The Plundering of Tarzan’s Africa
by Alan Hanson
Tarzan of the Apes didn’t need money. Gathering and hunting
for food, sleeping in trees, he lived off the land in the primitive areas
of Central Africa. However, his alter ego, Lord Greystoke, did need money,
a lot of it. John Clayton and his wife enjoyed all the luxuries available
to England’s privileged class in the early 20th century. Ironically, though
Tarzan had no use for money, it nevertheless became his job to provide
the fuel needed to sustain the fashionable lifestyle of Lord Greystoke.
A Lavish Existence
In the early 1900s, Lord and Lady Greystoke
lived the classical stylish existence of British colonial overseers. They
maintained expensive households on two continents — a townhouse in England
and a vast estate in equatorial Africa. The Beasts of Tarzan gives
just a glimpse of the London residence. The library had silken rugs and
a “great clock ticking the minutes in the corner.” Servants included
a maid, a chauffeur for the Greystoke limousine, the baby’s nurse, and
later young Jack’s tutor, plus an unspecified number of housemen. Lady
Greystoke, meeting the expectations of her class, was a “richly gowned
The Greystoke African estate featured a “flower-covered
bungalow,” as well as the “barns and outhouses of a well-ordered
African farm.” A high fence guarded the “imported, pedigreed stock
in which Lord Greystoke took such just pride.” In addition to the sheep,
the Greystokes could obviously afford to import from Europe many luxury
items, such as a private family airplane and the baby grand piano Jane
played for guests. Lady Greystoke enjoyed inviting and entertaining European
visitors, obviously at great expense. What really made the African homestead
such an expensive operation was that it had to be built three times. After
its original construction, it was rebuilt twice after being burned to the
ground by Achmet Zek’s raiders in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar and
destroyed by a German military expedition in Tarzan the Untamed.
Obviously, Lord Greystoke did not fund this privileged
lifestyle through his own labor, at least not in the conventional manner.
Through the course of 28 published Tarzan stories, only twice did John
Clayton hold down what might be called a job. In The Return of Tarzan,
for three months the French ministry of war employed Clayton, the future
Lord Greystoke, as a secret agent in North Africa. And, undoubtedly, Tarzan
received some compensation from the British military for his service as
an RAF officer, as recorded in Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”.
Both jobs were short-lived and neither played a part in building or maintaining
the Greystoke fortune.
Neither was inheritance the source of Lord Greystoke’s
wealth. It is true that when William Clayton died in 1910, the title of
Lord Greystoke, along with the family fortune passed to his cousin, John
Clayton. Burroughs never specified the size of that estate, nor does it
matter in this investigation, since within three years, Lord Greystoke
lost it all when the company in which he had invested failed.
Of course, as any reader of the Tarzan stories knows,
Lord Greystoke’s wealth was built on and replenished periodically by the
treasure Tarzan took from several lost civilizations he encountered during
his wanderings in Central Africa. His take consisted mostly of gold and
diamonds, although other gems came into his possession on a couple of occasions.
Stumbling upon a hidden fortune would satisfy the fantasies of most people,
but for Tarzan it happened over and over again. Before considering the
value, let’s take an inventory of the treasure that Tarzan carried away
from the lost lands he visited.
The most well-known and reliable source
of treasure for Lord Greystoke was the gold vaults of Opar. He got his
first hint of their existence during his initial contact with the Waziri
tribe in The Return of Tarzan. It was Tarzan who first noticed
the large gold armlet on a warrior’s arm but it was the future Lord Greystoke
who realized its potential.
“For weeks he had forgotten so trivial a thing as gold,
for he had been for the time a truly primeval man with no thought beyond
today. But of a sudden the sight of the gold awakened the sleeping civilization
that was in him, and with it came the lust for wealth. That lesson Tarzan
had learned well in his brief experience of the ways of civilized man.
He knew that gold meant power and pleasure.”
The warrior Busuli told Tarzan that the yellow bangle
was taken off a dead enemy warrior after a battle near a strange city that
a Waziri party had approached a generation before. Later, after becoming
chief of the Waziri, Tarzan and 50 warriors set out to find the lost city,
the sole purpose of the expedition being for Tarzan to find more gold.
