The Coral Island
|The Coral Island|
Title page, illustrated 1893 edition of The Coral Island
|Author||R. M. Ballantyne|
|Publisher||T. Nelson & Sons|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & paperback)|
|Text||The Coral Island at Wikisource|
The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858) is a novel written by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne. One of the first works of juvenile fiction to feature exclusively juvenile heroes, the story relates the adventures of three boys marooned on a South Pacific island, the only survivors of a shipwreck.
A typical Robinsonade – a genre of fiction inspired by Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe – and one of the most popular of its type, the book first went on sale in late 1857 and has never been out of print. Among the novel's major themes are the civilising effect of Christianity, the spread of trade in the Pacific and the importance of hierarchy and leadership. It was the inspiration for William Golding's dystopian Lord of the Flies (1954), which inverted the morality of The Coral Island: in Ballantyne's story the children encounter evil, but in The Lord of the Flies evil is within them.
Although considered by modern critics to feature a dated imperialist view of the world, The Coral Island was voted one of the top twenty Scottish novels at the 15th International World Wide Web Conference in 2006.
Biographical background and publication
Ballantyne never visited the coral islands of the South Pacific, relying instead on the accounts of others that were then beginning to emerge in Britain, which he exaggerated for theatrical effect by including "plenty of gore and violence meant to titillate his juvenile readership". He wrote The Coral Island while staying in a house on the Burntisland seafront, opposite Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth, and according to Ballantyne biographer Eric Quayle borrowed extensively from an 1852 novel by the American author James F. Bowman, The Island Home. He also borrowed from John Williams' Narrative of Missionary Enterprises (1837), to the extent that Rod Edmond has suggested Ballantyne must have written one chapter of The Coral Island with Williams' book open in front of him, so similar is the text. Edmond describes the novel as "a fruit cocktail of other writing about the Pacific", adding that "by modern standards Ballantyne's plagiarism in The Coral Island is startling".
Ballantyne's ignorance of the South Pacific caused him to erroneously describe coconuts as being soft and easily opened. A stickler for accuracy, he subsequently only wrote about things of which he had personal experience.
Although the first edition is dated 1858 it was on sale in bookshops from early December 1857; dating books forward was a common practice at the time, especially during the Christmas period. The book has subsequently never been out of print. The Coral Island is Ballantyne's second novel.[a] He was an "immensely prolific" author who wrote more than 100 books in his 40-year career, three of them published in 1858, the year of The Coral Island. Ballantyne had a "deep religious conviction" and felt it his duty to educate Victorian middle-class boys – his target audience – in "codes of honour, decency, and religiosity".
The first edition of The Coral Island was published by T. Nelson & Sons, who in common with many other publishers of the time had a policy when accepting a manuscript of buying the copyright from the author rather than paying royalties; as a result, authors generally did not receive any income from the sale of subsequent editions.[b] Ballantyne received between £50 and £60, equivalent to about £40,000 as of 2011,[c] but when the novel's popularity became evident and the number of editions increased he tried unsuccessfully to buy back the copyright. He wrote bitterly to Nelsons in 1893 about the copyrights they held on his books while he had earned nothing: "for thirty-eight years [you have] reaped the whole profits".
Literary and historical context
The Coral Island follows a long tradition of Robinsonades, a genre initiated by Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). Published during the "first golden age of children's fiction", it began a trend in boys' fiction by placing boys centre stage as the main characters, a device now "naturalized" in the genre. It preserves, according to literary critic Minnie Singh, the moralizing aspects of didactic texts, but does so (and in this regard it is a "founding text") by the "congruence of subject and implied reader": the story is about boys, and told by a (former) boy to an audience of boys. The book's importance to studies of the period is widely recognised by scholars.
