The Coral Island

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The Coral Island

R. M. Ballantyne


(Full name Robert Michael Ballantyne; also wrote under the pseudonym Comus) Scottish illustrator, autobiographer, and author of juvenile fiction, nonfiction, novels, and short stories.

The following entry presents commentary on Ballantyne's novel The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858) through 2006.


In the nineteenth century, The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858) was among the most prominent and popular juvenile Robinsonades of its era; however, today, the novel is best remembered for inspiring William Golding's 1954 dystopian novel, The Lord of the Flies. Written by Scottish author Robert Michael Ballantyne, The Coral Island is a classic example of the boy's adventure story, a prominent fixture in the children's literature of the Victorian period. Depicting exotic locales and adventures—often featuring young male protagonists—books such as The Coral Island dominated boy's fiction of the late nineteenth century, trumpeting the British lifestyle and its Victorian ethos to eager young readers. While the text has faded into relative obscurity, it remains the most enduring work from Ballantyne's extensive canon and is frequently cited in critical discussions of The Lord of the Flies and pre-Colonialist children's literature.


Ballantyne, nicknamed "Ballantyne the Brave," was born on April 24, 1825, to Alexander Ballantyne and Anne Randall Scott Grant in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was descended from a family of printers, perhaps most famous for publishing the works of Sir Walter Scott. When Scott's bankruptcy also ruined the finances of his family, the sixteen-year-old Ballantyne used his family connections to gain employment with the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada. Stationed with the Hudson's Bay Company for six years as an accounting clerk, Ballantyne was variously posted throughout the far Canadian North. Desperately lonely and bored, he began to write, only allowing his mother to read what he had written. When his contract ended in 1847, Ballantyne returned to Scotland, acquiring a position in the family trade with the publisher Thomas Constable and Co. His Canadian writing efforts, converted into a rough manuscript upon his return, attracted the interest of an elderly friend of the family who offered to privately publish it. The resulting work, Hudson's Bay, or, Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America, was released in March 1847. With the encouragement of publisher and family friend Thomas Nelson, he released his first children's book, Snowflakes and Sunbeams; or, The Young Fur-Traders (1856), with a second, Ungava: A Tale of Eskimo Land (1857), quickly following. Among his earliest works, The Coral Island was released in 1858 and would go on to become his most famous novel. These early works were representative of Ballantyne's extensive output, eventually making him among the most popular children's writers of his age and a well-known name in England. While Ballantyne traveled to few of the locations outside of North America and Europe in which he set his stories, he considered himself to be obsessed with accuracy, hounding traveler friends and studiously pouring over foreign guidebooks for information. He was particularly fond of ship-bound stories and spent several well-accounted sailing trips gathering information for later books. He earned a degree of notoriety for his efforts to gather information firsthand for future stories, eventually taking positions at a London fire station, a Cornish tin mine, and on a tugboat, as well as travelling to such far-away locales as Norway and Algeria. In 1866 he married Jane Dickson Grant, with whom he had six children. Ballantyne proved to be an industrious writer, publishing ten separate books in 1869 alone. Towards the end of his life, Ballantyne began to suffer bouts of vertigo and nausea, which were eventually diagnosed as the result of Ménière's disease, a condition that forced him to reduce his writing schedule. In an effort to improve his health, he traveled to Rome, Italy, to visit a medical clinic. He never returned, dying in Rome on February 8, 1894.


Ballantyne's juvenile novels were early efforts in the boy's adventure genre and, as such, more attention was spent creating a scenic locale and offering semi-plausible reasons for the succeeding adventures than on offering three-dimensional character development or larger thematic concerns. The three boys who primarily populate The Coral Island are therefore generalized stereotypes of the types of British boy with which Ballantyne's readers would be familiar. The story is told in the first person by Ralph Rover, a teenage boy whose life story up until the point of his stranding on Coral Island is quickly told in the space of eighteen pages. John Rowe Townsend describes Ralph, our guide into the exotic realm of the South Pacific, as being "a quiet, thoughtful lad, rather lacking in humour." Ralph is shipwrecked on a seemingly uninhabited Polynesian island with two companions—the trio's unofficial leader, Jack Martin, a charismatic and strapping eighteen-year-old that other boys instinctively follow, and Perkin Gay, a short and stout boy of fourteen prone to tricks and laughter. While Ballantyne offers little insight into the characters themselves, Townsend has argued that Ballantyne's use of a small core of characters led to an efficiency of plot, noting that "this is a practical threesome to work with; its members provide a three-cornered contrast in character and approach to life, and distinguish themselves clearly from each other without calling for any outstanding subtlety." After an initial introduction to the boys, the story progresses in typical Robinsonade fashion. The first half of the book is dedicated towards orienting the children into survival mode, wherein they must set up a camp and learn the sorts of food-gathering and fire-building activities that will keep them alive. In the second half of the story, the three boys are able to stray farther from camp and become exposed to threats from some primitive local natives as well as a band of pillaging British pirates, before ultimately embarking upon a last mission to save a sympathetic native girl who has been forced into a marriage to a non-Christian chief when the girl's own desires are to be united with another chieftain who has converted to the Christian faith. Of these last chapters, M. F. Thwaite has asserted that they are "much concerned with natives, cannibalism, and Christian missionaries, and the author succeeds in mingling many thrilling incidents of narrow escape and rescue with appreciation of the mission work in the South Seas."


The Coral Island is, in many ways, a typical Robinsonade; although what has helped the story endure into the twentieth century is its connection to the immensely popular Lord of the Flies and its role as a normative pre-colonialist juvenile novel. To that end, despite Ballantyne's self-professed dedication to accuracy, he never visited the locales of The Coral Island and the details of the story indulge in theatrics and exaggerations drawn from the emerging descriptions of the South Pacific that had made their way back to England at the time. As a result, Ballantyne's narrative includes various acts of inhumanity, including the feeding of babies to eel gods, the physical crushing of opponents, the eating of flesh for pleasure, as well as plenty of gore and violence meant to titillate his juvenile readership. In addition, Ballantyne made sure to contrast these descriptions with the godliness of his British protagonists, who serve as de facto missionaries throughout. As a result of these contrasts, contemporary criticism has suggested that The Coral Island is essentially an imperialist and colonialist text, depicting brave British citizens at war with the primitive world. "The world of Ballantyne is the Empire in the making," M. F. Thwaite has charged, "the white man opening up the wilderness and bringing trade, medicines, rough justice, and, above all, Christianity, to the savage." Fiona McCulloch has noted that there is a pervasive belief among literary critics that, through The Coral Island, Ballantyne enabled his protagonists to "help to bring the light of western civilization to the savage native, ostensibly legitimizing the colonial expansion which occurred throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century." McCulloch has disagreed with such charges, labelling them as unfair because Ballantyne's text is unreservedly an intentionally light adventure tale which reflects "not a mirror image of absolute authority, but a shattered textual lens that self-consciously probes the verisimilitude of narrative within the realms of an escapist fiction layered with sailors' yarns." Such attributions of Ballantyne's intent, however, are in the minority. Critics like Susan Naramore Maher have argued that, with The Coral Island, Ballantyne was helping create a colonialist mindset for future British expansionist pushes, one that "proves an unambiguous paean to the mercantile and missionary spirit of the homeland. Each confrontation with the chaotic, savage Other reinforces the inconquerable spirit of the [British] homeland." As such, Lord of the Flies appears to function as William Golding's immediate response to the unsubtle nationalist pride in The Coral Island, offering same or similarly-named reinterpretations of Ballantyne's heroes in the forms of Ralph, Piggy, and Jack. Golding's novel is equal parts reflection of the internalized evil in all men and a retort to Ballantyne's overt nationalistic leanings. Minnie Singh has asserted that, while children's literature has become inured to such child narratives, "we forget how important a narrative innovation it must have been … The Coral Island is for boys and about boys, and it is even narrated by a boy, or at least, by a former boy."


Despite the modern critical rejection of the text's dated Colonialist themes and arguably racist undertones, The Coral Island was widely appreciated in its day with such noted writers as R. L. Stevenson expressing an appreciation for its better qualities. Stevenson, who called himself a devoted fan of Ballantyne, hailed the author as "a writer who has given us all great pleasure, and made childhood so pleasant for so many." For his part, William Golding recognized that Ballantyne and The Coral Island were both products of their era and that they should be judged by that period's standards. "Ballantyne's island was a nineteenth-century island inhabited by English boys," Golding has suggested, "mine was to be a twentieth-century island inhabited by English boys." The book is an important milestone in the Robinsonade tradition, linking the earliest examples of the type, such as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and James F. Bowman's The Island Home, or, The Young Cast-Aways (1852), to such important later works as Stevenson's The Ebb-Tide (1894) and Golding's The Lord of the Flies. While many recent critical appraisals have highlighted the story's weaknesses, other critics, like John Rowe Townsend, have stressed that the book should more properly be judged alongside its contemporaries. "Ballantyne was not an over-pious writer by temperament," Townsend has argued, "he was just professing what it was obvious and proper that a decent British Christian should profess in his day and age." M. F. Thwaite has asserted that Ballantyne's works made "the boy hero more natural, cheerful and convincing. He is the great purveyor of adventure for boys in [the] pre-Stevenson era, and his stories have endured longer than those of [contemporaries] Reid or Kingston." Similarly, Townsend has charged that Ballantyne wrought other changes, among them advocating a literary approach where the writer "stands back a little from the narrator, in order to get the benefit of him as a character and not just as a mouthpiece—a sophisticated technique for that day and for boys' writing." Minnie Singh has contended that Ballantyne's The Coral Island was nothing less than a distinct evolution of the boy's story that "preserves the homiletic form of the educational tract, but it delivers the homily in user-friendly terms—and thus inaugurates a dominant tradition in the literature of boyhood."


Hudson's Bay, or, Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America (juvenile novel) 1847

Snowflakes and Sunbeams; or, The Young Fur-Traders [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile novel) 1856; republished as The Young Fur-Traders, 1950

Three Little Kittens: A Nursery Tale [as Comus; illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile short story) 1856

The Life of a Ship from the Launch to the Wreck [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile fiction) 1857

My Mother (Chit-Chat) [as Comus; illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile short story) 1857

Mister Fox [as Comus; illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile short story) 1857

Ungava: A Tale of Eskimo Land [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile novel) 1857

The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile novel) 1858

Martin Rattler; or, A Boy's Adventure in the Forests of Brazil (juvenile novel) 1858

The Robber Kitten [as Comus; illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile short story) 1858

Mee-a-ow!; or, Good Advice to Cats and Kittens (juvenile fiction) 1859

The World of Ice; or, The Whaling Cruiser of "The Dolphin" and the Adventures of Her Crew in the Polar Region (juvenile nonfiction) 1859

The Golden Dream; or, Adventures in the Far West (juvenile novel) 1860

The Dog Crusoe and His Master (juvenile novel) 1861

The Gorilla Hunters: A Tale of the Wilds of Africa (juvenile novel) 1861

The Red Eric; or, The Whaler's Last Cruise (juvenile fiction) 1861

Away in the Wilderness; or, Life among the Red Indians and Fur Traders of North America (juvenile fiction) 1863

Fast in the Ice; or, Adventures in the Polar Regions (juvenile fiction) 1863

Fighting the Whales; or, Doings and Dangers on a Fishing Cruise (juvenile fiction) 1863

The Wild Man of the West: A Tale of the Rocky Mountains [illustrations by John Baptist Zwecker] (juvenile fiction) 1863

Chasing the Sun, or, Rambles in Norway (juvenile fiction) 1864

Gascoyne, the Sandal-Wood Trader: A Tale of the Pacific (juvenile fiction) 1864

The Lifeboat: A Tale of Our Coast Heroes (juvenile fiction) 1864

Freaks on the Fells; or, Three Months' Rustication, And Why I Did Not Become a Sailor (juvenile fiction) 1865

The Lighthouse: Being the Story of a Great Fight between Man and Sea (juvenile fiction) 1865

Shifting Winds: A Tough Yarn (juvenile fiction) 1866

Silver Lake; or, Lost in the Snow (juvenile fiction) 1867

Deep Down: A Tale of the Cornish Mines (juvenile fiction) 1868

Fighting the Flames: A Tale of the London Fire Brigade (juvenile fiction) 1868

The Battle and the Breeze, or, The Fights and Fancies of a British Tar (juvenile fiction) 1869

The Cannibal Islands; or, Captain Cook's Adventures in the South Seas (juvenile fiction) 1869

Digging for Gold; or, Adventures in California (juvenile fiction) 1869

Erling the Bold: A Tale of the Norse Sea-Kings [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile fiction) 1869

Hunting the Lions (juvenile fiction) 1869

Lost in the Forest; or Wandering Will's Adventures in South America (juvenile fiction) 1869

Over the Rocky Mountains: or, Wandering Will in the Land of the Red Skin (juvenile fiction) 1869

Saved by the Lifeboat; or, A Tale of Wreck and Rescue on the Coast (juvenile fiction) 1869

Sunk at Sea; or, The Adventures of Wandering Will in the Pacific (juvenile fiction) 1869

The Floating Light of the Goodwin Sands: A Tale (juvenile fiction) 1870

Up in the Clouds; or, Balloon Voyages (juvenile fiction) 1870

The Iron Horse; or, Life on the Line, A Tale of the Grand National Trunk Railway (juvenile fiction) 1871

The Norsemen in the West; or, America before Columbus (juvenile fiction) 1872

The Pioneers: A Tale of the Western Wilderness Illustrative of the Adventures and Discoveries of Sir Alexander MacKenzie (juvenile fiction) 1872

Black Ivory: A Tale of Adventure among the Slavers of East Africa (juvenile fiction) 1873

Life in the Red Brigade: A Story for Boys (juvenile fiction) 1873

Chit-Chat by a Penitent Cat (juvenile fiction) 1874

The Pirate City: An Algerine Adventure (juvenile fiction) 1874

Rivers of Ice: A Tale Illustrative of Alpine Adventure and Glacier Action (juvenile fiction) 1875

The Story of the Rock; or, Building on the Eddystone (juvenile fiction) 1875

Under the Waves; Diving in Deep Waters (juvenile fiction) 1876

The Settler and the Savage: A Tale of Peace and War in South Africa (juvenile fiction) 1877

In the Track of the Troops: A Tale of Modern War (juvenile fiction) 1878

Jarwin and Cuffy: A Tale (juvenile fiction) 1878

Philosopher Jack: A Tale of the Southern Seas (juvenile fiction) 1879

The Lonely Island; or, The Refuge of the Mutineers (juvenile fiction) 1880

Post Haste: A Tale of Her Majesty's Mails (juvenile fiction) 1880

The Red Man's Revenge: A Tale of the Red River Flood (juvenile fiction) 1880

The Giant of the North; or, Pokings Round the Pole (juvenile fiction) 1881

My Doggie and I (juvenile fiction) 1881

The Kitten Pilgrims; or, Great Battles and Grand Victories [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile fiction) 1882

The Battery and the Boiler; or, Adventures in the Laying of Submarine Electric Cables (juvenile fiction) 1883

Battles with the Sea; or, Heroes of the Lifeboat and Rocket (juvenile fiction) 1883

Dusty Diamonds Cut and Polished: A Tale of City-Arab Life and Adventure (juvenile fiction) 1883

The Madman and the Pirate (juvenile fiction) 1883

The Young Traveler: A Story of Life and Death and Rescue on the North Sea (juvenile fiction) 1884

The Island Queen; or, Dethroned by Fire and Water: A Tale of the Southern Hemisphere (juvenile fiction) 1885

The Rover of the Andes: A Tale of Adventure in South America (juvenile fiction) 1885

Twice Bought: A Tale of Oregon Gold Fields (juvenile fiction) 1885

The Prairie Chief (juvenile fiction) 1886

Red Rooney; or, The Last of the Crew (juvenile fiction) 1886

The Big Otter: A Tale of the Great Nor'West (juvenile fiction) 1887

The Fugitives; or, The Tyrant Queen of Madagascar (juvenile fiction) 1887

Blue Lights; or, Hot Work in the Sudan (juvenile fiction) 1888

The Middy and the Moors: An Algerine Story (juvenile fiction) 1888; republished as Slave of the Moors, 1950

Blown to Bits; or, The Lonely Man of Rakata (juvenile fiction) 1889

The Crew of the "Water Wagtail": A Story of Newfoundland (juvenile fiction) 1889

Charlie to the Rescue: A Tale of the Seas and the Rockies [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile fiction) 1890

The Garrett and the Garden; or, Low Life High Up. And Jeff Benson; or, The Young Coastguardsman (juvenile fiction) 1890

The Buffalo Runners: A Tale of the Red River Plains [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile fiction) 1891

The Coxswain's Bride; or, The Rising Tide. A Tale of the Sea and Other Tales [illustrations by Ballantyne] (juvenile fiction) 1891

The Lively Poll: A Tale of the North Sea (juvenile fiction) 1891

The Hot Swamp: A Romance of Old Albion (juvenile fiction) 1892

Hunted and Harried: A Tale of the Scottish Covenanters (juvenile fiction) 1892

An Author's Adventures, or Personal Reminiscences in Book-Making (autobiography) 1893

The Walrus Hunters: A Romance of the Realms of Ice (juvenile fiction) 1893


John Rowe Townsend (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Townsend, John Rowe. "1840-1915: Nineteenth-Century Adventures." In Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children's Literature, pp. 61-2. Philadelphia, Penn.: J. P. Lippincott Company, 1974.

[In the following essay, Townsend relates that while Ballantyne was very much a writer of his age, The Coral Island nevertheless represents an evolution of the boys' adventure story.]

‘Ballantyne the brave’ was born in Edinburgh in 1825, and when he was sixteen went to Canada in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company at a salary of twenty pounds a year. He wrote his first (adult) book while stationed at one of the loneliest outposts of Empire: a ‘fort’ in the far North-west where he was in charge of one Indian and one horse, and the mail came twice a year. In 1847 he came home to join the family printing firm (which had printed Sir Walter Scott's novels); nine years later, at the age of thirty-one, he published his first children's book, The Young Fur-Traders (1856). The first edition came out with the title Snowflakes and Sunbeams —a perfect Victorian namby-pamby title, diametrically opposed to the spirit and content of the book, and one which was quickly dropped. Ballantyne then wrote Ungava (1857), which had a similar setting, and followed it in the same year with The Coral Island, his best-known story. Like Kingston, he was immensely prolific, and wrote over one hundred books in forty years.