Tarzan found Opar, and there he discovered a chamber, “along the walls
of which, and down the length of the floor, were piled many tiers of metal
ingots of an odd though uniform shape.” Each of Tarzan’s 50 warriors
carried two gold ingots back to Waziri country. Since Burroughs confirmed
that each ingot weighed 40 pounds, the 100 ingots the Waziri carried away
from Opar that day totaled 4,000 pounds of virgin gold.
The value of gold fluctuates in current times, but from
1837 until 1934, the price of gold was set at a standard $20.67 per troy
ounce. Since all of the years Tarzan was collecting gold from Opar fall
within that period, it is easy to determine the monetary value of the gold
when Tarzan converted it into currency. And so, in late 1910, when Tarzan
sold his 4,000 pounds of Oparian gold, it would have brought him $1,205,747.
(Of course, Lord Greystoke would have taken payment in British pounds.)
At the end of The Return of Tarzan, the
100 ingots were loaded on a French cruiser for transportation to civilization.
Naturally, the French sailors were curious about the source of the treasure.
Tarzan refused to tell them, but he did tease them, saying, “There are
a thousand that I left behind for every one that I brought away.” (Either
he was guessing here, or he visually estimated the number of ingots in
the chamber as he was loading two on the back of each Waziri warrior.)
If this statement is true, then there were still about 100,000 gold ingots
in Opar’s treasure chamber. When he had first entered the chamber, Tarzan
guessed there were “thousands of pounds” of gold in the room. While
technically true, that was certainly an understatement, as a hundred thousand
ingots at 40 pounds apiece would weigh a whopping four million pounds.
At the set value of gold then, there was over $1.2 trillion in gold in
that chamber. Surely even the unsophisticated Tarzan at that time would
have known the disastrous effect on the value of gold were that much raw
gold dropped on the world market all at once.
Tarzan’s first trip to Opar was made in 1910, and initially
he was not quite sure what he was going to do with the resulting wealth
— except that he was going to spend it, somehow. Burroughs revealed the
ape-man’s consumer attitude in The Return of Tarzan.
“He had learned among civilized man something of the
miracles that may be wrought by the possessor of the magic yellow metal.
What he would do with a golden fortune in the heart of savage Africa it
had not occurred to him to consider — it would be enough to possess the
power to work wonders.”
Tarzan confirmed his desire to consume, or “work wonders,”
with his first load of Oparian gold when he told the French sailors, “When
these are spent I may wish to return for more.” Much of the wealth
produced by the first trip to Opar must have helped the recently married
Lord and Lady Greystoke build their African estate.
In December 1913, what remained of the Greystoke fortune
from the sale of the Oparian gold disappeared in a poor investment. “There
is no other way half so easy to obtain another fortune,” Tarzan reasoned
with Jane, “as to go to the treasure vaults of Opar and bring it away.”
And so, in early 1914 fifty Waziri warriors again accompanied their chief
to Opar and carried away another 100 gold ingots, thus giving the Greystokes
another $1,205,747 with which to “work wonders.” As Tarzan was leaving
Opar’s treasure vault, Burroughs confirmed the phenomenal amount of gold
left in the chamber.
“Tarzan turned back for a last glimpse of the fabulous
wealth upon which his two inroads had made no appreciable impression.”
(Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar)
The Jewels of Opar
Of course, as the title of that story
reminds us, the gold was not the only treasure that Tarzan obtained during
his second expedition to Opar. After an earthquake took away his memory,
Tarzan wandered through Opar, eventually stumbling on the lost city’s forgotten
“Several metal-bound, copper-studded chests constituted
the sole furniture of the round room. Tarzan let his hands run over these.
He felt of the copper studs, he pulled upon the hinges, and at last, by
chance, he raised the cover of one. An exclamation of delight broke from
his lips at sight of the pretty contents. Gleaming and glistening in the
subdued light of the chamber, lay a great tray full of brilliant stones.
Tarzan, reverted to the primitive by his accident, had no conception of
the fabulous value of his find. To him they were but pretty pebbles. He
plunged his hands into them and let the priceless gems filter through his
fingers … Nearly all were cut, and from these he gathered a handful and
filled the pouch which dangled at his side.”