According to literary critic Frank Kermode, The Coral Island "could be used as a document in the history of ideas". A scientific and social background for the novel is found in Darwinism, of the natural and the social kind. For instance, Charles Darwin's 1842 The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs was one of the best-known contemporary accounts of the growth of coral. Published a year before Darwin's Origin of Species (whose ideas were already being circulated and discussed widely), The Coral Island partakes of the prevalent discourse of evolutionary theory: the Victorian age based its imperialist ideology in part on the idea that evolution had resulted in "white, English superiority that was anchored in the notion of a civilized nation elected by God to rule inferior peoples." Besides Darwin himself Ballantyne had been reading books by Alfred Russel Wallace, a rival of Darwin's, and in later publications also acknowledged the naturalist Henry Ogg Forbes. The interest in evolutionary theory was reflected in much popular literature of the time, and social Darwinism is an important factor contributing to the world view of the Victorians and their empire building.
The story is written as a first person narrative from the perspective of one of three boys shipwrecked on the coral reef of a large but uninhabited Polynesian island, 15-year-old Ralph Rover. Ralph tells the story retrospectively, looking back on his boyhood adventure: "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."
The account starts briskly; only four pages are devoted to Ralph's early life and a further fourteen to his voyage to the Pacific Ocean on board the Arrow. He and his two companions – 18-year-old Jack Martin and 13-year-old Peterkin Gay – are the sole survivors of the shipwreck. The narrative is in two parts. The first describes how the boys feed themselves, what they drink, the clothing and shelter they fashion, and how they cope with having to rely on their own resources. The second half of the novel is more action-packed, featuring conflicts with pirates, fighting between the native Polynesians, and the conversion efforts of Christian missionaries.
Fruit, fish and wild pigs provide plentiful food, and at first the boys' life on the island is idyllic. They fashion a shelter and construct a small boat using their only possessions: a broken telescope, an iron-bound oar, and a small axe. Their first contact with other humans comes after several months when they observe two large outrigger canoes in the distance, one pursued by the other. The two groups of Polynesians disembark on the beach and engage in battle; the victors take fifteen prisoners, and kill and eat one immediately. But when they threaten to kill one of the three women captured, along with two children, the boys intervene to defeat the pursuers, earning them the gratitude of the chief, Tararo. The next morning they prevent another act of cannibalism. The natives leave, and the boys are alone once more.
More unwelcome visitors then arrive in the shape of British pirates, who make a living by trading or stealing sandalwood. The three boys hide in a cave, but Ralph is captured when he ventures out to see if the intruders have left, and is taken on board the pirate schooner. He strikes up a friendship with one of the crew, Bloody Bill, and when the ship calls at an island to trade for more wood Ralph meets Tararo again. He experiences many facets of the island's culture, including the popular sport of surfing, the sacrificing of babies to eel gods, rape, and cannibalism.
Rising tensions result in the inhabitants attacking the pirates, leaving only Ralph and Bloody Bill alive. The pair succeed in making their escape in the schooner, but Bill is mortally wounded. He makes a death-bed repentance for his evil life, leaving Ralph to sail back alone to the Coral Island, where he is reunited with his friends.
The three boys sail to the island of Mango, where a missionary has converted some of the population to Christianity. They find themselves caught up in a conflict between the converted and non-converted islanders, and in attempting to intervene are taken prisoner. They are released a month later after the arrival of another missionary, and the conversion of the remaining islanders. The "false gods" of Mango are consigned to the flames, and the boys set sail for home, older and wiser. They return as adults for another adventure in Ballantyne's 1861 novel The Gorilla Hunters.
