How Politics Affected 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

by Markus van Staden

Jules Gabriel Verne, 1828 - 1905, is a pioneer for the science-fiction genre.  He was a French author best known for his novels A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days and The Mysterious Island.  He is the second most translated author of all time, only behind Agatha Agatha Christie. 

Jules Verne

Because of bad French to English translation, for a long time Jules Verne had no good reputation in English speaking countries.  Not in his lifetime anyway.   

Some English publishers felt 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea portrayed the British Empire in a bad light, and the first English translator, Reverend Lewis Page Mercier, working under a pseudonym, removed many offending passages.

Mrs. Agnes Kinloch Kingston (writing in the name of her husband, W.H.G. Kingston) deleted parts of The Mysterious Island (a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) such as those describing the political actions of Captain Nemo in his incarnation as an Indian nobleman freedom fighter. 

Measurements that were stated in the metric system by Jules Verne were also dropped or stated as measurements in the Imperial system without conversion.  This caused Jules Verne's exact measurements to become mathematical gibberish. 

Artistic passages and whole chapters were also cut when the work was required to fit into a constrained space for publication. 

Even today Verne's work has not been fully rehabilitated in the English-speaking world.

So where did Captain Nemo come from?   

In the original text, the mysterious captain was a Polish nobleman, avenging his family who were killed by Russians. They had been murdered in retaliation for the captain's taking part in the Polish January Uprising (1863).

However, as France, Jules Verne's home country was allied with Tsarist Russia, to avoid trouble the target for Nemo's wrath was changed to France's old enemy, the British Empire.  This change was made on request of Verne's publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel who is known to be responsible for many serious changes in Verne's books.

So from then on, as revealed in the later Verne book The Mysterious Island, Captain Nemo is a descendant of Tipu Sultan,  a Muslim ruler of Mysore who resisted the British Raj, who took to the underwater life after the suppression of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, in which his close family members were killed by the British.

When it comes to movie versions of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, in most of them Captain Nemo's nationality is European, and in some versions Indian.