The Coral Island is a first-person narration, and it begins briskly, for Ballantyne gets his hero born, brought up, and sent to sea, his two companions introduced, the ship wrecked, and the three lads cast ashore on their island, all in a mere eighteen pages—a length which was nothing to a Victorian novelist. Threesomes are popular in the classical adventure story, and here the threesome consists of the narrator, a quiet, thoughtful lad, rather lacking in humour; the leader, Jack Martin, ‘a tall strapping broad-shouldered youth of eighteen, with a handsome, good-humoured, firm face’; and Peterkin Gay, ‘little, quick, funny, decidedly mischievous, and about fourteen years old’. From an author's point of view, this is a very practical threesome to work with; its members provide a three-cornered contrast in character and approach to life, and distinguish themselves clearly from each other without calling for any outstanding subtlety. And we may note that Ballantyne stands back a little from the narrator, in order to get the benefit of him as a character and not just as a mouthpiece—a sophisticated technique for that day and for boys' writing.

The first half of the book is devoted largely to telling how the three boys managed to keep alive, what they eat and drink and wear, and how they make themselves at home. This is in the Crusoe tradition; it is also full of intrinsic interest. There is some deep psychological factor here; we all wonder how we would manage if ever we had to fend entirely for ourselves; consequently the reader-identification in a good desert-island story can be unusually intense. The latter part of the book is inferior, though it has a great deal of action: clashes with savages, the narrator seized by pirates (one of whom repents with his last gasp), and finally a quixotic expedition to rescue a black girl who is being forced to marry a heathen against her will whereas she wants to marry a Christian chieftain. An important feature of the latter part of the book is that missionaries are at work spreading Christianity in the South Seas, and it is quite clear to the author that this is a great civilizing as well as Christianizing mission. Today hardly any children's writer would venture to put the Christian religion in the forefront of his picture, any more than he would the old imperialism. We have suffered, even if we are Christians, a fatal loss of confidence. Ballantyne was not an over-pious writer by temperament; he was just professing what it was obvious and proper that a decent British Christian should profess in his day and age.

Minnie Singh (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Singh, Minnie. "The Government of Boys: Golding's Lord of the Flies and Ballantyne's Coral Island." Children's Literature 25 (1997): 205-13.

[In the following essay, Singh compares two Robinsonades, equating Golding's Lord of the Flies as a perversion of Ballantyne's The Coral Island.]

government: … 2. The manner in which one's action is governed. a. In physical sense: Management of the limbs or body; movements, demeanor; also, habits of life, regimen. b. In moral sense: conduct, behaviour; becoming conduct, discretion. Obs.

          —Oxford English Dictionary

Perhaps in the twentieth century, the sort of fables we must construct are not for children on any level.

          —William Golding, 19621

A memorable scene early in William Golding's 1954 Lord of the Flies eloquently suggests the ambition of Golding's fabulist intentions. On the island that at this point in the text is still an innocent playground, one of the younger boys, Henry, who is building castles in the sand, is covertly observed by an older boy, Roger:

Roger stooped, picked up a stone, aimed, and threw it at Henry—threw it to miss. The stone—that token of preposterous time—bounced five yards to the right and fell in the water. Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dared not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger's arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.

          (Golding, Lord, 62)

The "space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter," into which Roger dare not throw, is nothing other than the shrunken dimensions of civil society—the restraints taught by parents, school, policemen, and the law. What Roger is unable to disobey is not the express prohibition of civil society against violence, but an internalized restraint—that is, civility. Significantly, in the penultimate chapter of the book, it is Roger who hurls the mighty rock that sends Piggy crashing to his death (181): more starkly than any other character, he represents the erosion of restraint, the return to a sort of Stone Age. If the project of government may be understood macropolitically as civilization, then its micropolitical counterpart is education, with civility as its project. Golding's text is notable for making explicit this cluster of associations, which has long been the implicit staple of the literature of boyhood.

Lord of the Flies is an overseas adventure story, the self-conscious culmination of a long line of boys' adventure stories. "It's like in a book," Ralph announces after their initial exploration of the island:

At once there was a clamour.
"Treasure Island—"
"Swallows and Amazons—"
"Coral Island—"
                    . . . . .

"This is our island. It's a good island. Until the grownups come to fetch us we'll have fun."


Golding's story seeks to dispel this intertextual glamor with grim realism; it both participates in and criticizes the history of the adventure story, whose originating canonical text is Robinson Crusoe. But the adventure story that was almost schematically Golding's pre-text was Robert Michael Ballantyne's 1858 Coral Island, one of the earliest such stories to have boys, in the absence of adults, for its main characters.

Children's literature has so naturalized this device that we forget how important a narrative innovation it must have been: we may be reminded of its innovative quality by the analogy of an exclusive dogs' club, where pampered pets may watch 101 Dalmatians and other canine classics starring their own kind. The Coral Island is for boys and about boys, and it is even narrated by a boy, or, at least, by a former boy:

I was a boy when I went through the wonderful adventures herein set down. With the memory of my boyish feelings strong upon me, I present my book specially to boys, in the earnest hope that they may derive valuable information, much pleasure, great profit, and unbounded amusement from its pages.

          (Ballantyne, xxx)

The Coral Island preserves the homiletic form of the educational tract, but it delivers the homily in user-friendly terms—and thus inaugurates a dominant tradition in the literature of boyhood. R. L. Stevenson gratefully acknowledged Ballantyne in the verses that preface Treasure Island (Stevenson iii); and G. A. Henty, the most prolific boys' writer of the late nineteenth century, is known to have been influenced by Ballantyne's methods (Carpenter and Pritchard 43).

More than a century after Ballantyne's daring and successful experiment in boys' literature, William Golding declared, in his 1962 lecture at Berkeley on the writing of Lord of the Flies: "Ballantyne's island was a nineteenth-century island inhabited by English boys; mine was to be a twentieth-century island in- habited by English boys" ("Fable" 89). Written out of the agonized consciousness of England's loss of global power, Lord of the Flies may be read with some accuracy as a parodic rewriting of Ballantyne's Coral Island. The three central characters of Lord of the Flies—Ralph, Piggy, and Jack—are caricatures of Ballantyne's three boy heroes—Ralph, Peterkin, and Jack—who, shipwrecked on an island like Crusoe's (albeit in the South Seas), heroically survive violent encounters with cannibalistic natives and bloodthirsty pirates. The idyllic Coral Island is transformed by Golding into an infernal place: whereas Ballantyne's adventurers master nature, using and developing technology for the purpose, Golding's boy characters are helpless captives whose only hope is rescue.

Indeed, the first part of Ballantyne's text is a protracted meditation on a Rousseauistic education in which the boys learn to gather, hunt, cook, fight, save, and hide not through instruction but from necessity. We may remember that Rousseau suggests that Emile read and mime Robinson Crusoe (Rousseau 147-48); in Ballantyne's book, the boys' forced sojourn on the island is both the occasion and the means for their education. They also learn science, or specialized knowledge, from the disinterested study of their surroundings and the inferences they draw from their observations. In this way, they discover that crabs shed their skins and that hydraulic pressure causes water to spout inland. This spirit of rational inquiry distinguishes Ballantyne's boys from Golding's, who forget more than they learn and unresistingly fall prey to their irrational terrors.

Moreover, Ballantyne's boys take a blithely utilitarian view of their material environment, which represents to them the availability of ready-made value. Upon discovering the milk of the coconut, which he takes to calling "lemonade," Peterkin, who is by common consent the jester (and as such is distinct from Golding's Piggy, the butt of all jokes), exclaims, "Meat and drink on the same tree! … washing in the sea, lodging on the ground—and all for nothing! My dear boys, we're set up for life; it must be the ancient paradise—hurrah!" (27-28) and, later, "So … we seem to have everything ready prepared to our hands in this wonderful island—lemonade ready bottled in nuts, and loaf-bread growing on the trees" (43). The boys' life on the island joyfully conjoins work and pleasure. By studied contrast, in Lord of the Flies work and play are absolutely and irrevocably divorced: work is conservative and constructive; play, liberating but destructive.

The thrills of the Coral Island are twofold: they alternate between delight in eating—literally sucking at the bountiful plenitude of the island—and terror of being eaten (if not devoured by cannibals, then swallowed up by the bloody jaws of a shark). Lord of the Flies effects a darkly Freudian conversion of this wholesome orality into analsadistic pleasure. Here even the consumption of tropical fruit, that richly suggestive marker of paradise regained, causes chronic diarrhea—producing not value but waste. Self-consciously representing a later phase of erotic development, Lord of the Flies counts on our willingness to see the pleasures of boyhood as immature and outmoded.

We could continue to list the ways in which Lord of the Flies deflates and diminishes the heroic occasion and mode of The Coral Island. Yet the two books are overwhelmingly similar in their thematic concern with legitimate authority, leadership, and government. Both texts equate good government with the containment and defeat of savagery (whether the savagery is shown to reside within us or without); and both characterize savagery as the absence of a restraining law. Late in The Coral Island, the narrator, Ralph, who is now separated from his comrades, appeals to the pirate Bill, his guide through the South Sea islands:

"Have these wretched creatures [native islanders] no law among themselves," said I, "which can restrain such wickedness?"

"None," replied Bill. "The chief's word is law. He might kill and eat a dozen of his own subjects any day for nothing more than his own pleasure, and nobody would take the least notice of it."

          (Ballantyne 242)

A cluster of associations equates the pirates with "white savages" (193); and their savagery, like that of the natives, manifests itself in "wanton slaughter" (216). If the restraint of pleasure is the defining characteristic of civilization, then boyhood, Ballantyne appears to suggest, is that state of grace where pleasure is harmless, appetite is healthy, and play is productive. Beyond boyhood, pleasure must be restrained, appetite curbed, and play governed.

Lord of the Flies proposes its own version of irresponsible authority in the terrifying figure of Jack, who "makes things break up like they do" (Golding, Lord, 139). The Jack of The Coral Island had been a natural leader who ruled by superior knowledge—he had read more adventure stories than had the others—and by playful violence. Golding's Jack, on the other hand, is clearly drawn from contemporary alarms about the totalitarian personality. It must be remembered that Lord of the Flies achieves its ominous generality of reference by glossing over the specificity of its Cold War context. The boys suspect that there has been a nuclear explosion (Golding, Lord, 14), and, at the end, Ralph's greatest remembered fear is of the "Reds" (162).2 Golding himself uses the term "totalitarian"—a word that only took on its full negative import after World War II—in his remarks on Lord of the Flies:

Before the Second World War I believed in the perfectibility of social man; that a correct structure of society would produce goodwill; and that therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganization of society. It is possible that today I believe something of the same, but after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man could do to another…. I am thinking of the vileness beyond all words that went on, year after year, in the totalitarian states … there were things done during that period from which I still have to avert my mind lest I should be physically sick. They were not done by the headhunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in the Amazon. They were done skilfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilization behind them, to beings of their own kind.

          (Golding, "Fable," 86-87)

Golding finally leaves us with the not entirely convincing position that totalitarianism is a form of savagery, and that not even boyhood is exempt from its encroachments. In Golding's own formulation,

Man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin. His nature is sinful and his state perilous…. I looked round me for some convenient form in which this thesis might be worked out, and found it in the play of children. I was well situated for this, since at this time I was teaching them. Moreover, I am a son, brother, father. I have lived for many years with small boys, and understand and know them with awful precision. I decided to take the literary convention of boys on an island, only make them real boys instead of paper cutouts with no life in them; and try to show how the shape of the society they evolved would be conditioned by their diseased, their fallen nature.

          (Golding, "Fable," 88)

Rhetorically and ideologically, the claim of Lord of the Flies over The Coral Island is the claim of experience over innocence, realism over romance, truth over illusion, maturity over naivete, and hardship over ease. At a crucial narrative moment in Lord of the Flies, before the reversion to savagery is properly under way, Ralph, the good leader, has an introspective realization: "He found himself understanding the weariness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one's waking life was spent watching one's feet. He stopped, facing the strip; and remembering that first enthusiastic exploration as though it were part of a brighter childhood, he smiled jeeringly" (Golding, Lord, 76). Lord of the Flies encourages us to locate the possibility of good government in the irrecoverable brighter childhood of political thought. At the same time, it makes childhood itself as archaic as the colonial metaphor of enthusiastic exploration.

Steven Marcus wrote in an introduction to Kipling's Stalky & Co. in 1962 (the very year in which the increasing classroom use of Lord of the Flies led Golding to explain to college students how he had come to write it):

In no other language does the word for boy have the kind of resonance that it does in English…. In what other language is there such an epithet as "Oh, boy!"—an expression of the very essence of spontaneous delight … boy is one of the sacred words of the English language; boyhood is—or for one hundred and fifty years was—a priestly state or condition; and the literature of boys and boyhood has had, for a secularized era, something of the aura of doctrinal or holy writ.

          (Marcus 152)

In part, at least, the doctrine of boyhood relies on the congruence of subject and implied reader; thus, The Coral Island is a founding text of the genre. Lord of the Flies violently debunks the mythic doctrine: it is a book about boys, but evidently is neither for boys nor by a boy. In disrupting the generic economy of boyhood, it opens its textual portals to any reader who is prepared to take pleasure in the sober triumph of modernist truth over heroic illusion. If pleasure is, indeed, a suitable criterion for making cultural and generic distinctions, then Lord of the Flies, by consistently and mysteriously pleasing young readers (even those who first encounter it as prescribed reading), has invented the genre of adolescent writing. For the innocent homosocial pleasures of boyhood it substitutes the potent but shameful solitude of adolescence; for the nostalgia of the literature of boyhood it inserts the alienation of the new literature of adolescence.

The substitution of adolescence for boyhood is, of course, a powerful historical phenomenon, not simply a textual one. One way of understanding the shift is by grasping the relation of boyhood to the maternal feminine. Underwriting the pleasure of boyhood is the absent yet authorizing figure of the mother—Ralph Rover's mother who stoically bids her adventurous son adieu in The Coral Island : "My mother gave me her blessing and a small Bible; and her last request was that I would never forget to read a chapter every day, and say my prayers; which I promised, with tears in my eyes, that I would certainly do" (Ballantyne 5). Boys will be, and can be, boys only with the complicity and permission of their mothers; an extreme instance of this narrative typology can be found in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, the eternal boy who kidnaps two generations of Wendys because he needs a mother.

From the barren emotional landscape of Lord of the Flies, the female parent is all but missing. Only once in Ralph's daydreams does she appear, and then she is associated with severe emotional loss: "Once … they had lived in a cottage on the edge of the moors. In the succession of houses that Ralph had known, this one stood out with particular clarity because after that house he had been sent away to school. Mummy had still been with them and Daddy had come home every day" (Golding, Lord, 112). Had Mummy not abandoned him, would Ralph's government of the island have succeeded? In fundamental ways Lord of the Flies remains tethered to the social discourse of family values. If boyhood is guaranteed by the familiar and forgiving figure of the mother, surely adolescence is betrayed by the unforgivable absence of the mother—an absence that represents simultaneously the terrible failure of civilization and the enabling condition of maturity.

In a recent Film Board of Canada production, a character laughingly recommends that the world be governed by postmenopausal women. The film is Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives; the character is one of the aging women who were interviewed for the documentary. Men, she explains, are only boys, and, she adds, we know from Lord of the Flies what boys are like.

Oddly enough, her reading of William Golding's pessimistic fable is clever only in substituting the gendered "men" for the universal "man." In other respects it might well meet with the author's approbation, for Lord of the Flies takes considerable pains to establish that at the heart of civilization lurks a persistent savagery, and that men, once stripped of the veneer of adulthood, quickly revert to being wanton boys who kill one another for their sport. Indeed, the book's remarkable success has made the reversion to savagery a cultural byword, and a powerful one because it represents the transformation from the civilized to the savage as simultaneously regression and maturation. To become savage is to regress to the anthropological infancy of mankind, but to recognize one's essential savagery is to be psychologically mature: this is the intriguingly mixed message of Golding's book.


1. "Fable," 86.

2. Golding's parodic intent—to spoof "redskins," that cliché of boyhood culture—takes a tendentious form in the book, for Reds-as-native-Americans (an obsolete enemy) are made to share features of savagery with Reds-as-Communists (the real enemy). Thus, Jack and his troop, the enemies of civilization, appropriate Native American cultural practices (warpaint and ululation) to mark their association with bad government.

Works Cited

Ballantyne, R. M. The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean. Ed. J. S. Bratton. The World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Pritchard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives. Dir. Aerlyn Weissman and Linne Fernie. Film Board of Canada English Programs, Studio D, 1992.

Golding, William. "Fable." In Golding, The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1965.

———. Lord of the Flies. New York: Perigee, 1954.

Locke, John. Locke on Politics, Religion, and Education. London: Collier Macmillan, 1965.

Marcus, Steven. "Stalky & Co." In Kipling and the Critics, ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. New York: New York University Press, 1965. 150-62.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. Trans. Barbara Foxley. Everyman's Library. London: J. M. Dent, 1911.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. Medallion Edition. New York: Current Literature, 1909.

Fiona McCulloch (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: McCulloch, Fiona. "‘The Broken Telescope’: Misrepresentation in The Coral Island." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 25, no. 3 (fall 2000): 137-45.

[In the following essay, McCulloch suggests that Ballantyne's The Coral Island is an ambiguous text that defies interpretations that seek to pigeonhole it simply as a predicator for Imperialist and Colonialist ideas.]

"I have always laboured to be true to fact, and to nature, even in my wildest flights of fancy," claims Robert Michael Ballantyne in his autobiography when he tries to explain an inaccuracy in The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (Author's Adventures 13-14).1 Controversies surrounding the idea of "fact" have resounded through critical analyses of Ballantyne's novel until the present day. Underscored by being published just one year before Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), Ballantyne's novel is perceived as a reflection of Victorian discourses on British subjectivity and Empire. The heroes help to bring the light of western civilization to the savage native, ostensibly legitimizing the colonial expansion which occurred throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Contemporaneous with this is the shift in children's literature around 1850 toward a belief in the inherent purity of children. Jacqueline Rose is one of the critics who suggests that this shift is inherited from Rousseau and the Romantic age. According to Rose, realism in children's literature is offered as a transparent window of truth, where child and language angelically adjoin.2The Coral Island first appeared, therefore, within the context of what is now considered to be the first golden age of children's fiction—a genre in which moral goodness is aligned with childhood, radiating its influence to the surrounding world. However, Rose's stress on "truth" and an "undistorted registering of the surrounding world" in her reading of The Coral Island appears to me to ignore a fundamental point: Ballantyne's novel is wrought with a plethora of destabilizing ironies. As a result, The Coral Island is a highly self-conscious text that fragments a perceived reality by implementing a retrospective narrative gaze. Ballantyne's novel is not, as Rose and other critics—including Susan Naramore Maher—claim, a simple reflection of western truth defeating native falsity. Rather, it is an extremely complex engagement with such ideology that creates interstices of instability and tension throughout the novel. This textual ambiguity occurs both within and without the novel. For example, The Coral Island describes itself as being viewed through a misrepresentative narrative gaze, referred to as "the broken telescope" (Coral Island 280). Moreover, when researching for his text, Ballantyne himself relied upon books, not first-hand experience, which creates textual ambiguity.