Genre and style
All Ballantyne's novels are, in his own words, "adventure stories for young folks", and The Coral Island is no exception. It is a Robinsonade, a genre of fiction inspired by Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, one of the most popular of its type, and one of the first works of juvenile fiction to feature exclusively juvenile heroes. Maher notes that in comparison to Robinson Crusoe such books generally replaced some of the original's romance with a "pedestrian realism", exemplified by works such as The Coral Island and Frederick Marryat's 1841 novel Masterman Ready, or the Wreck of the Pacific. Romance, with its attention to character development, was only restored to the genre of boys' fiction with Stevenson's Treasure Island argues literary critic Lisa Honaker. The Coral Island, for all its adventure, is greatly occupied with the realism of domestic fiction (the domain of the realist novel); Ballantyne devotes about a third of the book to descriptions of the boys' living arrangements. The book exhibits a "light-hearted confidence" in its description of an adventure that was above all fun. As Ralph says in his preface: "If there is any boy or man who loves to be melancholy and morose, and who cannot enter with kindly sympathy into the regions of fun, let me seriously advise him to shut my book and put it away. It is not meant for him." M. Daphne Kutzer has observed that "the swift movement of the story from coastal England to exotic Pacific island is similar to the swift movement from the real world to the fantastic in children's fantasy".
To a modern reader Ballantyne's books can seem overly concerned with accounts of flora and fauna, an "ethnographic gloss" intended to suggest that their settings are real places offering adventures to those who can reach them. They can also seem "obtrusively pious", but according to John Rennie Short, the "high moral tone" of Ballantyne's writing is compensated for by his ability to tell a "cracking good yarn in an accessible and well-fashioned prose style".
Martine Dutheil considers the novel "a key text mapping out colonial relations in the Victorian period". The basic subject of the novel is popular and widespread: "castaway children assuming adult responsibilities without adult supervision", and The Coral Island is considered the classic example of such a book. The supposed civilising influence of missionaries in spreading Christianity among the natives of the South Seas is an important theme of the second half of the story; as Jack remarks to Peterkin, "all the natives of the South Sea Islands are fierce cannibals, and they have little respect for strangers". Modern critics see this theme as less benevolent: Jerry Phillips, in a 1995 article, sees in The Coral Island the "perfect realiz[ation]" of "the official discourse of 19th century Pacific imperialism" which, he argues, was "obsessed with the purity of God, Trade, and the Nation."
The importance of hierarchy and leadership is also a significant element. The overarching hierarchy of race is informed by Victorian concepts, influenced by the new theories on evolution of Darwin and other theorists. In morals and culture, the natives are placed lower on the evolutionary ladder than are Europeans, as is evidenced in the battle over the Christian native woman Avatea, which pits "the forces of civilization versus the forces of cannibalism". Another hierarchy is seen in the organisation of the boys. Although Jack, Ralph and Peterkin each have a say in how they should organise themselves, ultimately the younger boys defer to Jack, "a natural leader", particularly in a crisis, forming a natural hierarchy. The pirates also have a hierarchy, but one without democracy, and as a consequence are wiped out. The hierarchy of the natives is imposed by savagery. Ballantyne's message is that leaders should be respected by those they lead, and govern with their consent. This educational message is especially appropriate considering Ballantyne's adolescent audience, "the future rulers of the world".
Modern critics find darker undertones in the novel. In an essay published in College English in 2001, Martine Dutheil states that The Coral Island can be thought of as epitomising a move away from "the confidence and optimism of the early Victorian proponents of British imperialism" toward "self-consciousness and anxiety about colonial domination". She locates this anxiety in what she calls the "rhetoric of excess" that features in the descriptions of cannibalism, and especially in the accounts of Fijian savagery provided by Bloody Bill (most notably that of the sacrifice of children to the eel gods) and the missionary, a representative of the London Missionary Society, an "emblematic figure of colonial fiction". Others have also linked popular boys' fiction of the period with imperialism; Joseph Bristow's Empire Boys (1991) claimed to see an "'imperialist manhood,' which shaped British attitudes towards empire and masculinity." The novel's portrayal of Pacific culture and the effects of colonisation are analyzed in studies such as Brian Street's The Savage in Literature: Representations of 'Primitive' Society in English Fiction (1975) and Rod Edmond's Representing the South Pacific: Colonial Discourse from Cook to Gauguin (1998). The domination imposed by "geographical mapping of a territory and policing of its native inhabitants", an important theme in the novel both specifically – the topography of the island as mapped by the boys – and in general – the South Pacific's "eventual subjugation and conversion to Christianity" – is continued in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.
