The Politics Of Captain Nemo

The Politics Of Captain Nemo

Like many current science fiction authors, Jules Verne would’ve been surprised to learn he was one. His ambitions were somewhat different. As he told Alexander Dumas, pere:

Just as you are the great chronicler of history, I shall be the chronicler of geography.

And he proceeded to do just that. There are four recurring characters in a Jules Verne novel: air, fire, earth and water. The womb’s domain, so to speak. Verne liked to place his human characters in enclosed, self-contained, unique spaces of one kind or the other– heavier-than-air flying machines, isolated islands, floating cities, villages on tree-tops, the earth’s core, cannon-balls to the moon, steel submarines 20,000 leagues under the sea– and send them out for a spin. For the most part, his people are two-dimensional cross-hairs; their main role is keep track of places in the reader’s mind.

But there is one marvelous exception. In 1912, some forty odd years after the publication of 20,000 leagues Under The Sea, Sir Earnest Shackleton wrote in The Future of Exploration:

…all the work of our modern oceanographers– of Sir John Murray of Challenger fame, Dr. Hjort of the Michael Sars, Prince Albert of Monaco, and of the various marine biological stations– has won less of public attention and interest than did a single one of Jules Verne’s heroes, Captain Nemo of the Nautilus. Thus does a good tale overshadow the romance of real life….

How did Captain Nemo ever become something more than one of Verne’s story pegs? F. P. Walter  provides one answer:

…much of the novel’s brooding power comes from Captain Nemo. Inventor, musician, Renaissance genius, he’s a trail-blazing creation, the prototype not only for countless renegade scientists in popular fiction, but even for such varied figures as Sherlock Holmes or Wolf Larsen. However, Verne gives his hero’s brilliance and benevolence a dark underside–the man’s obsessive hate for his old enemy. This compulsion leads Nemo into ugly contradictions: he’s a fighter for freedom, yet all who board his ship are imprisoned there for good; he works to save lives, both human and animal, yet he himself creates a holocaust; he detests imperialism, yet he lays personal claim to the South Pole….Hate swallows him whole.

It is a plausible explanation. As Captain Nemo readies to destroy an enemy ship– of unspecified nationality– he rages at the tale’s protesting narrator in an Ahab-type outburst:

I’m the law, I’m the tribunal!  I’m the oppressed, and there are my oppressors! Thanks to them, I’ve witnessed the destruction of everything I loved, cherished, and venerated–homeland, wife, children, father, and mother!  There lies everything I hate! Not another word out of you!

But who destroyed everything Nemo loved? Which homeland? 20,000 leagues was deliberately silent on these issues. Verne had wanted Nemo to be a Polish rebel who’d participated in the January Uprising and whose family had been murdered by Tsarist Russia for that reason. But Russia happened to be a pal of France at the moment, and Verne’s editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, “persuaded” him to omit crucial details.

It resulted in an inferior book. Captain Nemo became a man driven by a series of general nouns. Just compare him with Captain Ahab, in whom motion and motive merged in an ivory stump.

But characters like Nemo do not leave their authors in peace. In 1875, five years after 20,000 leagues, Jules Verne wrote L’île mysterieuse (The Mysterious Island).

French readers learnt that Nemo was Prince Dakkar of Bundelkhand, a distant relative of “Tippo Saib” (Tipu Sultan); someone who’d fought for freedom in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, and whose family had been murdered by the British.

However, readers of the English translation– by W. H. G. Kingston– encountered a very different version. Here are some samples; the fragments on the left are from Kingston’s censored version, the ones on the right are from the much more accurate version by Stephen White.

1. Regarding Nemo’s Origin:

Captain Nemo was an Indian, the Prince Dakkar, son of a rajah of the then independent territory of Bundelkund. His father sent him, when ten years of age, to Europe, in order that he might receive an education in all respects complete, and in the hopes that by his talents and knowledge he might one day take a leading part in raising his long degraded and heathen country to a level with the nations of Europe.” [Kingston] Captain Nemo was an Indian prince, the Prince Dakkar, the son of the rajah of the then independent territory of Bundelkund, and nephew of the hero of India, Tippo Saib. His father sent him, when ten years old, to Europe, where he received a complete education; and it was the secret intention of the rajah to have his son able some day to engage in equal combat with those whom he considered as the oppressors of his country.” [White]

2. Regarding the effect of education on Nemo:

He traveled over the whole of Europe. His rank and fortune caused him to be everywhere sought after; but the pleasures of the world had for him no attractions. Though young and possessed of every personal advantage, he was ever grave–somber even–devoured by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and cherishing in the recesses of his heart the hope that he might become a great and powerful ruler of a free and enlightened people.