What I would like to contest in the following, then, is the idea that by constructing a story that simply reflects ideology in a representation of alleged fact, Ballantyne's novel supports dominant Victorian discourses on both colonialism and childhood. Rather, in my view, The Coral Island constitutes a text that intervenes in these debates by providing its own ironic perspective. The text is not a mirror image of absolute authority, but is a shattered textual lens that self-consciously probes the verisimilitude of narrative within the realms of an escapist fiction layered with sailors' yarns. As Joseph Bristow points out in Empire Boys, "The Coral Island often invites an interpretation that runs against the values it sets out to uphold" (107). I would like to take Bristow's comment a step further by providing a detailed analysis of the novel. I concede that much of the ambiguity I detect in The Coral Island will undoubtedly have been unconscious on Ballantyne's part, but I believe that to fully appreciate his novel's contradictory impetus, one must acknowledge that the text itself incorporates a fragmentary and distorted narrative gaze, one that views the entire adventure through a "broken telescope" (Coral Island 280). It is this pivotal detail that reinforces the ambiguity inherent in Ballantyne's own comment quoted at the beginning of my essay. By suggesting an indelible affinity between "fact" and his "wildest flights of fancy," Ballantyne hints at language's intrinsic unreliability and inveterate tendency to subvert the allegedly transparent signifiers of realism. As a result, The Coral Island represents more than a straightforward childhood adventure. The text opens up complex tensions between adult narrator and child character, within which the latter must inevitably appear as an imaginative projection and performative misrepresentation. Thus, Ralph can be viewed as the persona of an adult masquerading as a child in one of the author's wild flights of fancy. Not only is colonial representation problematized in the novel; childhood itself emerges as a fiction of adult construction. This slippage from seemingly factual discourse to fictional (dis)play is revealed with the aid of the aforementioned shattered telescopic lens through which the subject is perceived and constructed by the narrator, so the text signals a distortive rather than a mimetic mode of representation.

Toward the latter half of the nineteenth century, one strategy of distracting attention from Victorian domestic difficulties was to promote the sense of a unified national identity. Similar to childhood's portrayal as a homogenous encapsulation of innocence, the individual subject was subsumed under an incorporating signifier of Britishness. As noted, Ballantyne's novel was published one year prior to Darwin's Origin of Species and, significantly, it employs aspects of evolutionary theory, which formed part of the fundamental basis of British identity. According to Stuart Hannabuss in his essay "Moral Islands": "the popularity of works of popular exploration, and spin-offs for young people, was a hint of the deeper debate going on at the time among scientists about evolution. Darwin's rival, Alfred Russel Wallace, had written books which Ballantyne had used" (35). Similarly, Peter Raby argues in Bright Paradise that

in the popular imagination, the central message which could be extracted was that man was descended from the animals, and the idea of man as primitive, savage, became dominant. If all men were savage, then it was necessary for the more civilised to control the rest, or put another way, it was natural for the strongest and most cunning to rule…. The capitalist base of British imperialism lies at the heart of British society, and of the fiction which reflects that society.


Public school pedagogy became preoccupied with physical education, as "the survival of the fittest" translated into a sense of white, English superiority that was anchored in the notion of a civilized nation elected by God to rule inferior peoples. Significantly, Ballantyne was Scottish and, like many Scots, played an integral role in the British imperial enterprise as a trader for the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada, where "their first objective [was] the complete subjection of the Indian tribes [which] … quickly yielded results and valuable furs and other goods … [that] were soon being despatched to London in ever increasing quantities" (Quayle 32-33). However, to what extent, one wonders, did a sense of Britishness outweigh Ballantyne's own colonized identity as a Scot or, more immediately, how far can areas of colonial tension be detected within his novel, be they employed consciously or unconsciously?

Whereas Raby sees Victorian adventure fiction as simply a reflection of colonial ideology, in my view, The Coral Island is far more complex than this. The rubric "children's literature" may have suggested at the time a textually transparent purity. However, out of this alleged purity arises linguistic ruptures that render fixed meanings problematically unstable. True, Ballantyne's novel contains some moments of practical accuracy while its truths about savages are invariably embedded in colonial discourses legitimizing western domination. This, according to Raby, would identify Ballantyne's work clearly as a part of the hegemonic imperial process. I would argue, however, that in The Coral Island instabilities between fact and fiction pervade its surface truisms, thus undercutting the hegemony of "fact" and disclosing discomfort and distortion through instances of patent misrepresentation.

Superficially, the novel shipwrecks three English boys (Jack, Ralph, and Peterkin) on a South Pacific island. The boys bring with them the so-called light of British civilization. Evidently, children's fiction provides an ideal medium for relaying expectations of truth and reliability, making it an excellent propaganda tool. Moreover, in children's fiction, the emergent discourse of Empire is often authorized by dint of a residual discourse of chivalry, a dominant discourse of Christianity and an emerging Social Darwinism. Part of the connotation of innocent genre is that it will be a vehicle for simply telling the truth rather than a tale of ideological embellishment. Throughout Ballantyne's novel, the narrator, Ralph Rover, reiterates this claim: "O reader, this is no fiction…. It was witnessed. It is true" (248). Part of the novel's aim, therefore, is to educate the child reader, and instruction itself becomes another dimension of truth.

In The Coral Island Jack is the principal educator, continually explaining native life and customs. For example, "Jack told us that this tree is one of the most valuable … and that it constitutes the principal food of many of the islanders" (43). Jack imparts knowledge that he, in turn, has acquired from reading western books of "travel and adventure" about natives, just like the book he appears in, which is read by children as well (25). He enables Peterkin to quench his thirst by informing him of "lemonade" from cocoa-nuts, having "once read that the green nuts contain that stuff, and you see it is true!" (27). Jack's knowledge, learned through western discourse, enables him to take charge of situations and so hold colonial power.3 In Ballantyne's novel the native's voice is erased and, when focused upon at all, is only uttered through western mimicry, an English echo chamber of authorized language. Textual authority apparently belongs to the three British boys who construct a colonial discourse to overpower or "save" the savage from himself. Underpinned with Chris- tianity, however, that discourse is itself reversed and destabilized at points in the text. Educational accounts of the island's resources enhance the novel's false sense of factual security. The boys look at objects and provide practical details in an attempt to reduce the relational gap between sign and unknown material referent, the gaze focusing directly upon its linguistic vignette. This reflects the influences of the Robinsonade (a genre instigated by Defoe's Robinson Crusoe [1719]) and Rousseau's recommendation of a direct language for children in Emile (1762) while categorically occluding the fact that language itself is inherently contradictory and problematic. The Coral Island abounds with discussions of natural history, as an emergent Social Darwinism becomes an extremely important hegemonic discourse in explaining the evolutionary superiority and right of the westerner to take over colonial territories for the good of global education and civilization. Thus, in order to gain knowledge of marine life, Ralph constructs a "miniature Pacific" (107), which is his laboratory to explore inferiorly evolved species. Indeed the island itself becomes a laboratory space where knowledge and power are exercised over the primitive native. However, it always remains evident that the exotic is viewed through a distorted western textual lens—a circumstance which ultimately undermines, and introduces irony to, the surface display of absolute authority.

Another strategy employed by the novel to reinforce the claim of western superiority is to incorporate the residual elements of chivalric discourse, thus introducing an aspect of gender politics, for, not only is the native Avatea allegedly being educated to civilized standards, but she also embodies the archetypal damsel in distress: "She was a woman in distress, and that was enough to secure to her the aid of a Christian man" (335). As such, she is saved from the sexually demonized savage male, who is also feminized or emasculated, but native women are doubly subordinated. The natives are introduced as being "giants" (174) of seemingly superhuman power, who are nevertheless defeated and "awe-struck by the sweeping fury of Jack" (179). Jack becomes "Jack the Giant Killer" (75), referring to the fairy tale in which Jack kills the Welsh giant, Blunderbore, thus saving the English from being eaten and setting a precedent of preventing the Empire from being devoured: "Fe, fi, fo, fum / I smell the blood of an Englishman, / Be he living or be he dead / I'll grind his bones to be my bread."4 Ballantyne's boys of Empire adopt the role of crusaders, upheld by cultural myths, ridding the land of impurities and defending the honor of sweet maidens. Significantly, by saving Avatea from the savages, the British boys preserve not only her life, but also her soul. She is liberated from the constraints of a barbaric native wedding to marry her lover, who has converted to Christianity, thus conveniently signalling the link between colonialism and Christianity as salvationist discourses of redemption.

When the English boys first land on the island, it is likened to "ancient Paradise" (28); "we had often wondered whether Adam and Eve found Eden more sweet" (187). The island immediately becomes a British, Christian paradise in which the native is perceived as an alien invader: "we had seen the quiet solitudes of our paradise suddenly broke in upon by ferocious savages" (187). Indigenous inhabitants transmogrify into foreign intruders, menacingly closing in upon the fringe of western innocence. The conjunction of children and island as icons of "civilized" nature conjures the sense of an interdependent purity which must be safeguarded from corruption. The native is dehumanized in the Empire's endeavor to present itself as a taming of the beast or ejection of the serpent from a westernized Christian Eden.

Significantly, the native gods are described as child-consuming eels, evoking images of the biblical serpent. An array of distorted images instills in the reader a sense of horror toward this Other, including: "incarnate fiends," "they looked more like demons than human beings" (173), "the most terrible monster I ever beheld" (173-77), "a wild shout" (174), and "the monsters cut slices of flesh from his body, and, after roasting them slightly over the fire, devoured them" (175). The native acquires the role of bogeyman, a sexualized Other created by the adult narrator to fill the child reader's mind with fear and create a scapegoat for "normal" adult behavior toward Others.5 One of Ballantyne's worst derogatory stereotypes is of a subhuman primitive cannibal, emphasizing the need for British intervention against the giant who smells the blood of, and apparently wants to devour, the Englishman or, worse, the child. As Bristow points out: "the thought of cannibalism … preyed on the Victorian mind. Eating human flesh was not part of the Fijian's everyday diet; it contributed to periodic rituals. In Ballantyne's adventure, the islander's consumption of flesh turns into an insatiable appetite" (104). This gross distortion of native ritual practices is furthermore interlinked closely with the western view of the native's sexual appetite.

Significantly, such an indulgent, insatiable appetite might also be closely associated with childhood sexu- ality, thereby creating a slippage beneath the text's superficial fixity of innocence. It is highly threatening that the cannibalistic appetite is perceived to feed on a sense of sheer pleasure, connoting an almost erotic satisfaction. In order to be able to authenticate this prejudiced presentation, the narrator must claim it as factual data. However, ironically, it is not the upstanding English boys who educate us on this perversity of consumption, but the murderous pirate, Bloody Bill:

there's thousands o' people in England who are sich born drivellin' won't believers that they think the black fellows hereaways at the worst eat an enemy only now an' then, out o' spite; whereas I know for certain … that the Feejee islanders eat not only their enemies but one another; and they do it not for spite, but for pleasure. It's a fact that they prefer human flesh to any other.


This comment effectively blackens the image of the savage further, for if a buccaneer is disgusted at the native diet, then it is guaranteed that an innocent child of the Christian Empire must be morally outraged. At the same time, Bloody Bill's words retain the safe assurance that such atrocities can only occur in dark continents, and not be endorsed by even our blackest criminals, thus establishing an additional moral detachment from the native.6 Intriguingly, the criminal's statement echoes imperialist discourse to justify western intervention to "the people [back home] in England."7 Yet textually, the placing of such "fact" into the mouth of an untrustworthy pirate also serves to undermine the authority of the utterance by relating it to the fictional yarns of seafarers. Indeed Ralph, as adult narrator, admits that reading such "facts" had fuelled the boys' imaginations, having "heard or read of … savages, torturings at the stake, roastings alive, and such like horrible things" (42). Bill goes on to say that "these blackguards eat men an' women just as readily as they eat pigs; and, as baked pigs and baked men are very like each other in appearance, they call men long pigs" (239). Here human and pig assume a virtually indistinguishable identity, as the boys themselves indulge in eating numerous animal pigs as opposed to human pigs, the savage delicacy. The textual framework threatens to rupture at this point, for narrative authority is lost amidst an interplay of signifiers that slide along an insecure chain of reference, disrupting the fixity of identity between human and animal. Similarly, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) features a human to pig metamorphosis, with the pig-baby trotting off beyond its textual boundaries and, as a result, its subjectivity fluidly spilling out of control.8 In fiction nothing can be fixed to transparent meaning while innocence flies in the face of further questioning.

Oral consumption within children's fiction, such as is witnessed in Ballantyne's novel, is very much associated with Freud's theory of the child's polymorphously perverse sexuality. The presence of this orality further disrupts notions about the innocence of both the child and the children's novel as a literary genre. Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin indulge in this consumption throughout the text: "having thus cut off the two hind-legs [of the pig], he made several deep gashes in them, thrust a sharp-pointed stick through each, and stuck them up before the blaze to roast. The woodpigeon was then split open" (90). The language employed here is highly eroticized. Through such terminology as "cut," "deep gashes," "thrust a sharp-pointed stick through," and "split open" the adult narrator is carried away on a symbolic feast of frenzy. This "luxurious supper" (90) progresses to "a feast of hot rolls … roast pig, roast duck, boiled and roasted yams, cocoa-nuts, taro, and sweet potatoes, … plums, apples, and plantains" (133). The repetition of "roast" adds rhythmic spice to the allure of an exotic free-market garden or animal/human farm, echoing the human roasting of cannibalism.

This voraciousness is also, I would argue, metonymic of the appetite of Empire, where the island as well as its produce are claimed by the boys: "We've got an island all to ourselves. We'll take possession in the name of the king; we'll go and enter the service of its black inhabitants. Of course we'll rise, naturally, to the top of affairs. White men always do in savage countries" (16). Like the unstable signifiers of human and pig, the concept of cannibalism is rendered insecure, implicating western consumerism in its own condemnation of the savage appetite. The language suggests a Social Darwinism of survival and subjection, where ownership and control are aligned with a belief in the British child subject as culturally superior to the infantilized savage. It really is a case of dog-eat-dog, tapping into a mood of nationhood and reflecting a particular British Victorian psychological representation of supremacy. Significantly, Edward Said argues in Culture and Imperialism that

scarcely a corner of life was untouched by the facts of empire; the economies were hungry for overseas markets, raw materials, cheap labour, and hugely profitable land…. But there is more than that to imperialism and colonialism. There was a commitment to them over and above profit … which, on the one hand, allowed decent men and women to accept the notion that distant territories and their native peoples should be subjugated, and, on the other, replenished metropolitan energies so that these decent people could think of the imperium as a protracted, almost metaphysical obligation to rule subordinate, inferior, or less advanced peoples.


Said's oral imagery effectively captures colonialism's insatiable appetite, which is "hungry" for exploitative trade. He also raises a crucial point concerning colonial discourse in The Coral Island, namely that westerners are led to believe that they are enlightening the native. Bloody Bill insists that those back in England must know the "facts" about savages, rendering Ballantyne's novel part of an act of cultural persuasion that Britain is colonizing in a bid to civilize savage nations and so advance evolution. As a boys' adventure, the novel is particularly powerful because it is teaching the next generation to dominate others—mainly natives and women—in the name of innocence and truth. When the boys first arrive on the island, Ralph identifies it as the work of "my Creator" (22), thus both Anglicizing and Christianizing it as a legitimate imperial possession. The novel literally evangelizes the missionary of British nationhood, conveniently by employing that other claim for absolute truth and authority: the Christian Bible. The native missionary is heard to proclaim: "that if you ever return to England, you will tell your Christian friends that the horrors which they hear in regard to these islands are literally true…. You may also tell them … of the blessings that the Gospel has wrought here!" (297). To legitimize British intervention further, this dialogue is placed in the mouth of the converted Other who is portrayed as grateful to his saviors. Not only is his country appropriated, so too is his own native voice, which mimics western discourse and is incorporated within Ralph's authorial narrative. Again, however, this strategy also questions the authority of colonial discourse because these self-effacing words are clearly force-fed to the native by Ralph's overall narrative manipulation. And, since this narrative tends to blur the ideological outline of transparent representation, it suggests that the native, like his language, offers an ironic perspective, showing western authority to be little more than an act of performative masquerade in which every occurrence is viewed through distorted retrospection.9

The hegemonic idea that western influence is for the native's own good and betterment, then, is expressed through words of gratitude placed in the renegade Other's mouth by the adult narrator of Empire. Behind the converted savage's genuflection to the greatness of Christianity, sceptical ears may hear the desperately persuasive voice of an English narrator, rendering the native voice a crude mouthpiece of western opinion: "We, who live in these islands of the sea, know that the true Christians always act thus. Their religion is one of love and kindness. We thank God that so many Christians have been sent here; we hope many more will come" (335). It may seem safe to legitimize one's own actions by introducing a grateful convert. However, the language used here does not allow for one fixed interpretation but continues to oscillate between representation and subversive irony. Since the words are formulated by a western narrator, the enunciated "we" becomes blurred and the subject behind the utterance is obscured. More important perhaps, is the tone suggesting Christian hypocrisy between theology and practice. Action becomes an "act" as "true Christians" behave in a manner that contradicts their doctrine "of love and kindness."

Christianity operates alongside and colludes with colonialism and is seen as fundamental to obtaining goods. The pirate Bloody Bill recognizes that "the only place among the southern islands where a ship can put in and get what she wants in comfort is where the Gospel has been sent to…. For my part, I don't know and I don't care what the Gospel does to them, but I know that when any o' the islands chance to get it, trade goes all smooth and easy" (213-14). In explanation, Bristow argues that: "missionaries and traders settled on the islands, spreading Methodism among the tribes and carrying off plentiful supplies of sandalwood…. The arrival of British warships frightened the Fijians into converting to Christianity. The date of their conversion, 1855, roughly coincides with the composition and publication of Ballantyne's adventure" (104).

Bristow, however, does not consider that by being conscious of and overtly disclosing this link between colonial trade and evangelical Christianity, The Coral Island is at least potentially subverting dominant discourses rather than merely reflecting them. Indeed, there are numerous occasions when the novel opens up areas of tension or contestation, thus alluding to alternative views of nationhood and Empire. By employing a pirate to discuss the links between trade and Christianity, for example, the text tends to undermine its own surface authority. It is not simply the case that, as a pirate, Bloody Bill's comments are untrustworthy and ultimately unreliable, but also that the truth claimed by colonialism is rendered dubious when undersigned by piracy. When Bloody Bill states that he "don't care what the Gospel does" for the native but that he is glad it promotes easy trade, the text signals that colonialism uses Christianity as a "civilizing" discourse only in order to obtain goods (213). Much of the spoken language in The Coral Island owns this ironic ring, subverting its own narrative authority of Gospel Truth by demonstrating that part of its plot involves the use of the Bible to mask exploitation.