Burroughs never identified the kinds of gems that Tarzan
took away from Opar that day. It is known that they were of various colors.
Tarzan referred to them as “gay-colored stones,” and at night, the
“firelight playing upon them conjured a multitude of scintillating rays.”
They might all have been diamonds, since diamonds come in an array of colors.
It is possible that other colorful gems, such as emeralds and rubies, were
Whatever the nature of the jewels, it was clear that the
handful that filled Tarzan’s pouch represented a fortune in the civilized
world. In the passage above, Burroughs referred to them as “priceless.”
The evil Belgian Albert Werper, who saw and coveted the gems, dreamed of
the “luxurious life of the idle rich” that the jewels would provide
him. Although a specific value can’t be put on the jewels of Opar, it is
probable that they produced Lord Greystoke a fortune at least as great
as the horde of gold he obtained during that second trip to Opar.
This double fortune, like the first one, would not last
Lord Greystoke long. While Tarzan was at Opar, the villainous Achmet Zek
was burning his African estate to the ground, and so a portion of the treasure
must have been used to rebuild the place. Then came World War I to take
the rest. A German military expedition marched in while Lord Greystoke
was away and destroyed his ranch once again. Burroughs explained in Tarzan
and the Golden Lion.
“The war had reduced the resources of the Greystokes
to but a meager income. They had given practically all to the cause of
the Allies, and now what little had remained to them had been all but exhausted
in the rehabilitation of Tarzan’s African estate.”
So, in December 1918, Tarzan against set out on the trail
to Opar. And, again, 100 gold ingots were taken from the treasure vault,
this time not by the Waziri, but rather by a group of European conspirators.
Through the vagaries of plot, the gold passed through the hands of various
villains, but it eventually wound up in Tarzan’s possession. That was another
$1,205,747 to restock the Greystoke bank account.
The Palace of Diamonds
As with his previous trip to Opar,
however, the gold was not the only treasure Tarzan obtained during his
third expedition to the lost city. In a valley behind Opar, Tarzan found
a palace that yielded a treasure much greater and easier to carry than
100 gold ingots. The ape-man took away a package of diamonds, and this
time Burroughs was much more specific about their value. The package contained
five pounds of diamonds, and when Flora Hawkes saw the contents later,
she observed there were “hundreds of them.” Flora’s fellow conspirator,
Carl Kraski, described the diamonds as, “great scintillating stones
of the first water — five pounds of pure, white diamonds, representing
so fabulous a fortune that the very contemplation of it staggered the Russian.”
Kraski later referred to the diamonds as, “the fortune of a thousand
kings.” It was a judgment by Tarzan, however, that allows an approximate
dollar value to be put on the diamonds.
“While he had been unsuccessful in raiding the treasure
vaults of Opar, the sack of diamonds which he carried compensated several-fold
for the miscarriage of his plan.”
If “several” can be equated with “three,”
then Tarzan judged the diamonds to be worth three times the value of 100
Oparian gold ingots. In that case, the diamonds would have brought Tarzan
$3,617,241, which, when added to the value of the third batch of gold,
brought Lord Greystoke’s total take from the third trip to Opar and the
Palace of Diamonds to $4,822,988. (The Greystokes had to wait awhile to
cash in on the diamonds. Conspirator Esteban Miranda got possession of
the diamonds and kept them during his year-long captivity in the village
of Obebe. They were eventually recovered by the Waziri warrior Usula and
turned over to Lady Greystoke.)
The Treasure Kept Coming
Unlike before, there is no indication
that the Greystokes squandered this huge treasure. Still, it was not to
be the last time Tarzan found a fortune among the lost peoples of Africa
and took it for his own. Far from it. In 1927, as recorded in Tarzan,
Lord of the Jungle, the ape-man followed the spoor of missing American
James Blake into the Valley of the Sepulcher. A great treasure had been
accumulated there, and it first fell into the possession of the evil Arab,
“At his command his followers ransacked the castle
in search of the treasure. Nor were they disappointed, for the riches of
Bohun were great. There was gold in the hills of the Valley of the Sepulcher
and there were precious stones to be found there, also. For seven and a
half centuries, the slaves of the Sepulcher and of Nimmr had been washing
gold from the creek beds and salvaging precious stones from the same source
… and so Ibn Jad gathered a great sack full of treasure, enough to satisfy
his wildest imaginings of cupidity.”