Still, for long the love of science triumphed over all other feelings.” [Kingston]

He travelled over all Europe. His birth and fortune made his company much sought after, but the seductions of the world possessed no charm for him. Young and handsome, he remained serious, gloomy, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, with implacable anger fixed in his heart.

He hated. He hated the only country where he had never wished to set foot, the only nation whose advances he had refused: he hated England more and more as he admired her. This Indian summed up in his own person all the fierce hatred of the vanquished against the victor. The invader is always unable to find grace with the invaded. The son of one of those sovereigns whose submission to the United Kingdom was only nominal, the prince of the family of Tippo-Saib, educated in ideas of reclamation and vengeance, with a deep-seated love for his poetic country weighed down with the chains of England, wished never to place his foot on that land, to him accursed, that land to which India owed her subjection.” [White]

3. Regarding how the world viewed Prince Dakkar:

To the eyes of those who observed him superficially he might have passed for one of those cosmopolitans, curious of knowledge, but disdaining action; one of those opulent travelers, haughty and cynical, who move incessantly from place to place, and are of no country.”

“This artist, this philosopher, this man was, however, still cherishing the hope instilled into him from his earliest days.” [Kingston]

“In the eyes of a superficial observer, he passed, perhaps, for one of those cosmopolites, curious after knowledge, but disdaining to use it; for one of those opulent travellers, high-spirited and platonic, who go all over the world and are of no one country.”

“It was not so.This artist, this savant, this man was Indian to the heart, Indian in his desire for vengeance, Indian in the hope which he cherished of being able some day to re-establish the rights of his country, of driving on the stranger, of making it independent.“[White]

4. Regarding the Sepoy Rebellion:

Instigated by princes equally ambitious and less sagacious and more unscrupulous than he was, the people of India were persuaded that they might successfully rise against their English rulers, who had brought them out of a state of anarchy and constant warfare and misery, and had established peace and prosperity in their country. Their ignorance and gross superstition made them the facile tools of their designing chiefs.” [Kingston] The English yoke was pressed, perhaps, too heavily upon the Indian people. The Prince Dakkar became the mouthpiece of the malcontents. He instilled into their spirits all the hatred he felt against the strangers. He went over not only the independent portions of the Indian peninsula, but into those regions directly submitted to the English control. He recalled to them the grand days of Tippo-Saib, who died heroically at Seringapatam for the defense of his country.” [White]

So on and so forth. At the end of the rebellion, the British kills Prince Dakkar’s entire family, he loses his kingdom and his fortune, and he is left only with hate. He became a man in search of death. As is often the case, he proceeded to inflict on others what he sought for himself. In The Mysterious Island, Captain Nemo, now on his deathbed, sought something else from the protagonists: understanding.

I had right and justice on my side,” he added. “I did good when I could, and evil when I must. All justice is not in forgiveness.[White]

It is the first time the word “justice” appears in the tale. This line is missing in Kingston’s translation.

Of course, the British translators were faced with a difficult dilemma. What were they to do with the iconic Captain Nemo whose hated enemy was revealed to be… their homeland? The revolutionary had become a terrorist. It’s not surprising the translators elided what they could not swallow.

What is surprising however, is that the White version was available as early as 1876. But until Walter James Miller publicized the discrepancies in 1963, most English readers– including myself– typically encountered W. H. G Kingston’s version or other equally distorted versions such as those by Rev. Mercer Lewis and Edward Roth. Even today, Barnes and Noble continues to sell Kingston’s version under the “Signet Classic” imprint (Penguin); in fact, the volume has a new foreword by Bruce Sterling as well as the original introduction by Isaac Asimov. It is unconscionable. Walter Miller, discussing the misleading Mercer’s translation of 20,000 Leagues, remarks:

…there is still residual bad news. Barnes & Noble, in their fat Verne anthology, actually feature the Mercier Lewis version of Twenty Thousand Leagues! The Quality Paperback Book Club, Scholastic Magazine Press, Wordsworth Press, and Nelson/Doubleday all still issue the Mercier Lewis as genuine Verne….Thanks to publishers like these, many American adults still do not know the genuine prophet of science fiction; do not know about his social and political stance or his splendid literary talents.

I should mention that B&N also sells Jordan Stump’s accurate translation (Modern Library Imprint, Random House).

The perils of translation are many. Consider:

The sentence “This sentence is in French” is false.

