I've read some Edgar Wallace mysteries and SF. Like you, I'm willing to make allowances for dated and racist writing given the historical time these works were written. Nice review!

  2. Edgar Wallace turns up twice today. Not sure if I have ever read him.