By the end of the story, Tarzan had defeated the Arabs
and taken possession of the treasure. Four Waziri warriors carried it south,
bound for Lord Greystoke’s home, and eventually his bank account. A mixture
of gold and precious stones as it was, it is difficult to put a value on
the treasure of the Sepulcher, but again, for our crude accounting purposes,
let’s say that it was at least equal to one load of Oparian gold.
The next stop for the Tarzan treasure train was the Valley
of Diamonds in Tarzan and the Lion Man. There the ape-man
and actress Ronda Terry found a “bowl-shaped gully,” the floor of which
was blanketed with uncut diamonds. Rhonda envisioned a life much different
than her current one as a move stand-in.
“I shall have a villa on the Riviera , a town house
in Beverly Hills, a hundred and fifty thousand dollar cottage at Malibu,
a place at Palm Beach, a penthouse in New York.”
When Rhonda suggested bringing the entire film company
to the spot, so that all could share in the wealth, Tarzan, more experienced
in dealing with massive fortunes, gave her a lesson in treasure management.
“If you took all these diamonds back to civilization
the market would be glutted; and diamonds would be as cheap as glass. If
you are wise, you will take just a few for yourself and your friends; and
then tell nobody how they may reach the valley of diamonds.”
Rhonda agreed and took her share. “Tarzan, more sophisticated,
gathered several of the larger specimens,” noted Burroughs. Again,
with no further information provided by the author, it is difficult to
put a value on the several stones that Tarzan took. The rough stones still
needed to be cut, and it is unknown the size, number, and quality of the
resulting finished diamonds.
The final spoils of Tarzan’s travels amidst the hidden
lands of Africa were two huge gems that he took from the land of the Kaji
in 1934, as detailed in Tarzan the Magnificent. One was a
great emerald that American Stanley Wood estimated as weighing 6,000 carats.
(The most famous emerald in existence today is The Duke of the Devonshires,
which weighs just under 1,400 carats.) Wood estimated its worth at $20
million. The Englishman Lord thought it would bring 2 million pounds, which
would put it in the $5 million range. Tarzan got his hands on the Great
Emerald of the Zuli and buried it in Bantago country. The story ends with
Tarzan promising, “Some day we’ll go and get that.” The other stone
that Tarzan took was the Gonfal, the great diamond of the Kaji. Wood had
an opinion on that stone, as well. “I never saw the Cullinan, but the
Kaji diamond is enormous. It must be worth ten million dollars at least,
Originally, Tarzan told both the Zuli and Kaji people
that he would return their large gems to them, but instead of keeping his
promises, he kept the stones. He gave the Kaji an imitation of the Gonfal,
while he took the real one to his home. It is uncertain just how much Tarzan
benefited from the eventual sale of the two massive jewels. At one point
he professed disdain for the wealth represented by the Great Emerald.
“I don’t want any of it,” he told Lord. “I have
all the wealth I need. I’m going to use it to get some of my people away
from Mafka. When that is done, I won’t care what becomes of it.”
And, at the end of the story, he implied the wealth that
the two stones produced would go to Stanley Wood and Gonfala, who came
away from the Kaji plateau with him. Tarzan explained it all to Wood.
“You and Gonfala should be well equipped with wealth
when you return to civilization — you should have enough to get you into
a great deal of trouble and keep you there all the rest of your lives.”
Of course, whether Tarzan kept the proceeds or gave them
to the American, the fact remains that he removed them from Africa and
he alone decided how the wealth they represented would be used.
It’s time to add up the total value of all the treasure
Tarzan found and confiscated from Africa during his many travels. Altogether,
he removed eight separate treasures to be sold at the gold and precious
gems markets in Europe. Of course, all the values that follow are estimates.
There were three separate fortunes in gold taken from Opar, totaling over
$3.6 million. The jewels of Opar added at least another million dollars.
The five-pound bag from the Palace of Diamonds was worth $3.6 million.
The value of the Great Emerald and the Gonfal, taken from the Zuli and
Kaji people, can conservatively be set at $20 million. Add to all that
the treasure taken from the City of the Sepulcher and the few large stones
collected in the Valley of Diamonds, and Tarzan’s final take was well over
Lost and Found — or Stolen?