What would happen to the truth-value if the above sentence had to be translated into French? Or how about this: the Aymara of the Andes don’t match up the words “back/front” in the usual way with “past/future.” They seem to have a different conception of time. As far as they’re concerned, the future is what you cannot see, so why should it be lying in front of you? So how should “Back to the future” be translated? The surprising twist in the movie title, obvious in English, is completely lost in Aymara.

Proust thought C. K. Scott-Moncrieff’s rendering of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu as Remembrance of Things Past completely misrepresented his work. I ran the title through Google’s translator. I doubt Proust would have been happier with Google’s version: With the Research of Wasted Time.

Fortunately, great works survive their translations, great authors survive their works, and great characters survive their authors. Nemo is neither Prince Dakkar nor is he a Polish rebel. As E. F. Bleiler wrote:

Who else was Nemo? It used to be said that Nemo was Lord Byron in a diving suit, but a fitter description (as Verne’s friends and relatives knew) is that Nemo was Jules Verne in a diving suit.

  • Does anyone know where I might get a copy of that legendary first draft of 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas so I might read Verne’s own words about Nemo’s Polish heritage?
    He speaks so passionately about Prince Dakkar’s past, I would love to read what he has to say about that Polish January Uprising that was so contemporary to his time, that also inspired the people of Paris to rise up against their government in the short-lived and brutally repressed Paris Commune. All this just a year before the book was published!
    I started researching Captain Nemo and that lead me to Polish history — WOW! Yeah, I think, as harsh as British rule over India was, Polish history works a whole lot better as reasonable motivation for our dear misunderstood captain.
    As I understand it, Verne’s publisher spent a lot of time trying to get Verne’s works to be a bit less gloomy and MUCH less politically charged. Oh, to read what the man really wanted to say!

  • This is a very fine web site, that I just discovered by a google search this evening.
    I’ve always liked Jules Verne’s books, since I first read “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” and “The Mysterious Island,” almost 65 years ago.
    Jerry Baker
    Cedar Falls, Iowa

  • Thanks, Jerry. Glad to know you liked it. Haven’t blogged in a while but plan to resume soon.
    “20K Leagues” is also one of my favorite Verne books.

  • Hello Anil,
    I first became acquainted with Jules Verne around 1945, when I read “The Mysterious Island” and “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” that I’d borrowed from a public library.
    The books I read were in the poor English translations that were available in those days.
    When reading them, I supposed that sodium fuel cells, used to power the Nautilus, wouldn’t
    work, because I believed that metallic sodium would have had a violent reaction with the electrolyte.
    I also would have liked to read more about Nemo’s ideas in regard to imperialism. I knew that Prince Dakaar was from India, and supposed that the ships he was sinking were British ships.
    One thing that especially interested me was near the end of “The Mysterious Island.”
    It was the part where Nemo gave the castaways a chest of treasure, and they used the money to buy a large tract of land, on the frontier in Iowa, to use for a utopian commune, and to start a “great newspaper,” no doubt to publicize the communal idea.
    I wonder which communal idea that was. There was, in Iowa when Verne wrote the book, a colony of the “Icarians,” whose ideas came from the novel, “Voyage En Icarie,” by the French politician Etienne Cabet.
    At that time, I was living on a farm in Howard County, Iowa. We had just gotten electricity on our farm in 1945, and we’d gotten electric lights in our school house in 1944.
    I still live in northeast Iowa, now in the town of Cedar Falls.
    Jerry Baker

  • Anonymous

    Jerry: What a neat connection 🙂 I think you’re right about the Iowa reference being related to Etienne Cabet’s Icarians. Supposedly, Verne’s utopian city France-Ville in The Begum’s Millions was also modeled after Cabat’s ideas (so says the Luce, Evans & Schulman translation and they in turn cite the French theorist Yves Chevrel). And in his Robur The Conqueror, Verne has Robur say:

    “I am master of the seventh part of the world, larger than Africa, Oceania, Asia, America, and Europe, this aerial Icarian sea, which millions of Icarians will one day people.”

    I suspect Verne wasn’t one for communal utopias. He has the French fondness for fraternity, but perhaps his spirit was quintessentially American in its thirst for the frontier. All his hero-scientists were solitary men roaming far from home and hearth. But then again, maybe not.