Ironically, the collaborative interdependence of colonialism and Christianity could be seen as an act of cannibalism, with Western society consuming colonized booty to satisfy its capitalist appetite while simultaneously legitimizing this as divine intervention. Christianity is free to eat its way through other countries, paving the way for unfair trade by taming the native: "the London Missionary Society have a great many in the Tahiti group…. Then the Wesleyans have the Feejee islands all to themselves, and the Americans have many stations in other groups" (296-97). The dark continents serve as one gigantic dinner plate carved up and swallowed to satiate the gargantuan appetite of Empire, while natives are reduced to accumulative calorie counts that energize its machine.

Another ambiguity on which The Coral Island plays is the dichotomy of legitimate and illegitimate trade: colonialism and piracy. The latter is the dark side of colonialism (think of Darth Vader, the fallen Jedi Knight), problematizing chivalric intention. Instead of maintaining a polar distinction between them, they seem inadvertently, if not deliberately, confused, reinforcing the aforementioned link between Christianity and colonialism as a potentially illegitimate alliance. The text introduces legitimate and illegitimate trade not as binary opposites, but as two faces of the same coin: both are perpetuated by Western civilization. As Nina Gerassi-Navarro points out, the historical origins of piracy seem to uphold this fundamental ambivalence:

The difficulty in classifying these individuals … is clearly illustrated by the particular situation of Francis Drake. While acknowledging that to a Spaniard, Drake would certainly have been considered a pirate, Philip Gosse, in The Pirate's Who's Who, calls Drake a "most fervent patriot." Thus the categories of pirate and patriot undoubtedly depended on the point of view from which they were presented…. European nations … often played up religion…. As a means of justification, it was not the governing motive behind the attacks; securing a trade route and market was.


Gerassi-Navarro continues to say that "nineteenth-century authors reconstructing their colonial past provided conflicting images of the pirate that ranged from evil and unscrupulous to chivalrous and heroic" (69).

Ballantyne's pirates are hyperbolic representatives of colonial trade, indulging in illegitimate pursuits under the disguise of a trade ship: "she trades when she can't take by force, but she takes by force, when she can, in preference" (214). As the captain himself claims, "I am no pirate, boy, but a lawful trader" (205) and, with reference to legitimate trade, "thorough-goin' blackguards some o' them traders are; no better than pirates" (220). Harry Kelsey has argued that "Hawkins and the other Devon seamen were merchants, but they also found piracy profitable…. A pirate was a mariner who robbed from the ship of another mariner…. War could sometimes turn piracy into an act of patriotism" (11). The pirate philosophy of brute "force" runs parallel to, and sheds unfavorable, if revealing light on the overwhelming desire of colonial economic expansion and its missionary rhetoric of civilizing the native. Christianity, from the pirate perspective, is a convenient ruse of Empire, strategically employed to assist the passage of trade and to facilitate the exploitation of other nations. As piracy is masked by a trade ship, so too is colonialism disguised by Christianity, and both legal and illegal trade benefit from the Gospel. Bloody Bill says, "As for the missionaries, the captain favours them because they are useful to him. The South Sea islanders are such incarnate fiends that they are the better for being tamed, and the missionaries are the only men who can do it" (214-15). Christianity is described as a salvational discourse, but undercutting this is a continual debate between converting prophet and commercial profit, the Bible acting as an opiate to "tame" the savage. This potentially offers a satiric dimension, as truth is confounded by ironic dialogue, further strengthened by the comparison drawn between Ralph and Bloody Bill: "you're a brick boy, and I have no doubt will turn out a rare cove. Bloody Bill there was just such a fellow as you are, and he's now the biggest cut-throat of us all" (202). The leap from self to Other decreases to a baby step as the text acknowledges that the most revered traits of promising imperial representatives are the same as those required of murderous criminals. Indeed Ralph's assumed surname of Rover, according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, can mean sea-robber or pirate.

The overwhelming cause of this pervasive textual insecurity can be found in Ralph's mention of "the bro- ken telescope" lens during the shipwreck: "I cannot understand why I kept such a firm hold of this telescope … as the glass at the small end was broken to pieces" (19). This seemingly incidental reference becomes of fundamental significance in deconstructing narrative claims of simple factual reflection, suggesting the construction of a fiction seen "through a glass, darkly," through a medium of shattered or splintered vision (I Cor. 13:12). After all, Ralph is no longer seeing directly as a child, but in retrospect, as an adult. The shattered glass is a metaphor of textual instability. By using a lens that does not simply reflect a single vision but constructs multiple unfocused images, the novel misrepresents both characters and their circumstances or psychological disposition, in particular perhaps natives, women, and even children. Part of this misrepresentation by a fragmented textual lens arises from the dual role played by Ralph, who is both adult narrator and child character. It is Ralph who clutches the "broken telescope," and it is his distorted vision or gaze through which the story is told: as a result, misrepresentation becomes inevitable. As an adult, he is reconstructing his alleged boyhood adventure which, in turn, is based on tall tales from sailors that "captivated and charmed my imagination … [where] men were wild, bloodthirsty savages, excepting in those favoured isles to which the Gospel of our Saviour had been conveyed" (4).

The Coral Island is not so much concerned with mirroring factual colonial discourse as with questioning the very validity of such truths by staging itself as a colonial story or sea yarn to excite its own boy reader. Ralph expects to encounter "savages" and "pirates" because they feature in stories and colonial accounts and so, unsurprisingly, he does come across them. Of course, the book is a fiction, but it is also possible to read it as its adult narrator's escapist invention of a desired and lost childhood ideal, only retrievable in his imagination. The text thus becomes a paradigm of itself in a dual fiction, in which Ralph is narrating his own particular story while also self-consciously representing the adult narrator in the children's fiction genre in general, who reconstructs and misrepresents childhood through a shattered narrative gaze.

Like the native, the child is appropriated or colonized by western discourse. The adult narrator wrecks these "innocents" on an isolated edenic island and views them in a constructed laboratory through a broken, distorted lens.10 In much the same way, Ralph, the child performer, observes his highly artificial "miniature Pacific" (107), where "our burning-glass … enabled me to magnify, and so to perceive more clearly the forms and actions of these curious creatures of the deep" (61). It is no accident that the narrator recalls Peterkin suggesting that Ralph's water tank needs "three little men to dive in it" (108), just as the boys are observed in their larger pool within the outer narrative framework. Narrative authenticity is called further into question by an admittance of fictional or performed subjectivity: "Rover was not my real name, but … I see no good reason why I should not introduce myself to the reader as Ralph Rover" (3). If the narrator's (pirated) identity is constructed or performed, is it not just as likely that his "true" tale will be masquerade as well?

Another aspect of this fractured narrative view again relates to the debate surrounding Christian discourse. According to Hannabuss, "at the age of twenty-four, Ballantyne had already become an Elder of the Free Church of Scotland" (31), but Ballantyne himself admits in his autobiography that his faith was not always solid, having lapsed when in Canada: "During all the six years that I spent in Rupert's Land I was ‘without God’" (18). Indeed, Quayle's biography states that Ballantyne really only turned to religion after the death of his father and then his sister in childbirth.11 In The Coral Island, although the boys rescue Avatea and continually praise the Almighty, they themselves are brought to task on the issue of faith by the native missionary who asserts that: "you are, in the sight of God, much worse than these savages … for they have no knowledge … while you, on the contrary, have been brought up in the light of the blessed Gospel, and call yourselves Christians … you, if ye be not true believers, are traitors!" (302-03). Ralph himself says: "I must confess that my heart condemned me while the teacher spoke" (303), and, when Bloody Bill is dying: "I now reflected, with great sadness and self-reproach, on the way in which I had neglected my Bible; and it flashed across me that I was actually in the sight of God a greater sinner than this blood-stained pirate…. I could not now call to mind a single text that would meet this poor man's case" (261-62).

This is no simple reflection, then, of western righteousness, but a suggestion that hypocrisy may underlie much colonial persuasion. Like the pirates, the representatives of Empire employ the Gospel for their own variant of truth. Interestingly, Ballantyne claims that his own faith left him during his stay in Canada when he was a western colonizer, referring to it as one of the darkest periods of his life. Perhaps what is being suggested is that colonialism leaves a sense of loss and doubt in the minds of those performing the role as Ballantyne appeared to question the right of British might, manifesting itself in a denial of faith and possible identification, as a Scot, with the colonized of "dear old England!" (335). Furthermore, on two occasions in the novel Jack's handkerchief of Lord Nelson with the Union Jack center has strips torn from it, perhaps suggesting the fragility and potential fragmentation of a unified British identity (51, 70-71). A further dilemma for Ballantyne was that he was, according to Quayle, opposed to slavery and so this may have triggered more ambivalence in his view of colonial expansion.

Inherent textual instabilities allow us to question the authenticity, accuracy, and verisimilitude of allegedly "truthful" fictions. In this context, it is worth noting that Ballantyne based The Coral Island not on direct observation of the South Pacific, but, never having been there in person, his entire narrative—like Ralph's—in fact is derived from his reading stories and so-called factual accounts. As he says in his autobiography, "I was compelled to seek new fields of adventure in the books of travellers. Regarding the Southern seas as the most romantic part of the world … I mentally and spiritually plunged into those warm waters, and the dive resulted in The Coral Island " (12). What is significant about Ballantyne's total reliance on second-hand narration to relate a "factual" account is that

it now began to be borne in upon me that there was something not quite satisfactory in describing … regions which one has never seen. For one thing, it was needful to be always carefully on the watch to avoid falling into mistakes geographical, topographical, natural-historical, and otherwise … while studying up for The Coral Island I fell into a blunder through ignorance in regard to a familiar fruit.


If Ballantyne himself so freely admits to inaccuracies, his novel cannot fail to become a site of ironic tension with regard to truthful representation. Rather than serving as a mere reflector, The Coral Island is caught up in a kaleidoscopic web of narrative perspectives, each adding a fragmentary dimension to the "broken telescope" of Ralph's reconstructing gaze.

Hannabuss rightly suggests that Ballantyne's "text may be regarded … as inhabiting a textual web of imitations and mediated borrowings" (32) that, according to Quayle, derives from "James Bowman's The Island Home; or, The Young Cast-Aways, [and] one can feel little doubt that many of the incidents which appear in Ballantyne's best-seller were culled by the author from this obscure fictional work" (114). Given its reliance on the stories of others, The Coral Island can never be a simple representation of Victorian ideologies, but rather demands to be read as a metafictional commentary. As Quayle continues to say: "with the parcel of books under his arm he arrived back in Burntisland the same afternoon and immediately began the task of absorbing sufficient facts about desert islands in the South Seas to enable him to give an authentic ring to an adventure story set in a part of the world about which he had no first-hand knowledge" (114). Ballantyne's adventurous swim from Burntisland to The Coral Island ("the most romantic part of the world") must be seen as an entirely imaginary plunge and the tale consequently ironizes originality and truth (12). Ballantyne was fascinated with the sea but was a dreadful sailor due to seasickness: like Ralph's his ocean journey is not physical but rather metaphysical.12

My reading suggests that we view Ballantyne's novel through its own inherent "broken telescope" lens of fractured textuality. Only then can one begin to appreciate the complexities of this fascinating multi-faceted text, which wears the cloak of colonial discourse just like the pirate's trade ship disguise or Ralph's childhood masquerade under a fictional pseudonym. Beyond realism's mirror and the glassy surface calm of tropical waters lurks an unfathomable oceanic depth of textual undercurrents. Ultimately, Ballantyne's novel suggests that hegemonic discourses are little more than tall tales told to captivate a naïve audience and interpellate it into their fictional "reality." Until now its broken narrative lens has been neglected; it has been deemed safer to remain in the quiet waters of the lagoon than to risk adventure on the open sea. Having taken the plunge, we should remember the novel's subtitle: it is A Tale of the Pacific Ocean. Susan Naramore Maher claims in her essay "Recasting Crusoe" that "Ballantyne's juvenile odyssey … proves an unambiguous paean to the mercantile and missionary spirit of the homeland. Each confrontation with the chaotic, savage Other reinforces the inconquerable spirit of the heroes. They are impervious to evil and destructive forces" (172). Nothing could be further from the truth for, "O reader, this is … fiction" (248). By "hoisting … the anchor on deck" (6) and sailing beyond the rigidity of realism to "the most romantic part of the world" (12), "I propose that we continue our journey as fast as possible, lest our island should be converted into a dream before we get completely round it" (94).


1. I have cited the publication date of The Coral Island as 1858 because, according to Ballantyne's biographer Eric Quayle in Ballantyne the Brave, "although published late in 1857, both volumes [Ungava and The Coral Island] are dated 1858. Dating a book forward was a common practice in Victorian days, especially if the volume appeared during the Christmas period" (112). Quayle continues to say that "Ungava and The Coral Island both appeared in the bookshops early in December 1857" (120).

2. Rose contends that Ballantyne's novel is a prime example of realism in children's literature, in its sense of innocent language and childhood, claiming that, "in The Coral Island, there is an explicit link made between moral order and linguistic truth. The book is a type of ‘look and learn’ where the children acquire knowledge of the natural world and an understanding of their moral superiority over the savages at one and the same time. Seeing with their own eyes, telling the truth and documenting without falsehood—what characterises the child's vision is its innocence in both senses of the term (moral purity and the undistorted registering of the surrounding world). The stress is constantly on empirical verification, on objects and on facts" (79).

3. Interestingly, Jack's lessons seem to have been taught well to Peterkin who, in The Coral Island's sequel, reminds Jack that "knowledge is power, my boy" (Gorilla Hunters 37).

4. The information on Jack the Giant Killer is derived from English Fairy Tales 77-102, and Carpenter and Prichard 276-77.

5. This essay is a revised version of a chapter in my forthcoming book, "Child's Play": Performing Childhood in Victorian and Early 20th-Century Children's Literature (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press), where the role of the bogeyman, for example, is discussed further.

6. As Bristow suggests: "By using a pirate as a source of authority, the story enjoys considerable licence when elaborating these horrific facts. Bloody Bill is there, in part, to demonstrate that the lowest type of white man is infinitely more dignified than the Fijian ever could be" (105).

7. Bristow notes that "the island story is located in a ‘world’ where colonial discourse can justify its existence. This Robinsonade, therefore, suggests that it has, simply as a piece of fiction, no self-sustaining value independent from colonialism—the history shaping its moral purpose" (99). Within The Coral Island, though, is a whole structure which comments on that colonialist discourse on a metafictional level.

8. This discussion of Alice forms a chapter in my forthcoming book mentioned in note 5.

9. Incidentally, performativity was vital to Ballantyne who, after his years as a colonizer in Canada, role-played in lecture tours: "striding on to the stage dressed in the trapper's clothing … with the stage table strewn … terminating his talk by firing his blank-loaded long-barrelled gun at the (now stuffed) Norwegian eagle set high over the stage, which a jerk of a hidden string sent crashing down on to the platform" (Quayle 103-04).

10. Rose suggests that "Literature for children is, therefore, a way of colonising (or wrecking) the child" (26).

11. Quayle states: "Coming so soon after that of his father, his sister's tragic death affected Bob very deeply…. The loss of his sister caused a wound that took many years to heal. From the time of the funeral, he started to attend church regularly … and at the age of only twenty-four, Bob was elected an elder of the Free Church of Scotland" (88). Indeed much of his writing does contain allusions to his faith, such as his discussion of the lifeboat crews in Battles with the Sea (1883): "I sincerely believe that the Word of God—permeating as it does our whole community, and influencing these men either directly or indirectly—is the cause of their self-sacrificing courage, as it is unquestionably the cause of our national prosperity" (128). It is interesting that this quote, too, seems to link faith with capital gain.

12. Quayle says that Ballantyne "suffered terribly from sea-sickness every time he left dry land" (252).

Works Cited

Ballantyne, R. M. An Author's Adventures, or Personal Reminiscences in Book-Making. 1893. London: Nisbett & Co., n.d.

———. Battles with the Sea: Heroes of the Lifeboat and Rocket. 1883. London: James Nisbett, n.d.

———. The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean. 1858. Ed. and intro. by J. S. Bratton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.

———. The Gorilla Hunters. 1862. London: Blackie & Son, n.d.

Bristow, Joseph. Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man's World. London: HarperCollins, 1991.

Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

English Fairy Tales. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. Trans. James Strachey. Ed. Angela Richards. London: Penguin, 1991.

Gerassi-Navarro, Nina. Pirate Novels: Fictions of Nation Building in Spanish America. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.

Hannabuss, Stuart. "Moral Islands: A Study of Robert Michael Ballantyne, Writer for Children." Scottish Literary Journal 22.2 (1995): 29-40.

Hunt, Peter. An Introduction to Children's Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.

Kelsey, Harry. Sir Francis Drake: The Queen's Pirate. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.

Maher, Susan Naramore. "Recasting Crusoe: Frederick Marryat, R. M. Ballantyne, and the Nineteenth-Century Robinsonade." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 13 (1988): 169-75.

Quayle, Eric. Ballantyne the Brave: A Victorian Writer and His Family. London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1967.

Raby, Peter. Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travellers. London: Random House, 1997.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan; or, The Impossibility of Children's Fiction, 2nd ed. 1984. London: Macmillan, 1994.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.

Martine Hennard Dutheil (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Dutheil, Martine Hennard. "The Representation of the Cannibal in Ballantyne's The Coral Island: Colonial Anxieties in Victorian Popular Fiction." College Literature 28, no. 1 (winter 2001): 105-22.

[In the following essay, Dutheil argues that Ballantyne's novel was a didactic precursor to colonialist philosophies that propagated falsehoods about South Seas culture.]

[The colonial stereotype has a] phantasmic quality—the same old stories of the Negro's animality, the Coolie's inscrutability or the stupidity of the Irish must be told (compulsively) again and afresh, and are differently gratifying and terrifying each time.

          (Bhabha 1994, 77)

Contemporary readers know of R M Ballantyne's The Coral Island through Golding's parody of it in Lord of the Flies, but few people have actually read this epitome of the British imperial ethos in its triumphant phase. It might nevertheless be worth pursuing Frank Kermode's suggestion that The Coral Island, one of the most popular adventure tales for boys in the nineteenth century, "could be used as a document in the history of ideas" (1962, 203) as a key text mapping out colonial relations in the Victorian period. As in most novels of empire, the representation of exotic life and primitive customs in Ballantyne's novel aims at reinforcing the empire's values, which in turn allows for white domination. The Coral Island in particular exploits the explorer's fear of ending up simmering in a giant cooking pot, an all time favorite cliché of popular colonial fiction.