So what is the significance of Tarzan’s ability to find
and his willingness to carry away so many fortunes from the darkest areas
of Africa? If Edgar Rice Burroughs is to be classified as an escapist writer,
which he is so often, then the answer is simple. Sudden financial good
fortune is a common fantasy, whether it be finding a $5 bill on the ground,
hitting the lottery, or unearthing a pirate’s treasure chest. On that level,
Tarzan’s good fortune was simply a way Burroughs satisfied his readers’
dreams of suddenly becoming fabulously wealthy.
If, however, Burroughs is to be granted a higher level
of literary respectability, as many of his proponents think he should,
then his writings must be held up to a higher, more complex level of scrutiny.
In that case, the multiple fortunes that Tarzan took out of Africa might
have a symbolic meaning far more meaningful than the dream of finding a
For starters, it must be admitted that Tarzan stole most
of the treasure he took out of Africa. It is a nasty term, but the fact
is that seven of the eight loads of treasure he took belonged to someone
else. The three loads of Oparian gold and the bag of jewels were mined,
processed, and put in storage by the ancestors of La’s people, making them
the current owners when Tarzan came to Opar. The bag of diamonds Tarzan
took from the Palace of Diamonds behind Opar belonged to the Bolgani tribe
that inhabited the valley. They had been mining and storing the diamonds
for “countless ages.” The great sack of treasure that came from
the City of the Sepulcher was a portion of King Bohun’s riches. For over
seven centuries slaves of the Sepulcher gathered the gold and gems from
the hills of the valley. The Great Emerald and the Gonfal diamond not only
belonged to the Zuli and Kaji people, but they also played a vital role
in the political system of both societies. The only treasure Tarzan took
for which he could not be accused of theft was the handful of diamonds
he took from the Valley of Diamonds. In that case, the stones were simply
spread across a natural gully, there for the taking by anyone.
Of course, open theft on this level was not possible in
the value system Burroughs created for his ape-man. Each time Tarzan made
off with treasure, therefore, it was necessary for Burroughs to frame it
within a context that, even if not fully justifying the theft, at least
lessened the severity of Tarzan’s misconduct.
In the case of Opar, three circumstances soothed Tarzan’s
savage conscience when he took the riches of that city. Tarzan addressed
two of them in Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.
“I shall be very careful, Jane, and chances are that
the inhabitants of Opar will never know that I have been there again and
despoiled them of another portion of the treasure, the very existence of
which they are as ignorant of as they would of its value.”
While admitting his plans to steal or “despoil”
the Oparians of their gold, Tarzan partially justified the action by noting
that the owners did not even know that the gold vaults existed. According
to Burroughs, in the treasure chamber, “ages since, long-dead hands
had arranged the lofty rows of precious ingots for the rulers of that great
continent which now lies submerged beneath the waters of Atlantis.”
The same Oparian ignorance applied to the jewel-room, which Tarzan later
“For ages it had lain buried beneath the temple of
the Flaming God, midway of one of the many inky passages which the superstitious
descendants of the ancient Sun Worshipers had either dared not or cared
not to explore.”
For Tarzan to take quantities of gold and jewels from
a people who knew not even of its existence, and who, if they had known,
would not know the value of it, was intended to make the deeds more acceptable
to the reader.
Still another extenuating circumstance was the very small
amount that Tarzan took. Although the 300 ingots of gold and the bag of
jewels provided Tarzan millions of dollars in the civilized world, it was
a tiny amount of the total treasure available. As noted earlier, on a couple
of occasions, Burroughs stressed that what Tarzan took from the gold vault
did not appreciably reduce the total amount there. In fact, using Burroughs’
numbers, of the 100,100 ingots originally in the chamber, only 300 were
removed, that being less that one-third of one percent of the total. Similarly,
in the jewel-room, Tarzan found several chests filled with brilliant cut
stones, from which he only took enough to fill the pouch dangling at his
side. Again, the taking of such a small part of the Oparian treasure helped
to validate the pilfering.
