Finding Captain Nemo
Captain Nemo, Jules Verne’s giant-squid-fighting antihero from the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, is a mysterious, surprisingly complex figure in an otherwise straightforward early scientific adventure story. This map follows Nemo and his splendid submarine, the Nautilus, on a revealing journey into the origins of this mad captain’s character and also describes his influence on later technological innovations in the real world.
Detractors of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea have claimed the story lacks a narrative center, and adapting filmmakers have added various subplots and further motivations for the main characters. But their adventures aren’t the force that drives the narrative; the underwater journey of the title is mainly a backdrop. Instead, the book unfolds as a slow reveal of Captain Nemo, arguably the novel’s protagonist and certainly its most intriguing mystery.
As the story begins, Professor Aronnax and his companions are tracking an enormous sea monster. When the creature turns out to be a man-made vessel, the mystery shifts to the submarine’s nature: The Nautilus—Nemo’s invention and his symbol—is a vehicle for scientific exploration and a war machine the captain uses for acts of terrorism against the British Empire. Nemo is a man of science and of war, a “dispenser of justice” who uses his submarine to sink British ships. We gradually learn he holds a deep vendetta against the surface world, yet despite committing acts of terrorism, he remains capable of noble deeds and purpose. Jules Verne left the puzzle of Nemo’s past and motivations unsolved for five years, until he published The Mysterious Island.
Jules Verne’s publisher rejected Nemo’s original background as a Polish aristocrat whose family was butchered by Russian troops (France’s political ties with Russia were too important to risk). Verne capitulated, leaving Nemo’s identity mysterious in 20,000 Leagues. But when he wrote The Mysterious Island, Verne was famous enough to refuse censorship and created a more controversial genesis for the captain: a leader in 1857’s Sepoy Mutiny. This revolt of Indian soldiers serving the British East India Company, which had ruled India for the previous century, spurred a larger rebellion that resulted in the British Raj system, through which Britain governed India directly. Nemo is, Verne wrote, “Indian in his heart, Indian in his longing for revenge, Indian in his dreams of reclaiming his native land, driving out the invaders and inaugurating a new era of independence.”
Englishman W.H.G. Kingston’s 1875 Island translation exhibits some prejudices compared with a 2001 translation by Jordan Stump. Kingston realigns Nemo’s affections to coincide with Britain’s, while Stump has Nemo’s European education preparing him to “do battle with those he considered the oppressors of his land.” Kingston warps this into Nemo’s “raising his long-degraded and heathen country to a level with the nations of Europe.”
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is based on a comic-book miniseries by graphic-novel-writing legend Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill, which chronicles the collective adventures of late-19th-century fictional “superheroes”: Mina Harker of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Alan Quatermain of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dualistic protagonist from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jules Verne’s enigmatic Captain Nemo. Notably, the books depict Nemo—for the first time in pop culture—wearing Indian (specifically, Sikh) attire. Although disavowed by Moore and poorly received by critics, the film adaptation does feature the only Nemo played by an Indian actor, Naseeruddin Shah. Reviewers unfamiliar with Verne’s work declared Shah’s casting innovative.
Most adaptations depict Nemo as older than in the novels and more serious—except for the 1974 television cartoon The Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo, which reimagines him as the heroic, conventionally handsome blond ocean researcher Mark Nemo. This is perhaps no worse a representation than those by celebrated English actors James Mason, Michael Caine and Patrick Stewart, all of whom played Nemo with a British accent—implying kinship with the nation Verne’s captain despises.
A recurring motif in Jules Verne’s stories is what scholar Arthur B. Evans calls “vehicular utopias,” worlds served by perfect modes of transportation—“memorable hot-air balloons, moon capsules, helicopter airships, submarines, trains, Gypsy wagons, steam-powered RVs and even propeller-driven mobile islands”—that combine aesthetic beauty with comfort and power. In 20,000 Leagues, Nemo is the inventor, owner and captain of the Nautilus, a vessel of such fantastic technology that even today’s submarines cannot match its top speed of 50 knots. It is nigh indestructible, capable of ramming battleships and punching through polar ice.
Beyond its utilitarian superiority, the Nautilus houses considerable leisure opportunities: a 12,000-book library, rare artworks, a museum of marine specimens and a large pipe organ. The weight of these items alone would challenge a modern sub’s buoyancy. Verne’s diving suits are as comfortable and secure as his submarine: Nemo promises an ocean-floor walk will be accomplished “without getting your feet wet.” Contrasted with other 19th-century adventure tales—such as Jack London’s, in which nature poses mortal threats—Verne’s seem calculated to inspire inventions that promise risk-free travel. In honor of Nemo’s vessel, the U.S. Navy in 1954 named the first operational nuclear-powered submarine the Nautilus.
Although freestanding diving suits existed when 20,000 Leagues was published, the more advanced suits Captain Nemo and his crew wear are products of Jules Verne’s imagination. The author extrapolated his design from a suit invented in 1865 by French mining engineer Benoit Rouquayrol and naval officer Auguste Denayrouze. Their system, with an underwater breathing apparatus, had improved upon the first closed diving suit, invented by German engineer Augustus Siebe in 1837. Rouquayrol and Denayrouze’s innovation—an attached tank filled with compressed air—permitted divers a range of motion impossible with earlier suits, which depended on air pumped from a boat on the surface.
Nemo’s device surpasses these in several ways, as Walter James Miller and Frank Walter note in their 20,000 Leagues annotations. Verne’s imagined equipment exaggerates the depth one can dive without being crushed by water pressure and permits walks on the ocean floor using a portable oxygen supply of greater capacity. Verne increases the air compression (permitting longer submersion times) and exchanges Rouquayrol and Denayrouze’s mask, which required divers to control airflow with their tongues, for Siebe’s spherical copper helmet. This breakthrough even allows Verne’s characters to take an underwater nap.
Biographies of pioneering ocean researcher Jacques Cousteau mention how young Jacques, consigned to bed rest because of a childhood illness, “traveled the world” through literature—particularly adventure stories by James Fenimore Cooper and, more important to his life’s work, Jules Verne. To celebrate Cousteau’s centennial, in 2010 the Turner Classic Movies network combined a marathon of his films with Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and MGM’s Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969). Verne is often cited as inspiration for many other real-life adventurers, including Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space; American astronaut Neil Armstrong, first to walk on the moon; American inventor of the bathysphere, William Beebe; and American explorer Richard Byrd.
It is tempting to imagine that Verne’s 20,000 Leagues account of walking on the ocean floor using advanced diving gear inspired Cousteau to figure out how to do it. Although the Aqua-Lung, invented by Cousteau and his research partner Emile Gagnan in 1943, was not the first breathing apparatus to permit humans to traverse the depths, it was the first to provide unrestrained freedom of movement and a lengthier dive time with a significantly lighter air tank—mirroring the Nautilus crew’s technology.