The exploration of the South Pacific in the eighteenth century, which led to the Maori war against the British between 1864 and 1872 and culminated in the incorporation of the Fiji islands into the British Empire in 1874, generated a renewed interest in cannibalism. During this period, the Maoris of New Zealand and the Fijians were to replace Columbus's and Defoe's Caribs as emblematic cannibals. In his now classic, if no longer popular, adventure story The Coral Island (first published in 1857 and reissued as a Penguin Popular Classics in 1995), Ballantyne was highly successful in capitalizing on his contemporaries' taste for exotic culinary practices, and thereby contributed to keeping the cannibal's pot boiling.

If the 1850s were "a turning point for imperialist ideology" (1988, 14), as Patrick Brantlinger has persuasively argued in Rule of Darkness, then Ballantyne's novel can be said to epitomize this turn from the confidence and optimism of the early Victorian proponents of British imperialism to self-consciousness and anxiety about colonial domination. I would like to argue further that what is exemplary about The Coral Island is not so much its crude representation of primeval savagery as its expression of the colonial double-bind the repetition of "the same old stories" is necessary in order to reassert the irreducible opposition between civilized identity and savagery, but it is also dangerous because it threatens this very distinction. From Ballantyne's complacent repetition of stereotypes of savagery in The Coral Island emerges what Homi Bhabha has identified as the deep ambivalence and intrinsic anxiety of colonial discourse.1

Through his descriptions of cannibalism, central to the celebration of the civilizing mission, Ballantyne addresses the fraught questions of the evidence and signification of cannibal practices. Far from dispelling confusion, however, he unwittingly draws attention to the discursive nature of cannibalism by mixing fact and fiction, reflecting as he does so the conflicting discourses surrounding this controversial issue. Even more disturbingly, the repetition of cannibal scenes ends up subverting the author's celebration of white values and morals by prompting a recognition of the narrator's own savagery. While the function of the cannibal is to nurture the belief in British racial, cultural, and moral superiority, the colonial stereotype (as a locus of fantasy) in fact reveals growing anxieties. Ballantyne's novel thus confirms what Edward Said has amply demonstrated in his seminal works on the links between imperialism and culture, which show that the Western system of knowledge about the "other" is "governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections" (1991, 8). Leaving aside the contentious reality of cannibalism in the South Seas, I will focus on Ballantyne's representation of the cannibal as a figure of radical otherness which returns with a vengeance to trouble the dominant colonial discourse.

The seminal representation of the cannibal in English literature is of course Robinson Crusoe, considered as the prototypical modern realist novel. Defoe's story played a crucial role in constructing an image of otherness that captured the politics of empire, while contributing to the creation of a rich colonial imaginary. The story notably links "otherness" with Friday's cannibalism, which enables Crusoe to assert his separate identity from the "savages" and to justify their physical elimination or their conversion to Christianity (one convert for twenty killed, according to Crusoe's account). To a great extent, cannibalism contributes to "naturalizing" Crusoe's absolute and truly monarchic rule (as he himself proudly remarks) over the captured natives and Spaniards.

However, Defoe's treatment of the cannibal is riddled with contradictions: although a whole ethos of colonial relations is articulated in the idyll between Crusoe and Friday, the narrative constantly blurs the distinction between savage and civilised. Robinson himself admits that in killing cannibals unprovoked, he would commit a greater crime than their own in the eyes of God:

Religion joyn'd in with this Prudential, and I was convinc'd now many Ways, that I was perfectly out of my Duty, when I was laying all my bloody Schemes for the Destruction of innocent Creatures, I mean innocent as to me: As to the Crimes they were guilty of towards one another, I had nothing to do with them.

          (Defoe 1994, 125)

Moreover, the cannibal's physical and moral features turn out to be superior to Crusoe's. Friday's beauty and strength, his "passionless" nature, his loyalty to Crusoe, and his love for his father are contrasted with an aging Robinson who, dressed in grotesque garments, is subject to fits of moodiness, fury, and unjustified suspicion towards Friday, and who ruminates about his "original sin" of rebelling against his father's authority. Once Friday is cured of his hankering for human flesh and converted to the Christian faith, his subjection to Crusoe can no longer be justified on the grounds of the moral superiority of the white master. After his conversion, Friday even turns out to be "a much better [Christian] than I" (Defoe 1994, 159), as Crusoe himself acknowledges. Defoe thus complicates the moral dichotomies established before Crusoe's actual encounter with the savage. Carol Houlihan Flynn goes so far as to argue that Defoe is aware of the cannibalistic aspects of an imperial economy trading in flesh and feeding upon its colonized bodies (1994, 423-32). Despite Defoe's allegiance to Britain's economic expansion, the cannibal becomes an emblem of the barbarian "other" as much as of the "other" within. Although Ballantyne's retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story is far less equivocal, The Coral Island nevertheless displays confusions of another kind.

In Colonial Encounters, Peter Hulme observes that "The imperial production of Robinson Crusoe as a boys' adventure in the nineteenth century inevitably foregrounds the colonial alibi—the man alone, on a desert island, constructing a simple and moral economy which becomes the basis of a commonwealth presided over by a benevolent sovereign" (1986, 122). The Coral Island uses the desert island topos as a "colonial alibi," although it fails to sustain its "simple and moral economy" as soon as it stages confrontations with the natives of the surrounding islands. The "civilised" European subject and the cannibal savage are strongly contrasted in the narrative, and the latter's inhumanity and barbarity are exem- plified ad nauseam. Yet the narrator's insistence on the veracity of the lurid descriptions of cannibal acts evidences not only morbid fascination but also anxiety about their truth-value. Ballantyne's obsessive "othering of the other" through an accumulation of pseudo-documentary evidence of savagery betrays a symptomatic unease that eventually subverts the story's overt message.

The ambiguous status of Ballantyne's story is a case in point. Martin Green has noted in The Robinson Crusoe Story that

many adventures, and notably most of the Crusoe story versions, have recommended themselves to their readers as real. They have been read in sequence with, side by side with, narratives of real-life exploration, of feats of courage and strength and force, of sailing around the world alone, of flying across the Atlantic when that was dangerous, and so on.

          (Green 1990, 11)

Far from being naive, the confusion between imagination and fact in the novels of empire serves powerful ideological, political, and economic interests, and Ballantyne's novel is particularly revealing in this respect. On one level, The Coral Island affiliates itself with a long tradition of desert island stories by deploying its characteristic topoi (shipwreck, tropical setting, self-sufficiency, cannibals, and return to "civilization"). The novel's acknowledged status as a work of imagination is reinforced by the utopian motif of the boys' "perfect happiness" (1995, 15) on the island. The dream-like quality of their life is repeatedly stressed, which suggests analogies with the prelapsarian paradise: "The climate was so beautiful that it seemed to be a perpetual summer, and as many of the fruit-trees continued to bear fruit and blossom all the year round, we never wanted for a plentiful supply of food" (191). Unlike Robinson Crusoe's Puritan paradise of work and toil, Ballantyne's boys enjoy total freedom from the practicalities and anxieties of survival: "Meat and drink on the same tree!" cried Peterkin; "washing in the sea, lodging on the ground—all for nothing! My dear boys, we're set up for life; it must be the ancient Paradise—hurrah!" (37). In the second part of the novel, however, adventure can no longer be divorced from colonial history. The boys' dream of isolation is shattered by the realities of empire and its emblematic characters the cannibal, the pirate and the missionary.

Like most stories of travel and adventure of that period, The Coral Island claims to be a truthful rendering of life in the South Seas. But unlike to writers of adventure tales for boys like Captain Marryat (the initiator of the genre with Masterman Ready in 1841), Ballantyne did not base his story on firsthand experience. He began his writing career by publishing an autobiographical account of his stay among the fur traders in Hudson's Bay (Hudson's Bay, or Every-Day Life in the Wilds of North America ) The Coral Island, however, was written in a house on the seafront at Burntisland, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, and was inspired by works dealing with the Pacific islands which Ballantyne borrowed from Nelson's press file-copies. According to Eric Quayle, the story is heavily indebted to "a book which had appeared in 1852, entitled The Island Home, or, The Young Cast-Aways, written by an American author, James F. Bowman, who used the pseudonym of Christopher Romaunt. There seems little doubt that he [Ballantyne] took this volume along with the rest" (1967, 114). Quayle notes many similarities between the two stories as regards their setting, main plot, and peripeteias (including the club fight between rival parties of cannibals). The main source for The Coral Island is therefore most probably a work of fiction, although Ballantyne kept insisting on the factual basis of his narratives In The Coral Island, the customs, rituals, and religious beliefs of the islanders are accordingly presented as objective, empirical facts. But the self-proclaimed authority of the narrative becomes suspect as it blurs the boundary between imaginative literature and ethnographic document. The representation of the savage thus becomes symptomatic of the interested confusions taking place in the production of "scientific knowledge" in Victorian texts.

Ballantyne's novel, written in the realist mode and addressed to public school boys who would eventually grow into the administrative cadres of the British Empire, is didactic in intent. Martin Green observes that adventure stories promoted values such as "manliness," boldness, courage, physical strength and resourcefulness, which were congruent with "the ethos of the public school as it developed during the nineteenth century" where these tales were read "because [they] prepared one for authority" (1990, 120-21) Quayle adds that in the second half of the nineteenth century,

the mystique of British imperialism was accepted unquestioningly. Much of the growing enthusiasm for the works of R. M. Ballantyne can be attributed to his belief, held equally by W. H. G. Kingston, Thomas Mayne Reid, G. A. Henty and other boys' writers, that goodness and power were symbolised by the British Empire … The popularity of his tales amongst the parents who bought them every Christmas for their sons depended in some measure on their desire to instil in their offspring a wish to emulate the Empire builders and the captains of industry who had earned themselves the plaudits of the crowd by being ruthlessly successful in their pursuit of wealth and power.

          (Quayle 1967, 130)

The pedagogical discourse of The Coral Island is directed both at the British boys and the natives, which is facilitated by the representation of the latter as "puerile people" in need of education. By dramatizing the bringing of civilization to the "savages," Ballantyne's narrative in fact addresses its lesson to the British boys whose access to manliness is symbolically achieved through their role as colonial instructors.2 In The Coral Island, this pedagogical impulse translates into detailed descriptions of the fauna and flora of the island, into scientific experiments (such as Ralph's water-tank) and didactic generalizations. Stylistically, Ballantyne attempts to eliminate ambiguity in his narrative, notably through repetitions. This disambiguation process is a crucial aspect of didactic discourse since, far from being confined to the world of fiction, its stereotypical representations of colonial relations will serve as a model for future live encounters. In The Coral Island, the "voice of Truth" is heard most insistently in the boys' encounters with the savages. Ralph Rover, the "queer, old-fashioned fellow" (1995, 9) whose "dullness of apprehension" (9) supposedly guarantees his reliability as a narrator, strings together lurid scenes of cannibal feats and feasts with a mixture of relish and disgust.

The boys' first exposure to cannibalism occurs halfway through the narrative Ralph's first hand account of a battle scene confirms Jack's knowledge, derived from "books of travel and adventure" (1995, 33). Ralph draws attention to the textual origin of representations of cannibalism in his continual allusions to what he has read, but he still feels the need to provide an eyewitness account of a cannibal act. With the benefit of hindsight, it is almost as if he had anticipated the uncomfortable objection that Western accounts of cannibalism are notorious for consisting of second or third-hand reports. More importantly, the scene dramatizes a confrontation between savage and civilized which establishes their crucial difference as residing in the overpowering feeling of horror (as a manifestation of an "innate morality") inspired by the cannibal's "inhuman" practices (see Sanborn 1998).

The battle scene, observed from a safe distance, describes two undifferentiated groups of warriors fighting each other to the death and culminates in a cannibal feast. In their frenzy, the warriors seem to be destroying not only their enemies but each other as well. This intra-specific violence, like cannibalism itself, provides the white reader with a congenial explanation for the disappearance of the islanders The British adventurers are conveniently described as horrified but passive witnesses of the cannibals' self-extermination.

Despite the realistic and scientific pretensions of Ballantyne's narrative, the hyperbolic language used in this passage is symptomatic of anxiety. The narrator draws on a rhetoric of excess which matches the "exceedingly alarming" event witnessed by the three boys. The "overflow effect" which Susan Suleiman sees as a potential threat to authorial control over interpretation thus complicates the meaning of the scene:

[A]n event occurred one day which was as unexpected as it was exceedingly alarming and very horrible … "They are canoes, Ralph! whether warcanoes or not I cannot tell, but this I know, that all the natives of the South Sea Islands are fierce cannibals, and they have little respect for strangers We must hide if they land here, which I earnestly hope they will not do…." The foam curled from the prow, and the eyes of the rowers glistened in their black faces as they strained every muscle of their naked bodies … The canoe struck, and with a yell that seemed to issue from the throats of incarnate fiends, they leaped into the water, and drove their enemies up the beach. The battle that immediately ensued was frightful to behold. Most of the men wielded clubs of enormous size and curious shapes, with which they dashed out each other's brains. As they were almost entirely naked, and had to bound, stoop, leap, and run in their hand-to-hand encounters, they looked more like demons than human beings…. He [the chief] was tattooed from head to foot, and his face, besides being tattooed, was besmeared with red paint, and streaked with white. Altogether, with his yellow turban-like hair, his Herculean black frame, his glittering eyes and white teeth, he seemed the most terrible monster I ever beheld…. A dreadful feeling of horror crept over my heart as the thought flashed upon me that they were going to burn their enemies…. Scarcely had his limbs ceased to quiver when the monsters cut slices of flesh from his body, and, after roasting them slightly over the fire, devoured them.

          (Ballantyne 1995, 194-203)

The battle scene exploits colonial stereotypes to an almost parodic degree. Savagery is excessively named primitivism (yelling, clubs, war paint and tattoos), tribalism, nakedness, cruelty, and to crown it all, cannibalism, are combined in this first encounter with the savages. The protagonists and their weapons are larger than life the size of the clubs is "enormous" and the chief a "Herculean monster." The play of colors reinforces the oppositional system of representation deployed in the novel and discloses the racist ideology which underpins it: the white foam matches the rowers' white eyes, in stark contrast with their black faces and naked bodies. The portrayal of the chief, recognizable by his "Herculean black frame" and tattoos, suggests that only bodily size and strength determine social status in savage society (contrary to European principles of leadership, theoretically based on moral and intellectual qualities). The chief's white eyes and teeth are set off by yellow hair and red paint, which foreshadows the bloodshed and the "devouring" of human flesh (only slightly roasted) that follows. The cannibals' haste suggests a bestial hunger for flesh that reinforces the idea of the inhumanity of the cannibal. The narrator even provides a familiar interpretive framework for his Western audience by which they can make sense of this confrontation with cultural otherness. The savages are identified with "incarnate fiends" and "demons," and the strange battle acquires meaning only as a restaging of the Biblical script, which projects a strongly polarized world view.3 As in all pedagogical novels,

Only the presence of an unambiguous, dualistic system of values allows the exemplum … to produce rules of action It is only in a universe where the difference is always clear between truth and falsehood, or between right and wrong, that one can categorically affirm the necessity of doing one thing, or going one way, and not another.

          (Suleiman 1983, 56)

Ballantyne's repetition of colonial stereotypes nevertheless fails to maintain these clear-cut differences unproblematically. For the cannibal complicates the Manichean discourse which becomes confused at the precise moment of authority. Ralph's horror surely derives from the spectacle of the bloodshed and the transgression of one of Western culture's greatest taboos; but possibly also, at a deeper level, from the collapsing of boundaries performed during the cannibal scene, insofar as cannibalism radically abolishes the difference between inside and outside, the self and the other, through literal assimilation. In other words, cannibalism threatens to ruin the whole ideological system governing the relation between the civilized subject and the cannibal other painstakingly represented in the novel. This scene thus confirms Maggie Kilgour's hypothesis that cannibalism in Victorian literature is closely related to the breakdown of fixed notions of identity.

The passage focuses on the body, an object of mixed fear and desire for both the cannibals and the narrator, and climaxes in the horrific confusion of living men feeding on their freshly dead victims. Cannibalism blurs the fixed limits between life and death and may account for the supernatural energy of the cannibals. The effects of cannibal "horror" on the narrator are themselves disturbing, prompting a systematic demonization of the natives, so that the physical violence of the savages is matched by the epistemic violence of the narrator's description. The cannibal thus becomes the locus of unprecedented imaginary and imaginative investment, which undermines the self-proclaimed objective, neutral, and rational status of the narrative. Through the cannibal, the repressed fantasies of Victorian society about the other (the body, the "lower instincts," sexuality, madness, etc.) return with a vengeance, as they threaten colonial relations, based on an irreducible difference between the civilized subject and the cannibal savage In Geoffrey Sanborn's words, "If we accept the argument that the encounter with ‘savagery’ is the point of origin and reference for the concept of ‘humanity,’ that concept instantly becomes unheimlich, unhomelike, unsafe for occupation" (1998, 19).

Indeed, the savagery of the cannibals is significantly matched by Jack's, who uncannily echoes the natives' war cry as he proceeds to rescue the "lightbrown" girl Avatea, No longer a passive spectator of the spectacle of violence, Jack becomes an active participant in "cannibal fury" by replicating its histrionics

Jack uttered a yell that rang like a death-shriek among the rocks. With one bound he leaped over a precipice full fifteen feet high, and before the savages had recovered from their surprise, was in the midst of them, while Peterkin and I dashed through the bushes towards the prisoners. With one blow of his staff Jack felled the man with the club, then turning round with a look of fury, he rushed upon the big chief with the yellow hair. Had the blow which Jack aimed at his head taken effect, the huge savage would have needed no second stroke.

          (Ballantyne 1995, 201)

The displacement of violence from the cannibal to the white explorers is accompanied by a significant shift of meaning: horror gives way to admiration and fear is replaced by "fun."4 The successful rescue of the young and pretty captive marks out Jack's actions as chivalrous, as the heading to chapter XIX makes clear. "We all become warriors, and Jack proves himself to be a hero" (1995, 191). However, Jack's replication of the signs of cannibal violence highlights the contradictions inherent in Ballantyne's attempt to reconcile the heroic mode of adventure with the alleged moral superiority of the white subject.

The narrator's fascination with savage practices extends well beyond the traditional topos of the cannibal barbecue. Far more than a literal and isolated fact, cannibalism is taken as emblematic of Fijian society and culture as a whole. During his stay among the islanders, Ralph (who has been kidnapped by pirates) witnesses other scenes of unmotivated cruelty and sadistic killing:

[A]nd then I saw that these inhuman monsters were actually launching their canoes over the living bodies of their victims … O reader, this is no fiction I would not, for the sake of thrilling you with horror, invent so terrible a scene. It was witnessed It is true—true as that accursed sin which has rendered the human heart capable of such diabolical enormities!

