The Life Aquatic with Jules Verne
By Bruno Costelini
Oceanographer and PhD candidate in Law at Durham University
I have just spent the past couple of months doing a close reading of Jules Verne’s classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (henceforth, “20,000 Leagues”). It’s easy to dismiss Verne these days as an old-fashioned writer of inconsequential adventure stories for children (or young adults, if such categorization applied in 19th century Europe), particularly here in Brazil where summarized versions of his novels used to sell more than their full translations. My reading reached some opposite conclusions, and I stand here now before the Law of the Sea community in testimony, to preach the Gospel of Verne!
20,000 Leagues is narrated first-person by one Professor Pierre Aronnax, French naturalist and foremost expert on the world’s oceans, having written a treaty based on historical accounts and scattered data. Aronnax finds himself drawn to the chase of a mysterious whale-type creature that was bothering ships all over the world, and eventually ends up, along with his servant Conseil and Canadian harpooner Ned Land, in the belly of that same creature, which it turns out, was not really a whale, but a submarine, headed by the cryptic Captain Nemo. The book then follows their travels around the world, as the Professor is able to explore and witness the wonders of the deep sea first-hand.
Verne’s imagination is way ahead of his time, but is mostly grounded on scientific and technological developments that were being imagined at the time. Submarine construction, autonomous diving suits, electric equipment, all would find their way into real life in a few decades, and the French novelist anticipates them adequately by looking both at the history of science and the current discussions of his time. In fact, 20,000 Leagues, like all novels of his “Voyages Extraordinaires” cycle, was first serialized in the fortnightly scientific periodic “Magasin d’éducation et de récréation”, a “Popular Science” type of publication.
But Verne’s vision extended way beyond the technological advancements, predicting also some of the environmental consequences and the human endeavors that would threaten those most hidden parts of the oceans once humans were able to effectively explore them. The effects of overfishing on fisheries populations and ecosystem effects do not escape the author’s preoccupations, and neither do the possibilities of metal exploration in the deep seas, something that could hardly be grasped in 1870 France.
But the greatest plot point of interest for the casual international lawyer reading the book today is figuring out the motives behind Nemo’s decision to the leave the world of men, filled with disappointment and conflict to find respite in the depths of the sea, along with his crew of possible misfits. It is hinted his reasons stem from his background in fighting the oppression of European countries in the context of colonialism, and eventually failing at it. Nemo expounds his grievances against the injustices of the international system of his time, and can only find solace in excusing himself from such system.
Now, when we look at the international regime for the seabed and its historical construction a hundred years after 20,000 Leagues, at UNCLOS, we find a treaty that looked at the riches of the seabed as a way out of the same colonialist system, that was disintegrating then. When drawing up the ISA and the system for mineral exploitation, much hope and effort was put into rebalancing the economic powers of developing countries and former colonies in Africa and elsewhere. Curiously, in the novel, Nemo draws his riches from a secretive underwater mineral site, in the middle of the Atlantic.
A classic, in the words of Italo Calvino, is a book that, among other things, speaks beyond its time period, maintaining its relevance and value for readers in the future. 20,000 Leagues proves to be a classic then, even if disguised as a juvenile adventure story, for it tackles some of the most pressing issues that persist today, particularly relevant to our International Law of the Sea community. This very week we have seen the awarding of the Nobel prize in literature to Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah, who in his novels denounces the colonial system, particularly the German interventions in his home country, where mineral exploration and human rights violations went hand in hand. Let us keep reading these literary testimonies then, for their value persists.
**Cover image: original work from Alphonse de Neuville e Édouard Riou
Current version available at: https://www.redbubble.com/i/poster/20000-Leagues-Under-the-Sea-by-Sabistar/25774481.LVTDI