The same justification was used when Tarzan took the bag
of diamonds from the Palace of Diamonds. He took only one bag, although
there were “tier after tier of shelves, upon which were stacked small
sacks made of skins.” Unlike the Oparians, though, the Palace of Diamonds
inhabitants clearly knew of and valued their stock of diamonds.
“They have been accumulating them for countless ages,
for they mine far more than they can use themselves. In their legends is
the belief that some day the Atlantians will return and they can sell the
diamonds to them. And so they continue to mine them and store them as though
there was a constant and ready market for them.”
Only one large bagful of treasure was taken from the City
of the Sepulcher, the inference being that plenty was left behind. Although
Tarzan wound up with the treasure, he can’t be charged with the original
theft. That was done when Ibn Jad’s band sacked the city. Tarzan took possession
of the treasure after the Arabs had already transported it outside the
valley. At that point, however, Tarzan had the option of returning the
treasure to its owner, King Bohun, or keeping it for himself. Perhaps because
Bohun was a dastardly fellow, who had the nerve to kidnap the Princess
Guinalda and imprison James Blake, Tarzan’s American friend, the ape-man
felt justified in confiscating a portion of Bohun’s treasure. Call it a
fine for evil deeds done in Tarzan’s country.
In Tarzan the Magnificent, the ape-man said
he didn’t care what happened to The Great Emerald and the Gonfal diamond,
but he wound up taking them anyway. Since both stones allowed their possessors
to control the actions of people around them, perhaps Tarzan did the right
thing in removing them from these primitive societies. However, he easily
could have achieved that end by burying both stones in remote areas. Instead,
he chose to bring the stones into the civilized world where he could draw
on their commercial value.
So, in allowing Tarzan to take so much treasure from primitive
peoples, Burroughs created a struggle in the conscience of his readers,
a struggle he smoothed the edges from in several ways. Still, in the final
analysis, there is no way of getting around the fact that Tarzan took the
fabulous riches of these African peoples without their permission. What
kind of value system can justify that in the end?
A Colonial Interpretation
Tarzan’s alter ego, Lord Greystoke,
was European by culture and saw Africa as a source of wealth to fund his
affluent lifestyle, both in England and in Africa. During the colonial
period, European occupying powers often went to excess in harvesting raw
materials in their African possessions. Edgar Rice Burroughs certainly
knew this. When Mbonga’s tribe of cannibals entered Tarzan’s jungle in
of the Apes, Burroughs explained they were fleeing a cruel European
“To add to the fiendishness of their cruel savagery
was the poignant memory of still crueler barbarities practiced upon them
and theirs by the white officers of that arch hypocrite, Leopold II of
Belgium, and because of those atrocities they had fled the Congo Free State
— a pitiful remnant of what once had been a mighty tribe.”
In fact, so brutal were Leopold’s tactics, which included
chopping off hands and feet of natives who failed to meet his rubber or
ivory quotas, that the population of the Congo area declined by half between
1885-1908. Mbonga’s people were not the only natives to flee into British,
French, and Portuguese controlled territories.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories portray British colonists
in a different light, that of benevolent rulers. As long as they treated
the natives well, it was acceptable to profit from ruling them. This is
one interpretation that can be placed on all the wealth that Tarzan took
out of Africa. As a reward for bringing parts of Dark Continent out of
barbarism and putting them on the road to civilization, he deserved to
profit from his just rule in Tarzan’s country. He was certainly portrayed
as a kind and civilizing leader of the Waziri, while he fought the degrading
practices of other tribes.
Of course, Lord Greystoke did not make his fortune in
Africa running in ivory or slaves. He made his in a seemingly harmless
way — stumbling upon lost hordes of hidden treasure. Symbolically, though,
the effect was the same. As a European, Lord Greystoke took for himself
huge amounts of African resources that could have been used to better the
lives of African peoples. When looked at that way, it is a troublesome
legacy for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. But
then, we go back to the respectability Burroughs should be afforded as
a writer. If we leave him as a writer of escapist fiction, then the troublesome
issue raised above disappears. Tarzan’s trips to the treasure vaults of
Opar are reduced in significance to hitting the lottery three times. Taking
Burroughs more seriously requires asking and answering tougher questions.
Personally, I like to think Edgar Rice Burroughs was a good enough writer
to handle the tougher questions.