          (Ballantyne 1995, 280)

After depicting the scene in gory detail, the narrator attempts to control its reception by establishing its truth-value. Thus, in a direct and dramatic address to the reader, Ralph tries to convince him of its veracity. The anticipated accusation of "thrilling with horror," which threatens the moral economy of the novel, is unconvincingly denied. The scene is indeed soon followed by a variation on the cannibal feast motif and on human sacrifice, which equally exploit the excitement generated by the spectacle of blood and pain, so that the thrilled white audience is invited to partake of the abomination. Ballantyne's accumulation of scenes of cruelty eventually generates a sense of unease in the narrator, as they disclose his complicity with acts which he purportedly condemns and reveals as it were the "cannibal within" the white subject.

The violence and cruelty of Ballantyne's narratives has perplexed twentieth-century readers and commentators. In his uncritical biography of the beloved hero of his youth, Eric Quayle goes out of his way to suggest explanations for the gruesome violence of Ballantyne's novels, although he shows more concern for cruelty towards animals than towards human beings. At pains to reconcile Ballantyne's exemplary patriotism, religiosity and shyness towards women with the gory scenes that crowd his books, Quayle argues that they serve as narrative devices that enable the novelist to alternate pedagogy and action

But he was always careful enough to sandwich these instructive passages between joints of red-blooded action and suspense, and there was certainly nothing pastel-shaded about his violence. The ferocity of the natives towards the white men and boys they find trespassing on their preserves is only equalled by the ferocity of the white men and boys towards any native or wild animal they can creep near enough to kill.

          (Quayle 1967, 125)

Quayle also attempts to shift the responsibility for violence from Ballantyne to his young male readership, whose testosterone-inspired demands for the sordidly spectacular Ballantyne catered for in order to provide for his numerous family:

As to his young readers, there can be no doubt that they thoroughly enjoyed his stories, with all their manifest incongruities and implausible situations, identifying themselves with the bloodthirsty teenagers who roamed forest, prairie and coral island, trusting in God and light-heartedly slaughtering man and beast with zestful enthusiasm. Ballantyne gave them all the action they desired, making blood stream down the pages of his books, but not forgetting to slip in a sermon or two.

          (Quayle 1967, 130-31)

In these various ways, Quayle conveniently dissociates Ballantyne from "the red-blooded boys who are busily massacring the natives or bagging their fifth rhinoceros" (1967, 132). This enables Quayle to see, as he puts it towards the end of his work, the "bloodthirsty little savages beneath the veneer which civilized society imparts" (147), an image which echoes Golding's famous expression of "the savage beneath the skin." Quayle's renewed attempts to explain away Ballantyne's characteristic displays of violence in his novels by variously ascribing them to historical, economic, structural, or psychological causes form part of a "chain of anxiety" which Golding will in his turn address in Lord of the Flies. Contrary to what Quayle would like us to believe, however, the representation of violence and the ambivalent responses that it elicits are already problematized in Ballantyne's novel itself.

The Coral Island adopts the classic structure of the story of apprenticeship, in which the central character (and the reader himself) evolves from ignorance to knowledge and self-knowledge. As he progresses in his quest for certitudes, the adolescent hero confronts adversaries and trials which lead him to adopt the novel's foundational values. In The Coral Island, two characters facilitate the hero's progress and supply external sources of information to authenticate Ralph's testimony of cannibal practices: Bloody Bill and the native missionary.

Bloody Bill, the cruel pirate who transmits his lifetime experience as a sea-dog to the narrator and repents for his sins in extremis, functions both as a father substitute and a source of knowledge about the colonial world. Bill's violent demystification of the British presence in the South Seas, combined with open racism and cynical brutality, foreshadows the evolution of colonial discourse in the last decades of the Victorian era. Bloody Bill makes no bones about the profit-oriented motive behind imperial domination Trade is hardly distinguishable from piracy, as Ralph learns from Bill.

"Tell me, Bill, is this schooner really a trader in sandal-wood?"

"Yes, Ralph, she is, but she's just as really a pirate The black flag you saw flying at the peak was no deception."

"Then how can you say she's a trader?" asked I.

"Why, as to that, she trades when she can't take by force, but she takes by force when she can, in preference…. As for the missionaries, the captain favours them because they are useful to him The South Sea islanders are such incarnate fiends that they are the better of being tamed, and the missionaries are the only men who can do it."

          (Ballantyne 1995, 242-43)

Bloody Bill belongs to the tradition of the pirate as ambivalent villain, a common type in Victorian stories of adventure.5 Although Ralph describes the pirates as "white savages, perhaps our own countrymen" (1995, 219), he voices and unquestioningly endorses Bill's cultural and racial prejudices. The pirate's authoritative digressions on savage practices not only confirm Ralph's descriptions but supplement them with still more horrifying evidence of cannibal "degeneracy." Openly hostile to the islanders and their culture, Bloody Bill produces even more degraded images of the cannibal, thereby giving currency to the most extreme fantasies about otherness. Bill notably postures as a repository of "truth" on the type of cannibalism practiced by the islanders:

"Eat me!" said I, in surprise "I thought the South Sea islanders never ate anybody except their enemies"

"Humph!" ejaculated Bill "I s'pose 'twas yer tender-hearted friends in England that put that notion into your head There's a set o' soft-hearted folk at home that I knows on who don't like to have their feelin's ruffled, and when you tell them anything they don't like—that shocks them, as they call it—no matter how true it be, they stop their ears and cry out, ‘Oh, that is too horrible! We can't believe that!’ An' they say truth They can't believe it 'cause they won't believe it Now I believe there's thousands o'the people in England who are such born drivellin' won't-believers that they think the black fellows hereaway at the worst eat an enemy only now an' then, out o' spite, whereas I know for certain, and many captains of the British and American navies know as well as me, that the Feejee islanders eat not only their enemies but one another, and they do it not for spite, but for pleasure It's a fact that they prefer human flesh to any other But they don't like white men's flesh so well as black, they say it makes them sick"

          (Ballantyne 1995, 248)

Against the common view of cannibalism as an exocentric, symbolic practice, Bill asserts that Fijian cannibalism is neither the result of vengeance or of necessity but that the islanders do it "not for spite but for pleasure" it is no more no less than a perverse taste for human flesh. Bill scornfully rejects the theories propounded by "armchair philosophers" and attributes the "softened" view of cannibalism held in the metropolitan center to a mixture of urban squeamishness and ignorance of the realities of empire.6 The pirate grounds his aggravated version of cannibal practices in his personal experience, which he claims to share with "many captains of the British and American navies," so as to support his morally compromised testimony with more trustworthy sources Bill's claims to "truth" even include a conclusive piece of information presumably coming from the cannibals themselves ("white flesh makes them sick") to substantiate his counter-argument. Bloody Bill's brutal accounts of savage rituals, his unashamed racist slurs, all function to authenticate his testimony. They also represent a move toward what Brantlinger describes as late Victorian colonial discourse, where "the stereotypes of natives and savages degenerate toward the ignoble and the bestial" (1988, 39).

In another passage, the pirate's analogies between the islanders and serpents reinforce the religious framework of reference established throughout the novel, whereby the ancient paradise of the islands must be rid of the natives' devil worship (the enor- mous eel) and restored to God through the conversion of the natives to Christianity:

"They come here in their big war-canoes, and as these take two and sometimes four years to build, there's always some o' the brownskins among the black sarpents o' these islands"

"By the way, Bill," said I, "your mentioning serpents reminds me that I have not seen a reptile of any kind since I came to this part of the world."

"No more there are any," said Bill, "if ye except the niggers themselves …"

"There!" said Bill, his lip curling with contempt, "what do you think of that [an enormous eel] for a god, Ralph? This is one o' their gods, and it has been fed with dozens o' livin' babies already How many more it'll get afore it dies is hard to say …"

"Allow it? The mothers do it! It seems to me that there's nothing too fiendish or diabolical for these people to do…. But … wherever the missionaries get a footin' all these things come to an end at once, an' the savages take to doin' each other good and singin' psalms, just like Methodists."

"God bless the missionaries!" said I, while a feeling of enthusiasm filled my heart, so that I could speak with difficulty. "God bless and prosper the missionaries till they get a footing on every island of the seal."

          (Ballantyne 1995, 260-62)

Bill's description of the eel worship and the human sacrifices that it requires serves to accumulate the most extreme moral infractions on the Fijians, involving not only men, but women, and (in another passage) children. Unlike Robinson Crusoe,The Coral Island systematically draws attention to the innate, essential savagery of the natives, which implies that the origin of cannibalism is not so much cultural as natural. Because of this essential, irreducible and demonic otherness, the Fijian natives must therefore be destroyed or converted. However, conversion itself does not resolve or abolish this essential difference. Except for the native missionary and his wife, all the other converts are figures of fun, grotesque or pathetic mimics dressed in the "Empire's old clothes." For Ballantyne, conversion to Christianity is not enough to bridge the irreducible difference between the European subject and his other.

The narrator nevertheless becomes gradually aware of the disconcerting effects of the pirate's demonstration. As he listens to Bill's litany of horrors. Ralph admits to being nauseous with gore. He goes so far as to realise that the frontier between the civilized subject and the cannibal other is threatened by the possibility of "moral contamination":

"Have these wretched creatures no law among themselves," said I, "which can restrain such wickedness?"

"None," replied Bill. "The chief's word is law …"7 It seemed to me a very awful thing that it should be possible for men to come to such hardness of heart and callousness to the sight of bloodshed and violence, but, indeed, I began to find that such constant exposure to scenes of blood was having a slight effect upon myself, and I shuddered when I came to think that I too was becoming callous…. I was surrounded on all sides by human beings of the most dreadful character, to whom the shedding of blood was mere pastime.

          (Ballantyne 1995, 274-76)

Ralph's part of "turning native" an anxiety most famously explored by Conrad in Heart of Darkness, is already explored in the first battle scene when Ralph had admitted that "[he] felt [his] heart grow sick at the sight of this bloody battle, and would fain have turned away, but a species of fascination seemed to hold [him] down and glue [his] eyes upon the combatants" (1995, 197). By acknowledging his morbid attraction to the spectacle of dismembered and consumed bodies, Ralph recognizes its appeal. Later, however, having "supped full with horrors," he will admit that the consumption of cannibal scenes is morally unsafe Gradually, the narrator becomes aware of his (and the reader's) complicity with the bloodlust he is supposed to be condemning. The exploitation of the thrill of horror must cease for fear of subverting the ideological system the novel purports to serve From this moment on, cannibal customs and practices will remain safely untold, on the grounds that they exceed the proprieties of discourse, but possibly because they reveal a disquieting familiarity with the cannibal.

Towards the end of the novel, Bill's lurid tales are confirmed by another important authority figure, the native missionary. An emblematic figure of colonial fiction, the native missionary embodies the success of the "civilizing mission" since, as Gayatri Spivak puts it, "the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialist self" (1985, 253) Like Bloody Bill, the Fijian convert belongs to the cat- egory of "helper" (he acts as an interpreter for the boys in their dealings with the cannibal chief Tararo), while representing a more "authentic" and less morally compromised source than the pirate. The teacher provides an insider's view into the matter of cannibal practices, which validates the truth-value of Bill's descriptions:

"Have the missionaries many stations in these seas?" inquired Jack.

"Oh yes. The London Missionary Society have a great many in the Tahiti group, and other islands in that quarter. Then the Wesleyans have the Feejee Islands all to themselves, and the Americans have many stations in other groups. But still, my friend, there are hundreds of islands here the natives of which have never heard of Jesus, or the good word of God, or the Holy Spirit;…. I trust that if you ever return to England, you will tell your Christian friends that the horrors which they hear of in regard to these islands are literally true, and that when they have heard the worst, the ‘half has not been told them’; for there are perpetrated here foul deeds of darkness of which man may not speak …" We assured our friend that we would certainly not forget his request.

          (Ballantyne 1995, 336-37)

This passage echoes Bill's indictment of the "won't believers," although in another mode and register. The native teacher has not only assimilated the history of missionary work in the South Seas, but also internalized the stereotypical language of colonial representation. Unlike Bloody Bill, however, the native missionary refuses either to name or describe these practices. Living up to the imported Victorian ideal of decency and propriety, he can only confirm whatever "horror" is attributed to his own people. By suggesting that "half has not been told them," he safely leaves the rest to every reader's imagination, thereby (unwittingly?) revealing that cannibal horror is less grounded in fact than in fantasy.

Significantly, the native teacher formulates the reading protocol for the novel as a whole by insisting on the literal truth of the descriptions of cannibal "horrors." His emphasis on literal reading thus aims at warding off the figurative dimension of cannibalism displayed in the novel (such as white violence in all its forms, the pirates' insatiable greed, the boys' thirst for blood, etc). Moreover, literal-mindedness precludes the possibility of Ballantyne's participation in a figurative cannibal act by rehashing a favorite commonplace of imperial discourse. Feeding on the cannibal corpus, and nourished by a whole tradition of imperialist adventure fiction, The Coral Island is indeed a cannibal text of sorts.

Hesitating between fantasy and fact, the description of cannibal customs and rituals exemplifies the doubtful status of "scientific knowledge" and its ideological underpinnings. Further, Ballantyne's idealized account of the British presence in the South Seas tries to uphold the exclusionary logic of imperial ideology, but ultimately fails to maintain it. In this sense, The Coral Island illustrates the transition from early Victorian optimism and relative naiveté in the depiction of colonial relations to a more brutal, self-conscious and anxiety-ridden discourse: with the help of Bloody Bill's tutoring, Ralph begins to perceive that the boys' daydream of exotic adventure is about to give way to the nightmarish possibility of "going native," which mocks the belief in British racial, moral and cultural superiority. The boys' return to "civilization" is the only way to escape from the uncomfortable realization that imperial adventure can no longer exist as a purely celebratory genre.

A century or so later, William Golding was to exploit the rising anxiety of Ballantyne's novel in Lord of the Flies, which self-consciously rewrites The Coral Island by internalising the evil projected onto the cannibal.8 Golding explains in "Fable" that he attacked The Coral Island, published "at the height of Victorian smugness, ignorance, and prosperity" (88), as a book which uncritically voices the ideology of nineteenth-century politics, allegedly marked by an absolute faith in British moral and cultural superiority and a belief in the progress of Western civilization. Golding's traumatic memories of the second world war prompted him to challenge the assumptions underlying Ballantyne's novel, for

there were things done during that period from which I still have to avert my mind less I should be physically sick. They were not done by the headhunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in the Amazon. They were done, skilfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilization behind them, to beings of their own kind.

          (Golding 1965, 87)

For Golding, the shock of the war lies in the recognition of the "savage within" which collapses the distinction between self and cannibal other. The war is understood in terms of Western civilization's regression to a state of savagery equated with "the headhunters of New Guinea" and "some primitive tribe in the Amazon." In Lord of the Flies Golding seeks to reflect the changed political and cultural realities of the postwar era, as well as a widespread disillusionment with the self-righteous colonial ethos informing Ballantyne's novel. However, as Alan Sinfield points out, Golding's "myth of universal savagery … is informed by both an anxiety about and a continuing embroilment in imperialist ideology" (1989, 141). Golding's repetition of the conventional stereotypes of otherness merely extend the meaning and ascription of savagery without addressing its politics of representation: "The traditional imperial myths of race, savagery, primitivism and the jungle are now redeployed as the language for misrepresenting European aggression as determined by a universal savagery—of which Third-World peoples are the alleged ultimate instance" (1965, 141). In this sense, Golding exemplifies postwar Britain's rejection of "Victorianness" as it was popularly understood but does not radically break away from it. Likewise, he fails to recognize that even Ballantyne's crude and seemingly naive advocacy of colonial domination already expresses a symptomatic unease.

Golding's Christian fable of "the darkness of man's heart" memorably ends with the providential arrival of a naval officer on the scene of the childhunt. The British officer makes a lame appeal to Ballantyne to make sense of a reality that is beyond his understanding. "I know. Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island" (1965, 223). Golding's ironic reference to Ballantyne's novel, however, unintentionally falls back upon its author, since Lord of the Flies is in fact more "like" The Coral Island than Golding wished it to be. This testifies to the force of traditional images of otherness which, like the imperial ideology that sustains them, continue to haunt Western culture.


1. See in particular Bhabha (1994a, 123-38).

2. As Jerry Phillips puts it in his excellent article on the rhetoric of imperialist instruction:

In its classic formulation the moment of imperialism is also the moment of education Imperialism—a system of economic, political, and cultural force … has never strayed far from a field of pedagogical imperatives, or what we might call an ideology of instruction Christianity, Progress, Democracy, or whatever is the prevailing imperialist version of history demands of certain cultures, nations, of chosen races that they subject those who fall radically short of the ideal state Subject people are "savage," "infantile," "untutored," "backward," or simply "underdeveloped" as the imperialist encounters them, a model of "uplift" is always thus entailed.

          (Phillips 1993, 26)

3. Hulme notes that the conjoining of classical and Biblical references in European discourses of savagery not only characterizes the production of stereotypes of otherness, but signals their textual origin, starting with Herodotus (1986, 35).

4. Brantlinger's apt observation on Marryat's fiction also applies to Ballantyne's colonial grand guignol "As in fairy tales and Disney cartoons, violence and slapstick merge" (1988, 53).

5. See Robert Kiely's (1971) perceptive reading of the figure of the pirate in Stevenson's Treasure Island (another famous book inspired by The Coral Island).

6. Sanborn usefully reminds us that "theory was a dirty word in early-nineteenth-century England and America, connoting the simultaneously effeminate and dangerous idealism of those philosophers who were thought to have spurred on the French Revolution" (1998, 87).

7. In Ballantyne's narrative, cannibalism becomes the structuring principle of Fijian society as a whole, so that cannibalism functions as political allegory. The image of despotism as cannibalism presumably originates in ancient Greece, where the tyrants were called demoboroi (i.e., man-eaters). As a universal symbol, however, the meaning and the ascription of cannibalism begin to drift.

8. Although cannibalism is not present as such in Lord of the Flies, the threatening possibility of being turned into quarry is suggested by the children's shift from the pig hunt to the child hunt, as well as by Piggy's physical aspect.

Works Cited

Ballantyne, Robert Michael. 1995. The Coral Island. London: Penguin Popular Classics.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994a. "Articulating the Archaic: Cultural Difference and Colonial Nonsense." In The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

———. 1994b. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Brantlinger, Patrick. 1988. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Defoe, Daniel. 1994. Robinson Crusoe. Ed. Michael Shinagel. New York: Norton.