The novel's exploration of the relationship between nature and evangelical Christianity is another typically Victorian theme; the connection between the two topics is the moral and religious meanings that were ascribed to coral in the period. Katharine Anderson sees a "pious significance" in the coral jewellery so beloved in the period[d] and the "enchanted garden" of coral discovered by the boys at the bottom of their island's lagoon, suggestive of "missionary encounters with the societies of the Pacific Island". Michelle Elleray, in a 2011 article, investigates the meaning of coral. In Victorian society it had been given an "evangelical framing", and the little coral insect that was believed in Ballantyne's time to be responsible for building coral reefs[e] mirrored the "child reader's productive capacity as a fundraiser for the missionary cause"; Elleray discusses numerous children's books from the early to mid-19th century, including The Coral Island, in which coral plays such an educational role.
The novel's setting provides the backdrop for a meditation in the style of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who promoted education in a setting in which lessons are provided by direct interactions with the natural world rather than by books and coercive teachers. Singh points out that Rousseau himself, in Emile, or On Education, promotes the reading and even imitation of Robinson Crusoe; Fiona McCulloch argues that the unmediated knowledge the boys gain on their coral island resembles the "direct language for children" Rousseau advocates in Emile.
The Coral Island was an almost instant success, and was translated into almost every European language within 50 years of its publication. It was widely admired by its contemporary readers, although modern critics view the text as featuring "dated colonialist themes and arguably racist undertones". Ballantyne's blend of blood-thirsty adventure and pious imperialism appealed not just to his target juvenile audience but also to their parents and teachers. He is today mainly remembered for The Coral Island, to the exclusion of much of his other work.
The novel was still considered a classic for English elementary-school children in the early 20th century. In the United States it was long a staple of suggested reading lists for high-school students; such a list, discussed in a 1915 article in The English Journal, recommends the novel in the category "Stories for Boys in Easy Style". A simplified adaptation of the book was recommended in the 1950s for 12–14 year olds. Although generally considered to be dated in many aspects, in 2006 it was voted one of the top twenty Scottish novels at the 15th International World Wide Web Conference.
Robert Louis Stevenson's 1882 novel Treasure Island was in part inspired by The Coral Island, which Stevenson admired for its "better qualities", as was J. M. Barrie's character Peter Pan; both Stevenson and Barrie had been "fervent boy readers" of the novel. Novelist G. A. Henty was also influenced by Ballantyne's audience-friendly method of didactism. William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies was written as a counterpoint to (or even a parody of) The Coral Island, and Golding makes explicit reference to it. At the end of the novel, one of the naval officers who rescues the children mentions the book, commenting on the hunt for one of their number, Ralph, as a "jolly good show. Like the Coral Island". Despite having enjoyed the book many times as a child, Golding strongly disagreed with the views that it espoused, and in contrast Lord of the Flies depicts the English boys as savages themselves, who forget more than they learn, unlike Ballantyne's boys. Golding described the relationship between the two books by saying that The Coral Island "rotted to compost" in his mind, and in the compost "a new myth put down roots". Neither is the idyllic nature of Ballantyne's coral island to be found on Stevenson's treasure island, which is unsuitable for settlement "but exists merely as a site from which to excavate treasure, a view consistent with the late-Victorian imperial mission".
The Coral Island was adapted into a children's television series in a joint venture between Thames Television and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1980, first shown on British television in 1983. It was also adapted into a four-part children's television drama by Zenith Productions, broadcast by ITV in 2000.
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- In his non-fiction work The Ocean and its Wonders (1874) Ballantyne writes:
The manner in which these [coral] islands are made is, to some extent, a matter of uncertainty. The most generally received opinion is, that the insects fasten round the summit of a submarine mountain, and build upwards until they reach the surface of the sea, where they die, and their labours cease.—Chapter 15
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