Victorian Literature and Culture

Work in Progress


Michelle Elleraya1

a1 University of Guelph

In his Preface to R. M. Ballantyne's most famous novel, J. M. Barrie writes that “[t]o be born is to be wrecked on an island,” and so the British boy “wonder[s] how other flotsam and jetsam have made the best of it in the same circumstances. He wants a guide: in short, The Coral Island” (v). While for Barrie the island is a convenient shorthand for masculine self-actualization, the question pursued here is the relevance of a coral island, or more specifically the coral that forms the island, to the child reader. Published in 1857 and widely recommended for boys in the latter half of the nineteenth century, The Coral Island presents three boys, shipwrecked in the South Pacific, who in the first half of the novel demonstrate their resourcefulness in forming an idyllic community. Their pre-lapsarian paradise is then disrupted, first by Pacific Island cannibals and then by European pirates, the juxtaposition implicitly presenting civility as a quality that must be actively maintained by the European reader, rather than assumed as inherent in ethnicity. The second half of the novel sees the boy narrator, and eventually all the boys, implicated in key Western activities in the South Pacific: piracy, trade, and missionary activity. The latter is important to Ballantyne, a staunch Christian himself, and is focused through the historical phenomenon of Pacific Island “teachers,” that is, converted Pacific Islanders who preceded or accompanied European missionaries in the effort to spread Christianity across the South Pacific. The missionary work highlighted in the novel, as this essay will show, is also integrally connected to the coral featured prominently in its title.