Golding, William. 1954. Lord of the Flies. London: Faber & Faber.

———. 1965. "Fable." In The Hot Gates. London: Faber & Faber.

Green, Martin. 1990. The Robinson Crusoe Story. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Houlihan Flynn, Carol. 1994. "Consumptive Fictions: Cannibalism and Defoe." In Robinson Crusoe, ed. M. Shinagel. New York: Norton.

Hulme, Peter. 1986. Colonial Encounters Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. New York: Methuen.

Kermode, Frank. 1962. "William Golding." In Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews, 1958-1961, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Kiely, Robert. 1971. "Adventure as Boy's Daydream: Treasure Island." In The Victorian Novel: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Ian Watt. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kilgour, Marie. 1990. From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Phillips, Jerry. 1993. "Melville, Bloom, and the Rhetoric of Imperialist Instruction." In Recasting the World Writing after Colonialism, ed. Jonathan White. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Quayle, Eric. 1967. Ballantyne the Brave. London: Rupert Hart-Davis.

Said, Edward W. 1991. Orientalism. London: Penguin.

Sanborn, Geoffrey. 1998. The Sign of the Cannibal Melville and the Making of a Postcolonial Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sinfield, Alan. 1989. Literature, Politics, and Culture in Postwar Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorti. 1985. "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism." Critical Inquiry 12 1 (Autumn): 243-61.

Suleiman, Susan. 1983. Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre New York: Columbia University Press.

Stuart Manger (essay date February 2003)

SOURCE: Manger, Stuart. "‘Maybe It's Only Us’: Stuart Manger Explores the Differences in Language and Kinds of Knowledge in Lord of the Flies and Coral Island." English Review 13, no. 3 (February 2003): 34-7.

[In the following essay, Manger compares Lord of the Flies and The Coral Island, noting the novels represent aspects of their points-of-origin.]

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Roslyn Jolly (essay date autumn 2006)

SOURCE: Jolly, Roslyn. "Ebb Tide and The Coral Island." Scottish Studies Review 7 (autumn 2006): 79-91.

[In the following essay, Jolly contrasts Stevenson's The Ebb-Tide with The Coral Island, suggesting the former is a postcolonialist recreation of Ballantyne's work.]

‘We're their heirs, I guess.’
‘It is a great inheritance,’ said Herrick.1

Critics have placed R. L. Stevenson's The Ebb-Tide within a rich literary genealogy, stretching back to Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest, and ‘The Pardoner's Tale’, and forward to The Island of Doctor Moreau, Victory, and ‘The Hollow Men’.2 I suggest that a close, and overlooked, literary ancestor for The Ebb-Tide is R. M. Ballantyne's Pacific adventure story, The Coral Island (1858). Sixty years before William Golding's famous rewriting of the same work as Lord of the Flies (1954), Stevenson reworked Ballantyne's classic boys' book in his narrative of failed adventure and existential unease. The transformation of The Coral Island into The Ebb-Tide is a postcolonial ‘writing back’, which marks Stevenson's rejection of the colonialist fantasies of his childhood reading and the apogee of his fictional critique of imperialism.3 It is also a stylistic experiment in combining the thematics of adventure with realist and symbolist modes of writing, which represents an important development in the emergence of British modernist literature.

The structural correspondences between the Stevenson and Ballantyne texts are precise. Each features a trio of Anglo-Saxon adventurers trying to survive in a hostile Pacific world: there is a leader, a man (or boy) of action, who makes plans and takes initiatives; there is a kind of second-in-command figure, with a much more cerebral and reflective personality; and there is a third member of the group, smaller than the others, a joker with the potential to disrupt and subvert the authority of the other two. Jack, in The Coral Island, is described as a natural leader for a ‘bold enterprise’.4 He devises schemes, provides information, and takes all the important decisions, to such an extent that his companions ‘were so much in the habit of trusting everything to Jack that [they] had fallen into the way of not considering things, especially such things as were under Jack's care’ (CI, [The Coral Island, ] p. 162). In The Ebb-Tide, Captain Davis plays the same role, initiating and taking charge of all the trio's schemes for survival, escape and profit, whether dancing for their breakfast on the beach at Papeete and asking for paper from the consul so they can write home, or obtaining the commission for the Farallone and devising, successively, the plots to sell the cargo of champagne in Peru, to blackmail the ship's owner in San Francisco, and to steal Attwater's pearls. In The Coral Island, Jack leads from the front, and the top; he ‘insisted that since we had made him captain, we should obey him’, the narrator Ralph explains (CI, p. 73). In The Ebb-Tide Davis also insists on his authority as captain, and on the obedience of the other two to his commands (ET, [The Ebb-Tide] p. 154). When the boys in The Coral Island are threatened by a shark, Jack tells his companions: ‘Now, obey my orders quickly. Our lives may depend on it’ (CI, p. 56). When Davis's orders are not obeyed quickly, and safety is risked, he sends his recalcitrant associate to the deck with a blow: ‘"Pick yourself up and keep the wheel hard over!" he roared. "You wooden fool, you wanted to get killed, I guess"’ (ET, p. 161).

In both novels our main point of view on the action is provided by the second member of each trio: Ralph, who narrates The Coral Island, and Herrick, to whose mind we have greater access than any other character in The Ebb-Tide and whose subjectivity filters much of the story. Both are thoughtful, sensitive characters, bookish, and inclined to formality. Ralph, who ‘often fell into fits of abstraction’, is called ‘a "queer, old-fashioned fellow"’ by the other boys (CI, p. 3), and needs to have slang and jokes explained to him (CI, p. 3, pp. 22-23). Herrick, who wanders about the South Seas with ‘a tattered Virgil in his pocket’ (ET, p. 124), is better educated than his companions and has more formal manners, into which he retreats when confronted with Davis's bolder schemes: ‘"I do not understand," said Herrick. "I have to ask you to excuse me; I do not understand"’ (ET, p. 180). Ralph and Herrick both witness scenes of violence and sacrilege, which disgust them. Both are forced into temporary confederacy with pirates, which they find deeply alienating. Both are required at some point to take charge of a ship, an ordeal for which they are ill-prepared and which functions as an initiation into manhood. Having been captured by, then escaped from, the pirates, Ralph has to manage a schooner by himself. When his associates are drunk on champagne and neglect their duties, Herrick effectively takes charge of the ship, displaying qualities of responsibility and leadership he has never shown before.

Finally we have the third member of the trio in each book, the mischievous urchin Peterkin, who becomes Stevenson's little Cockney villain, Huish. (One of Huish's several aliases is Tomkins, surely an echo of Peterkin; ET, p. 127.) Both characters are distinguished by their use of slang (CI, p. 22) and by a ‘disposition to make fun of everything’ (CI, p. 17). In The Ebb-Tide, Huish repeatedly challenges Davis's authority as captain: ‘'E's skipper on deck right enough, but not below. Below, we're all equal, all got a lay in the adventure; when it comes to business, I'm as good as 'e’ (ET, pp. 192-93).5 Peterkin also has a democratic outlook. When Jack refers to Peterkin and Ralph as ‘his men’, Peterkin replies, ‘Now, 'pon my word, that's cool! … his men, forsooth!’ (CI, p. 286), and he continues to repeat the word ‘men’ with ironic emphasis. He seeks to com- pensate for his lack of status within the group by insisting on his right to order the islanders about: ‘Well, since we are to be men [i.e. men as opposed to a captain, not men as opposed to boys], we may as well come it as strong over these black chaps as we can’ (CI, p. 286). Peterkin is the most overtly racist of the three boys, and has already revealed his sense of racial entitlement: ‘We've got an island all to ourselves. We'll take possession in the name of the king; we'll go and enter the service of its black inhabitants. Of course we'll rise, naturally, to the top of affairs. White men always do in savage countries’ (CI, p. 16). Peterkin's fantasy of white supremacy in the islands is echoed in Huish's fantasy letter from Tahiti to a Northampton barmaid: ‘I wrote to her, and told her 'ow I had got rich, and married a queen in the Hislands, and lived in a blooming palace. Such a sight of crammers! I must read you one bit about my opening the nigger parliament in a cocked 'at. It's really prime’ (ET, p. 142).

To complete the structural correspondences between the two books, a European missionary is crucial to the resolution of each plot. At the end of The Coral Island, a gentleman-missionary appears as deus ex machina and wraps up the plot in less than ten pages, converting islanders, burning idols, introducing civilisation, and freeing the boys from their island captors. In The Ebb-Tide there is also a gentleman-missionary, Attwater, who governs the action of the second part of the novella and determines the fates of the other three characters.

If the ‘Brownies’ were still manufacturing Stevenson's fictional subjects and situations for him, as he claimed in ‘A Chapter on Dreams’,6 it would seem that their trick here was to ransack and recycle the formative reading of the author's youth in order to generate his plot material, as they had done when they converted Scott's Waverley into Kidnapped. To drop Stevenson's rather whimsical trope of the Brownies, I would argue that in both these cases the creative powerhouse of the unconscious went to work on the texts that the author had most deeply absorbed in ‘the bright, troubled period of boyhood’,7 to take apart and rearrange, to invert and resignify. Stevenson drank deeply from the well of his reading and admitted that he borrowed ideas for stories from other authors,8 but he transformed as he rewrote, and while the similarities between The Coral Island and The Ebb-Tide are striking, it is the differences that are truly interesting. In Stevenson's hands, the elements borrowed from Ballantyne suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange.

Like Jack in The Coral Island, Davis ‘had sterling qualities of tenderness and resolution; he was one whose hand you could take without a blush’ (ET, p. 127). But he is also a man undone by his appetites. Having already lost a ship through drunkenness, he re-enacts his disgrace on the voyage of the Farallone, again taking to drink, neglecting his most basic duties, and losing control of the ship. ‘In the drooping, unbuttoned figure that sprawled all day upon the lockers, tippling and reading novels; in the fool who made of the evening watch a public carouse on the quarter-deck, it would have been hard to recognize the vigorous seaman of Papeete roads’ (ET, pp. 164-65). As his misfortunes increase, Davis's considerable ability to snatch expedients from failure and to generate new plans for survival is channelled into ever more desperately criminal paths. What this does to him is evident in the description of his first meeting with Attwater:

During all this talk, a load of thought or anxiety had weighed upon the captain. There was no part for which nature had so liberally endowed him as that of the genial ship-captain. But today he was silent and abstracted. Those who knew him could see that he hearkened close to every syllable, and seemed to ponder and try it in balances. It would have been hard to say what look there was, cold, attentive, and sinister, as of a man maturing plans, which still brooded over the unconscious guest; it was here, it was there, it was nowhere; it was now so little that Herrick chid himself for an idle fancy; and anon it was so gross and palpable that you could say every hair on the man's head talked mischief.

          (ET, pp. 194-95)

When William Golding later rewrote The Coral Island as Lord of the Flies, he turned Ballantyne's Jack into a bully and a psychopath. Stevenson's is the subtler transformation of the same character, as he shows the well-liked man corrupted by weakness and failure.

Like his counterpart Ralph in The Coral Island, Herrick is thoughtful and reflective, but unlike Ralph he is also weak and ineffective. He sums up his own character in his letter to his sweetheart: ‘I tried to choose’ (ET, p. 140). He personifies that crisis of being and doing which many nineteenth-century Europeans identified as a condition of their perceived modernity. He also embodies the Victorian crisis of religious faith, and the fin-de-siècle crisis of faith in anything at all: ‘I have nothing left that I believe in,’ he says to Attwater near the end of the book, ‘except my living horror of myself’ (ET, p. 230). This ‘living horror’ has grown from realising that he and his partners are heirs to the ‘insane conductors’ of the Farallone's previous voyage (ET, p. 169); from witnessing the corruption and degradation of Davis; and, perhaps most of all, from his confederacy with the villainous Huish. In Tahiti, Herrick drank ‘disenchantment and distaste of life’ as he gazed on Huish's vicious face (ET, p. 144), and throughout the novel Huish never ceases to confirm the omniscient narrator's early judgement that he is ‘wholly vile’ (ET, p. 127). The hints of disrespect and indiscipline in the characterisation of Peterkin in The Coral Island are magnified in Huish to create a figure who laughs at and blasphemes against every human and spiritual value. By the end of the novel, this ‘Whitechapel carrion’, as Attwater calls him (ET, p. 224), openly revels in his depravity. ‘Huish sat there, preening his sinister vanity, glorying in his precedency in evil; and the villainous courage and readiness of the creature shone out of him like a candle from a lantern’ (ET, p. 238); ‘he must play his part to exaggeration, he must out-Herod Herod, insult all that was respectable, and brave all that was formidable, in a kind of desperate wager with himself’ (ET, p. 242).

Thus, the values of leadership, physical and moral courage, and fun, all key components of the ‘boys' book’, which Ballantyne helped to establish through the characters of Jack Martin, Ralph Rover and Peterkin Gay, are systematically undermined through their failure or perversion in the characters of Davis, Herrick and Huish. The characters are also resigni- fied through their relation to the concepts of savagery and piracy. These are concepts which Ballantyne used to anchor the moral framework of The Coral Island, but which Stevenson sets adrift, creating radically unstable patterns of meaning in The Ebb-Tide.

The Coral Island is not kind to the peoples of the Pacific. It attributes many atrocities to them, and consistently associates them with the demonic and the monstrous.9 To Ballantyne, the islanders represent savagery as original sin, unredeemed by Christian civilisation; even the games of the island children ‘showed the natural depravity of the hearts of these poor savages’ (CI, p. 235). In the middle section of the story, the racial basis of this concept of savagery is complicated by the appearance of the pirates, who are described as ‘white savages’. ‘Little did we imagine’, Ralph reports, ‘that the first savages who would drive us into [hiding] would be white savages, perhaps our own countrymen’ (CI, p. 193). White savagery and Melanesian savagery appear to Ralph as a ‘frightful dream’ (CI, p. 218) and ‘horrible dream’ (CI, p. 248) respectively, both utterly and equally divorced from the standards of civilised behaviour that define reality to him. But with the slaughter of the pirates by the islanders, such confusion of racial distinctions is brought to an end, and savagery is realigned with a dark-skinned, primitive otherness. The novel dwells at length on the horror of cannibalism, and is committed to a program of educating the people of England about just how barbaric these Pacific barbarians are. The missionary tells the boys: ‘I trust that if you ever return to England, you will tell your Christian friends that the horrors which they hear of in regard to these islands are literally true, and that when they have heard the worst, the "half has not been told them"; for there are perpetrated here foul deeds of darkness of which man may not speak’ (CI, p. 297).

In contrast, in The Ebb-Tide just about everyone is savage, except the savages (and, perhaps, Herrick). Attwater's curiosity about the other men is ‘almost savage’ (ET, p. 192); he speaks ‘savage words’ to his servants (ET, p. 215); when he aims his gun he smiles ‘like a red Indian’ (ET, p. 248). He believes that ‘religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates; savage, cold, and bare, but infinitely strong’ (ET, p. 204). Davis turns on Herrick ‘with a savage oath and gesture’ (ET, p. 223), and in his disgust at Huish he throws him ‘savagely forward on his face’ (ET, p. 226). Huish has ‘a toothless smile that was shocking in its savagery’ (ET, p. 198). But the islanders we meet in the narrative are not savage. Those who host the trio on their dinghy in Papeete are civil and hospitable, and Davis calls them ‘gentlemen’ (ET, p. 137). The islanders who crew the Farallone are in every social duty and moral grace superior to those who command them. We are told, in a passage focalised through Herrick, ‘It was thus a cutting reproof to compare the islanders and the whites aboard the Farallone. Shame ran in Herrick's blood to remember what employment he was on, and to see these poor souls—and even Sally Day, the child of cannibals, in all likelihood a cannibal himself—so faithful to what they knew of good’ (ET, p. 168). Herrick himself had abandoned what he knew of good when he agreed to be part of Davis's piratical enterprise, and this is Stevenson's other major inversion of Ballantyne's structure of values: in The Coral Island, the protagonists and the pirates are enemies; in The Ebb-Tide, the protagonists are the pirates, and we look in vain for the opposing values of law and civilisation.

The trio of adventurers are only ‘twopenny pirate[s]’ (ET, p. 224), but Attwater is a far more formidable and successful one. He has stolen an island, its pearls and, most importantly, the labour and liberty of the Pacific islanders his partner Symonds ‘collect[ed]’ (ET, p. 215) to work the pearl fishery. Attwater is a pirate, a slaver, and also a missionary, and that conjunction of identities undoes one of the most basic structural oppositions of The Coral Island. Of course, Attwater is employed by no church or mission society, and he derides the methods of traditional missionaries (ET, p. 203-4). Still, he speaks of his ‘mission’ (ET, p. 204) and ‘missionary life’ (ET, p. 211), and the conversion of islanders (and anyone else he comes across) to Christianity is one of his driving motives. How does this missionary, imagined by Stevenson, compare to Ballantyne's depiction of missionaries and mission work? The European missionary who appears at the end of The Coral Island is a faultless creature, an ideal blend of religious conviction and civilised virtues. ‘The expression of his countenance was the most winning I ever saw, and his clear grey eye beamed with a look that was frank, fearless, loving, and truthful’ (CI, p. 333). His appearance culminates a steady accumulation of promissionary statements and perspectives in the book. The Coral Island is animated throughout by the desire to defend and win supporters for the Pacific missions. Much of it is simply missionary propaganda, and it borrows heavily from such texts as John Williams's Missionary Enterprises.10 Even Ballantyne's pirates acknowledge missions as the only antidote to the inherent savagery of island life; one of them says, ‘The South Sea Islanders are such incarnate fiends that they are the better of being tamed, and the missionaries are the only men who can do it’ (CI, p. 214-15). As Ralph says when he learns of the Ariori and their practice of infanticide, ‘God bless the missionaries!’ (CI, 231), and as Avatea, the light-skinned Samoan woman persecuted by the Fijian cannibals says, ‘Safe with Christian’ (CI, p. 316).

