Estienne Barbier, born in the Loire Valley in 1699, lays claim to service in the armies of the kings of France and Prussia, but he is an inveterate liar, and the truth is less glorious: irate husbands have made the Lowlands too hot to hold him, and he has deserted his pregnant wife to stow away for the Cape of Good Hope.
An expedition to the hinterland opens his eyes to the majesty of the African landscape and its wondrous animals and he is enchanted by the rumour of a fabled city of gold. But he also begins to see clearly the sordid dealing that underlies the self-righteous pomposity of the East India Company. It is a vision that makes him powerful enemies. Taking cover on a remote farm, and energetically consoling sundry widows, Barbier finds himself, to his own surprise, fomenting rebellion.