Prester John / The Great Diamond Pipe
Prester John was written as a boys’ adventure story set mostly in South Africa. It was published in 1910 when Buchan was 35. The South African background was based on the two years from 1901 which Buchan spent as a private secretary to Lord Milner, High Commissioner to South Africa and later governor of the Transvaal and Orange Free State.
Although the novel contains observations on relations between blacks and whites, the clash of different cultures and civilisations and the role of imperial paternalism, it needs to be read primarily as a fast-moving novel of adventure in the style of novels by Robert Louis Stevenson and Rider Haggard.
The story, set in the early years of the 20th century, is told by David Crawfurd. His father, a Scottish minister, has died. Nineteen-year old David goes to South Africa to be an assistant to the keeper of a general store on the veld. David becomes aware of an imminent uprising by thousands of native Africans led by a black minister, the Rev John Laputa. David had met Laputa some years before in strange circumstances. Laputa has assumed the title of successor to the mythical medieval priest-king, Prester John.
It is not possible to condense into a short space the many exciting incidents which are vividly described and make up the story. It will suffice here to say that David is the only white man (apart from a treacherous Portuguese, Henriques) to attend a great gathering in a hidden cave in the mountains at which Laputa is invested with a fabulously valuable necklace handed down for centuries.
David’s presence is discovered and he is taken prisoner. The African army, led by Laputa, marches south. David manages to steal the necklace and escape but is recaptured, having first been able to hide the necklace. He is made to go with Laputa to recover the necklace.
David escapes again and falls in with a friend, Captain Arcol, a government officer who has been working to frustrate the uprising. David returns again into the hills where he finds Henriques dead and Laputa, severely wounded by Henriques, in the cave in the mountains.
To tell more of the story might spoil the pleasure of first-time readers, who will not however be surprised to know that there is a happy ending to a story of this kind.
Ronald H Hargreaves, 2001
Available to read at https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/611/pg611-images.html