The African Queen (novel)

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First edition cover
(publ. Little Brown)

The African Queen is a 1935 novel written by English author C. S. Forester, which was adapted to the 1951 film with the same name.

Plot summary[edit]

The story opens in August/September 1914. Rose Sayer, a 33-year-old Englishwoman, is the companion and housekeeper of her brother Samuel, an Anglican missionary in Central Africa. World War I has recently begun, and the German military commander of the area has conscripted all the natives; the village is deserted, and only Rose and her dying brother remain. Samuel dies during the night and Rose is alone. That day, another man arrives at the village: this is a Cockney named Allnutt, who is the mechanic and skipper of the African Queen, a steam-powered launch, owned by a Belgian mining corporation, that plies the upper reaches of the Ulanga River. Allnutt's two-man crew has deserted him at the rumours of war and conscription. Allnutt buries Samuel Sayer and takes Rose back to the African Queen, where they consider what they should do.

The African Queen is well-stocked with tinned food, and carries a cargo of two hundredweight of blasting gelignite. It also holds two large tanks of oxygen and hydrogen. Rose is inflamed with patriotism, and also filled with the desire to avenge the insults the Germans piled on her brother. It occurs to her that the main German defence against a British attack by water is the gunboat Königin Luise, which guards the fictional Lake Wittelsbach[1] into which the Ulanga feeds. She asks Allnutt if he can make the gelignite into a makeshift torpedo. Allnutt replies that that is not possible, but after some thought, he concludes that by loading the gelignite inside the emptied tanks, putting the tanks into the bow of the launch, and rigging a detonator, they could turn the African Queen itself into a sort of large torpedo. Allnutt is inclined to laugh off the idea, but he gives in to Rose's greater strength of will and the two of them set off down the Ulanga, Rose steering and Allnutt maintaining the launch's ancient, balky, wood-burning steam engine.

The descent to the lake poses three main problems: passing the German-held town of Shona; passing the heavy rapids and cataracts; and getting through the river delta. After many days on the river, they come close to Shona, and Allnutt's nerve fails; he refuses to take the launch under fire, anchors in a backwater, and gets drunk on gin. Unable to work the launch single-handed, Rose sets out to make Allnutt's life miserable until he agrees to her plan; while he is asleep she pours all his gin overboard, then proceeds to give him the silent treatment. The weak-willed Allnutt eventually gives in and the African Queen gets under way again. They come in sight of Shona at midday; the German commander assumes the launch is coming in to surrender (because he believes no boat could pass the rapids below the town, so Shona is the only possible destination); he does not realise his mistake until too late, and though he and his men open fire, the launch receives only minor hits.

Below the town, the African Queen spends several days shooting the rapids; Allnutt is exhilarated, and he and Rose are reconciled and become lovers. Rose, embarrassed, admits that she does not know Allnutt's first name; he tells her it is Charlie. On the third day the launch strikes on rocks while passing another rapid; she loses way and does not respond well to the tiller, so they are forced to anchor in the lee of a rock outcropping. Allnutt dives and finds that the driveshaft is bent and the propeller has lost one of its blades. Over the next weeks they slowly repair the damage without being able to beach the launch; Allnutt has to dive again and again to remove the shaft and propeller. On shore they gather wood and construct a makeshift bellows to heat the shaft so Allnutt can straighten it. Then Allnutt makes a new propeller blade out of scrap iron and bolts it to the stump of the old blade. After many more dives to fix the shaft and propeller back in place, they continue on their way and eventually pass the rapids, coming out of the Ulanga River into the larger Bora River, which feeds into the lake.

Passing the river delta is long and arduous. Tormented by myriads of biting insects, sickened with malaria, and racked by the terrible heat and powerful thunderstorms, they drag the launch through miles of reeds and water-grass with their boat-hooks, occasionally diving to cut fallen logs out of their way. Even the shallow launch (which has a draft of only thirty inches) constantly grounds on the thick mud. Finally, after weeks of exhausting labour, they emerge into the lake.

They hide the launch in a stand of reeds and begin constructing the torpedo. Allnutt releases the gas from his two tanks and unscrews the valves, leaving a hole big enough for him to fill the tanks with gelignite, packed in mud. He cuts two holes in the front of the launch, right at the waterline, and fixes the two tanks there; he then constructs detonators from nails and revolver cartridges, so the gelignite will detonate on impact. All that is left is to pilot the launch right into the side of the Königin Luise, and the resulting explosion will destroy both vessels. They have been keeping track of the gunboat's habits, and choose a night when it will be anchored close to them. They argue about which of them should pilot the launch and which stay behind, but in the end they agree that they will both go. They fire up the engine and set out on the attack, but halfway to their target a sudden storm sweeps up out of nowhere and overwhelms them; the African Queen sinks, and Rose and Allnutt have to swim for safety.

The two lovers are separated in the storm, but both are captured by the Germans the next day. They are brought before the captain of the Königin Luise to be tried as spies. Both refuse to say how they came to the lake, but the captain sees "African Queen" written on Rose's life-saver and deduces that they must be the mechanic and the missionary's sister from the mysteriously missing launch. He decides it would be uncivilised to execute them, so he flies a flag of truce and delivers them to the British naval commander, who dismissively sends them to separate tents under guard while he takes his newly arrived reinforcements out to sink the Königin Luise. Having succeeded in this, he sends Rose and Allnutt to the coast to speak to the British Consul, where he advises Allnutt to enlist in the British Army. Rose and Allnutt agree that when they reach the coast they will ask the Consul to marry them. The story ends with the narrator's comment that "Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided."

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel was made into a film in 1951: The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnutt and Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer. Allnutt is changed to a Canadian in the film to explain Bogart's accent. In the film the German captain attempts to hang Rose and Charlie. They are married by the captain before the execution. The Königin Luise, however, crashes into the capsized African Queen and the torpedo detonates destroying the ship. Charlie and Rose escape in the confusion.

References[edit]