This certainly could not be said of life on Attwater's island. Attwater's character has been much debated. Because it seems likely that his character was partly inspired by the Scotch missionary to New Guinea, James Chalmers, whom Stevenson admired almost to the point of hero-worship, some critics have argued that Attwater is therefore meant to be heroic.11 Robert Kiely maintains that ‘Stevenson has created in the self-righteous Attwater an exaggerated personification of everything he most feared and despised in the religion of his father’, but that Attwater is also ‘the embodiment of a social and moral order’ superior to anything the three adventurers have to offer.12 There are certainly elements in Attwater of the father Stevenson loved and the missionary he idolised, and this shows Stevenson's deeply conflicted feelings about the religion in which he was raised. For I read Attwater as a portrait of tyranny and religious insanity: his colony and his business are illegal, his system of ‘justice’ is cruel and erroneous, and his violently ruled island society is an appalling alternative to the self-regulating society of the Farallone crew members.13 Yet, although the presentation of Attwater clearly throws into question the undeviating valorisation of the missionary cause in The Coral Island, The Ebb-Tide is not an anti-missionary text in the way that, say, Melville's Typee is. The character of Attwater does not represent an attack on missionaries any more than the character of Davis represents an attack on sea-captains. Rather, Stevenson uses his gentleman-missionary, who is also a trader and a colonist, and a pirate and a slaver, to attack imperialism generally. Attwater illuminates the general truth that Orwell later articulated: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. He also shows up a particular truth about European interventions in the nineteenth-century Pacific, which is that avidity for political and economic power confused and corrupted the Christian mission of service. Stevenson takes tensions that are evident, but never explicitly addressed, in Ballantyne's novel—between ‘adventure’ values and missionary work, or between commerce and Christianity—and accentuates them by embodying them in a single character, Attwater.14

The character of Attwater subverts and affronts the values of Ballantyne's novel, but this is not a straightforward case of observed reality discrediting bookbred romance. When Stevenson put the missionaries he knew into his Pacific stories, he created characters such as Tarleton in ‘The Beach of Falesá’ and the missionary at the end of ‘The Isle of Voices’—shrewd, kindly men, doing their best. Attwater, whom so many contemporary reviewers found ‘impossible’ and ‘unnatural’,15 is nothing like this. He embodies an imagined truth, discovered through a process of juxtaposition and exaggeration. He is part of the expressionist aesthetic that distinguishes the ‘Quartette’ section of the novel, displacing the naturalism that characterises the ‘Trio’ section. The tension between ‘vilely realistic dialogue and a narrative style pitched about … "four notes higher" than it should have been’,16 which caused Stevenson so much trouble in the writing of The Ebb-Tide, produced effects we now praise as modernist, as the dreamlike atmosphere of Attwater's island rubs up against the realism carefully established earlier in the novella.

The second part of the book is so invested with symbolic resonances that when Huish calls Attwater ‘the Beast’, with a capital B (ET, p. 237), we seem to catch a glimpse of Conrad's heart of darkness and Golding's ‘Kill the Beast!’. The novel's influence on Conrad has long been recognised. In 1952 J. C. Furnas drew attention to its representation of the Papeete beach, the subject of barratry, and the character of Huish, and commented ‘these flavours anticipate Victory and Lord Jim.17 In 1979 Alistair Fowler made the larger and stronger claim that ‘[w]ithin the narrow island limits of its derelict paradise, [The Ebb-Tide] holds … rationes seminales of much of Conrad's fiction’.18 It is not just that Herrick's self-disillusionment sets out the psychological problem of Lord Jim, or that Attwater prefigures Kurtz. More broadly, in The Ebb-Tide, as well as pioneering the mode of colonialist expressionism that Conrad went on to perfect, Stevenson also made the thematic breakthrough of turning adventure motifs—ships and islands, colonial outposts, beaches and prisons and oceans—into emblems of an existential struggle between power and alienation.

Victorian reviewers struggled to understand this transformation of the adventure tradition. Almost alone, Israel Zangwill claimed that Stevenson had ‘achieved a true unity, and fused character and adventure intimately from the first page to the last’.19 The reviewer for the Nation similarly praised ‘Mr Stevenson's unique power of uniting the frigidly uncongenial interests of psychology and romantic adventure’, but in the first part of the story only; the second was condemned as creating ‘a situation so improbable and fantastic that the authors who raised the curtain for a serious drama appear to have capriciously rung it down on a farce’.20 Richard Le Gallienne found the ‘Trio’ section to be ‘good sound adventure’ but, again, criticised the ‘unreality’ of the ‘Quartette’ section, and the presence of literary references throughout the novel: ‘If the book were anything but a book of adventure, one would not mind so much. I am far from missing the charm of a certain air of literary self-consciousness in its right place, but in dealing with rough seamen and perils upon the high seas this literary daintiness strikes a somewhat incongruous note.’21 The reviewer for the Athenaeum also disliked the mix of adventure with other elements: ‘The story would have been better if the authors had determined boldly to go a-picarooning, or frankly to study certain types of character…. An artist has the right to develope [sic] his idea in whatsoever manner suits him best; but here the reader is conscious only of a conflict of wills, the one leaning towards a synthesis of high-strung personalities, the other clamouring for incident.’22 The Spectator's reviewer was more generous, but seemed confused about the novel's intended audience. ‘How often before has not something like [this plot] been used in dozens of stories for boys?…. The interest lies, we suppose, chiefly in the study of the depravity of character, which is yet so ably handled that no boy, however weak-headed, would be led to think such doings either grand or manly.’ This reviewer could only address the problem of the novel's mixed modes by imagining two readerships, distinguished by age: ‘It is for [the study of character], and the beauty of style, that the elders will enjoy it, while the youngsters will delight in the stirring scenes through which they are carried.’23

The idea of The Ebb-Tide as a story in which ‘youngsters will delight’ will startle modern critics, used to focusing on the novel's grim psychological realism; its naturalistic presentation of bodily appetites and illnesses; its scepticism, even despair, about worldly and transcendent authorities. Modern criticism has tended to argue for the value of The Ebb-Tide by emphasising these modernist elements and discounting or ignoring its roots in the adventure genre. But the Spectator review, although it misses the point of Stevenson's experimentation, does usefully remind us of the structural importance of his adventure source; with a kind of readerly X-ray vision it brings to light the skeleton of the ‘boys' book’ upon which Stevenson built his daringly mixed-genre work. In doing so he was writing back to, and against, Ballantyne, as sixty years later William Golding would also do in Lord of the Flies. But whereas Golding's twentieth-century, post-Freudian revision attacks the Victorian ideal of childhood innocence by identifying children's capacity for evil, Stevenson's fin-de-siècle revision attacks Victorian ideologies of masculinity and imperialism by making Ballantyne's child characters grow up into a shabby colonial world of racism, corruption, crime and oppression.

While Golding's revision of Ballantyne was deliberate and programmatic, Stevenson's was almost certainly unconscious. There is nothing in his letters to suggest that he was engaged in a conscious dialogue with Ballantyne, and there are no direct references to The Coral Island within the novel. The Ebb-Tide is an insistently intertextual work: Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Virgil's Aeneid, the Arabian Nights, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and many other texts are named or quoted in it, not to mention the biblical quotations and references to popular culture that characterise the speech of Attwater and Huish respectively. The Ebb-Tide is ‘a tissue of quotations’, Alan Sandison suggests (quoting Barthes), ‘a Marabar cave of literary echoes’.24 Yet in this frenzy of cultural referencing, there is no word of Ballantyne. That suggests something about the relation between reading and writing: perhaps the earlier a work was read, the more intense the investments in it and the more complex the attachments to it, the more likely it is that an author in later life will struggle unconsciously against it. The anecdote about the fifteen-year-old Stevenson accosting Ballantyne one Sunday after church to declare his admiration for The Coral Island is well known.25 Stevenson's maternal grandfather was minister of that church; his paternal grandfather built the lighthouse which provided the romantic setting for Ballantyne's novel The Bell Rock (1865). While working on that book Ballantyne went to dinner at the house of Stevenson's uncle, an event recounted in Stevenson's ‘Memoirs of Himself’ in terms of his own youthful hero-worship. As Stevenson tells it, his cousins—admiring Ballantyne less—were better able to shine socially, whereas Stevenson himself was too lovesick and tongue-tied to make a good impression; the desire to impress his idol could only be recouped later, through the repetitive action of fantasy:

Altogether, as a cheerful, good-looking, active, melodious, and courageous human creature (whatever I may now think of his works) this sight of Mr Ballantyne greatly strengthened an inborn partiality for authors. For many a long day after, the story I told myself at bed-time turned upon that superior being; I met him again, I had peculiar opportunities to shine, I distinguished myself by acts of daring … and my ideal, turning to me with that black-bearded, white-toothed smile I had so much admired when it was addressed to others, recognised at last my superiority to my fallacious cousins.26

Looking back, the older Stevenson could afford to laugh at his young self, as a riper judgement—‘whatever I may now think of his works’—allowed him to condescend to the author he had once idolised. But the relation between The Ebb-Tide and The Coral Island suggests a far more complex working through of Ballantyne's influence than that. I interpret Stevenson's rewriting of The Coral Island as an act of iconoclasm, a casting off of authority and slaying of a literary father-figure, which had personal and professional, as well as political, dimensions. The pious, hard-working Ballantyne was part of the religious and professional world of Stevenson's parents and grandparents, and he represented a certain image of the ‘proper’ and successful author, the kind that Stevenson's family could understand and approve of. Ballantyne was also (to use Harold Bloom's term) a strong literary precursor for the younger writer, and it is interesting to trace the stages of Stevenson's writerly engagement with him.27 First, he imitated Ballantyne in his fragment of juvenilia, ‘Creek Island’ (1863), a first-person narrative where the fiction is a kind of play, providing a space for the acting out of daydreams inspired by his reading.28 The fantasy of being in a Ballantyne story, or in a story with Ballantyne, was reactivated when Stevenson met his favourite author; after that, ‘the story I told myself at bed-time’, in all its variant but repetitive forms, was again a kind of daydream in which the motivating desire—to emulate and be approved by his hero—was not even minimally displaced or mediated. Much later, as a mature author, Stevenson had the skills to engage with Ballantyne in a much more productive way. In Treasure Island, he found the perfect balance between imitation of and deviation from his model, paying generous tribute to the spirit of ‘Ballantyne the brave’ while gracefully beating him at his own game. But ten years later, in The Ebb-Tide, he slew his literary ancestor, and in doing so transformed himself into a new kind of protomodernist author—another highly productive engagement, but this time an unconscious one.

Writing his memoirs in Samoa, Stevenson spoke of Ballantyne as an always minor and now extinct force in literature. ‘I daresay the reader is unacquainted with his works; they scarce seem to me designed for immortality; but they were exceedingly popular in my day with the whole world of children.’29 The idea that readers would not know Ballantyne's books seems a little disingenuous, for since its first publication The Coral Island has never been out of print.30 But in the 1890s Stevenson was distancing himself from Ballantyne, positioning the older writer only as a weak precursor, if indeed he was prepared to acknowledge him as a precursor at all. In 1894 (the year Ballantyne died and The Ebb-Tide was published) he identified himself as one of Ballantyne's ‘many grateful readers’, describing him as ‘a writer who has given us all great pleasure, and made childhood so charming for so many’;31 this is gracious, but bland, and keeps Ballantyne in his place as an entertainer of children, not a literary influence to be grappled with. The same attitude is expressed in the wording Stevenson suggested for a memorial tablet to Ballantyne, after his death in February 1894: ‘Erected to his cheerful memory by a grateful generation.’32 But The Ebb-Tide is not a grateful, nor a cheerful work; it is a very bitter one, and it takes Ballantyne apart.

That dismissive remark about Ballantyne in Stevenson's memoirs, ‘whatever I may now think of his works’, may be about more than the difference between a child's and an adult's literary taste. It may also refer to Stevenson's disillusionment with Ballantyne's way of representing the Pacific and the European encounter with it, in the light of his own observations and experiences. The Coral Island established connections between chivalrous masculinity, Christian paternalism, romance and empire in the imagination of the young Stevenson and other boys of his generation. In The Ebb-Tide, these connections are undone, and the contradictions of colonialist ideology laid bare. But if Stevenson had rebutted Ballantyne's romance with a purely realistic narrative, his literary achievement would have been much less. It was his experiment of mixing adventure motifs with both naturalism and symbolism, which baffled so many of his contemporaries, that opened the way for the modernist transformation of adventure fiction.


1. Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Ebb-Tide’ in South Sea Tales, ed. Roslyn Jolly (Oxford: OUP, 1996), p. 179. Subsequent references are included in the text with the abbreviation ET. Lloyd Osbourne was Stevenson's collaborator on early drafts of the early chapters, but it is generally agreed that his contribution to the final work was slight, and I am therefore treating Stevenson as the sole author.

2. See, for example, Robert Irwin Hillier, The South Seas Fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), p. 137; Edwin M. Eigner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966), p. 214; Peter Hinchcliffe and Catherine Kerrigan, ‘Introduction’, The Ebb-Tide: A Trio and Quartette by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995), p. xxix; Grace B. Briggs, ‘Stevenson's "The Ebb-Tide" and Eliot's "The Hollow Men"’, Notes and Queries 24 (1977), 448-49; Christopher Ricks, ‘A Note on "The Hollow Men" and Stevenson's The Ebb-Tide’, Essays in Criticism 51 (2001), 8-17.

3. On postcolonial ‘writing back’ see Helen Tiffin, ‘Post-colonial Literatures and Counterdiscourse’ in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 95-98, and John Thieme, Postcolonial Con-Texts: Writing Back to the Canon (London: Continuum, 2001). As I will argue, Stevenson's engagement with specific elements of The Coral Island was probably unconscious, although his broader counter-discursive intention to subvert the tradition of Pacific romance was deliberate. I identify his writing position as postcolonial on the basis that he was a permanent resident of Samoa and a deeply engaged critic of its government by the Three Powers (Britain, Germany and the United States), which was, de facto if not de jure, a colonial administration.

4. R. M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island, ed. J. S. Bratton (Oxford: OUP, 1990), p. 24. Subsequent references are included in the text with the abbreviation CI.

5. See also ET, p. 154, p. 161, p. 176.

6. Stevenson, ‘A Chapter on Dreams’ (1887) in The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays, ed. Jeremy Treglown (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), pp. 216-225.

7. Stevenson, ‘A Gossip on Romance’ (1882) in The Lantern-Bearers, p. 172.

8. See his letter to the Editor of the New York Tribune, 16 October 1882, in The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, 8 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994-95), IV, 10.

9. For example, CI, pp. 173-6, 259, 300-301.

10. Rod Edmond identifies many of these borrowings in Representing the South Pacific: Colonial Discourse from Cook to Gauguin (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), pp. 147-48.

11. Hiller, p. 133, and (more complexly) Alistair Fowler, ‘Parables of Adventure: The Debatable Novels of Robert Louis Stevenson’ in Ian Campbell (ed.), Nineteenth-Century Scottish Fiction: Critical Essays (Manchester: Carcanet, 1979), pp. 122-23. Reviewing The Ebb-Tide in 1894 Israel Zangwill suggested General Gordon—another of Stevenson's heroes—as a possible model for Attwater; Critic, 24 November 1894, rptd. Paul Maixner (ed.), Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 461.

12. Robert Kiely, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 183, p. 184.

13. On this last point, see ET, pp. 167-68 and p. 172.

14. Edmond (p. 152, p. 158) offers an excellent reading of the ideological tensions in The Coral Island.

15. Richard Le Gallienne called him ‘the insufferable, impossible Attwater’ and labelled him ‘unnatural as a whole’; Star, 27 September 1894, rptd Maixner (ed.), p. 456, p. 457. ‘No similar incarnation has ever before been presented to a gaping world,’ wrote the reviewer for The Nation (20 September 1894), who condemned the character as an improbable mix of Ouida hero, revivalist, Chesterfield and Beau Brummel (p. 219). The reviewer for The Athenaeum found Attwater ‘too romantic a figure for his setting. His manner might be described as superior Ouida; his entrance into the story changes the fashion of the tale, and his presence casts a glamour of fantasy and, we must add, of improbability over the entire plot. His mysticism is forced, his skill and effrontery seem beyond nature; chiefly because of the excessive contrast’ (Athenaeum, no. 3493, 6 October 1894, p. 451). In The Bookman he was condemned as ‘simply impossible’: ‘A compound of beachcomber, fine gentleman, cynic, missionary, covenanting fanatic, and desperado, he amazes more that he interests us…. Were he possible, he would have been worth more lengthy and finished treatment, and probably would have received it’ (The Bookman, October 1894, p. 20).

16. Stevenson, Letters, VIII, 103.

17. J. C. Furnas, Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Faber, 1952), p. 359.

18. Fowler, p. 116; see also p. 125. Cf. Alan Sandison, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Appearance of Modernism (London: Macmillan, 1996), p. 318, p. 349.

19. Maixner (ed.), p. 461.

20.Nation, p. 219.

21. Maixner (ed.), p. 456, p. 457.

22.Athenaeum, p. 450.

23.Spectator, 6 October 1894, p. 443, p. 444.

24. Sandison, p. 317, p. 327.

25. Eric Quayle, Ballantyne the Brave: A Victorian Writer and His Family (London: Hart-Davis, 1967), p. 217.

26. Stevenson, ‘Memoirs of Himself’, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Vailima Edition, 26 vols (London: Heinemann, 1922-23), XXVI, 227.

27. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: OUP, 1973). As Bloom writes, ‘Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves’ (p. 5).

28. The story is summarised and partly quoted in Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, 2 vols (London: Methuen, 1901), I, 66.

29. Stevenson, ‘Memoirs’, p. 226. Stevenson had begun writing his memoirs in San Francisco in 1880. The portion on Ballantyne is part of the additional material Stevenson dictated to his step-daughter, Isobel Strong, in Samoa in the 1890s; Roger G. Swearingen, The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide (Hamden, Conn,: Archon Books, 1980), p. 49.

30. Bratton, ‘Introduction’, CI, p. vii.

31. Stevenson, Letters, VIII, 277.

32. Stevenson, Letters, VIII, 277.



Hourihan, Margery. "The Wild Things: Savages: Human Beasts." In Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children's Literature, pp. 129-44. London, England: Routledge, 1997.

Offers a study of juvenile Robinsonades, citing The Coral Island and other works as examples.

Irvine, Robert. "Separate Accounts: Class and Colonization in the Early Stories of R. M. Ballantyne." Journal of Victorian Culture 12, no. 2 (autumn 2007): 238-61.

Discusses several of Ballantyne's early novels and The Coral Island.

Stephens, John, and Robyn McCallum. "Revisions of Early Modern Classics." In Retelling Stories, Framing Cultures: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature, pp. 253-79. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998.

Reviews recreations of classic works of boys' adventure stories, with special focus given to Robinsonades and The Coral Island.

Strong-Wilson, Teresa. "Touchstones as sprezzatura: The Significance of Attachment to Teacher Literary Formation." Changing English 13, no. 1 (April 2006): 69-81.

Examines literary "touchstones" of children's literature, including The Coral Island.

Thwaite, M. F. "Flood Tide: The Victorian Age: The Tale of Adventure." In From Primer to Pleasure, pp. 167-69. London, England: The Library Association, 1963.

Offers a critical introduction to Ballantyne, noting the strong Christian themes in his work.

Additional coverage of Ballantyne's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 163; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to English Literature,Ed. 2; and Something about the Author, Vol. 24.

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The Coral Island

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