  • Anil,
    Thanks for your interesting comments.
    It seems that, in recent years, the old location of the Iowa Icarian colony has been developed into a tourist attraction. This is a link to its ever-expanding web site.
    I think you are right about Verne’s attraction to the frontier. I of course have always been interested in his attraction to the frontiers of science, but his attraction to geographical ones has probably interested me even more.
    Frontier settlements offered a liberation from the rigid rules of more-established places, but, if I remember DeTocqueville right, they seemed to require a kind of conformity, too.
    That used to seem very contradictory to me, but I suppose that may be the need for “fraternity,” which the communal societies offer, in facing the somewhat hostile frontier environment.
    In another direction,
    I suppose you may have some acquaintance with the ancient myth of Daedalus and Icarus, who were on the frontier of science, and escaped from tyranny in the air, just as Nemo did so, in the water:
    There was an ancient country that was named “Caria.”
    It says in that article that, according to the Iliad, the city of Miletus belonged to Caria, at the time of the Trojan War. Thales, the earliest of the ancient Greek philosophers, came from Miletus, as I remember.

  • Hi Anil,
    Someone posted a question on Yahooanswers that he wanted to contact Indian historians who know about the history of liberation movements in India. Can you tell me the names and addresses of any of them?
    Jerry Baker

  • I got a letter yesterday, from Marcello Gamberucci, an “Etruscan.”
    He contacted me, in response to a note I posted a while ago, on a web site that I think is named, “Mysterious Etruscans.” I replied, and got a letter from him, yesterday.
    Various people, including the late professor (Paul?) McKendrick, of the University of Wisconsin, have lamented the loss of Etruscan civilization, after that nation was conquered by Rome. Later, however, many “Romans” were of Etruscan descent. Around 30 years ago, I read a book about Etruscans, by Karl Meyer. Meyer said he’d learned about Etruscans from McKendrick, when he was a student at Wisconsin University. Meyer later wrote editorials for the New York Times.
    Recent DNA studies indicate that the Etruscans may have been very close, genetically, to the Syrians and the Palestinians. Maybe they have some connection with the ancient Minoan civilization of Crete, or with the Pelasgian one that preceded it.
    Icarus and his father were supposedly enslaved by King Minos, namesake of the Minoan civilization, and escaped from captivity. Whether or not they represented Pelasgians, I don’t know.
    There was also an ancient country of “Caria,” on the southwest coast of Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. Today, that region’s DNA is close to that of the Etruscans.
    The following letter is from Marcello Gamberucci. He writes:
    Good morning and thanks for your mail.
    I’m in fact a Rasenna (Etruscan or Tuscio for the bloody Romans). I was born and raised in Etruria, which is today under the Italian yoke.I go back regularly to my native Toscana(From Paris it’s 1h 30 mns. by plane and 9 hrs. by car).
    Today, at the end of my career I do have more time for leisure work (I do cooperate, as volunteer, with some universities (none in Italy) on the Rasenna civilization and in my prime i have also participated in some diggings in Toscany, particularly at Comeana, Sesto and Quinto Fiorentino. Just two weeks ago i was in Etruria Padana and visited Misa (Italian Marzabotto). Fantastic place founded by Clevsin (Chiusi) and later reinforced by Visul(Fiesole).
    I took the nickname “Vibennal” in homage to the Vibenna brothers who stood alongside Macstarna in their fight against the bloody Romans.
    let me know if you want to exchange more info in the future. I have also another address.
    Let me just tell something on two Etruscan “gentilitii”:
    ‘Larth’ is a distinctive attribute (e.g: Larth Porsenna, the greatest of them all)
    Avles (pronounced:aules) means “noble” (very near to today’s “gentleman.”
    Have a very good day,

  • Sensei Mikey

    As a big fan of sci-fi since childhood, and a now published author myself, I wanted to say about what I have read above, that it seems that someone has become unwittingly or perhaps unknowing engaged in the over annotating of this man Nemo. As I grew up, I read most of J. Verne’s works. I love Nemo in the films “Mysterious Island and Extraordinary Gentlemen. As a boy, I was totally engrossed in the Sci-fi of both Verne and H.G. Wells.
    But when I read all the above explanations for the character of Nemo, it kind of kills the excitement I felt when I read the stories.
    So I have to ask, what is wrong with, just reading the stories for the pure pleasure of it… And have visions of what Nemo would be like if he was a real man????
    Why on this earth, must someone analyze a good thing to death??
    Must we be so analytical to enjoy a good story??
    By the way, I have always felt that the original Star Treck series rated right up there with Verne’s work..
    From Mikey the Sci-fi buff.

  • Mikey:
    Yup, you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with “reading stories for the pure pleasure of it.” But as the blog piece tried to show, a lot of English-speaking readers don’t read the real Verne. What they get is a censored translation directed towards Victorian readers. But thanks to the efforts of scholars like Walter James Miller, we can now insist on more accurate translations. Analysis has its uses.

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