20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the birth of science fiction

The history of science fiction could have been very different. Jules Verne’s father only let him go to Paris in 1847 to study law and afterwards wanted him to come back to his hometown of Nantes to start his own law firm. But the twentysomething Verne had been distracted by Paris’s theatres and literary salons, and soon came under the influence of Alexandre Dumas.

In 1869 he published 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which went on to become one of his most famous, popular and well-travelled novels. It is the story of French naturalist Pierre Aronnax, who joins an American expedition to hunt down a massive whale that has apparently sunk several ships. When they track down the monster, Aronnax falls overboard and finds the massive whale is actually made of metal. Taken inside this artificial leviathan, he begins an epic journey under the seas as a prisoner of the enigmatic Captain Nemo, which involves sea battles, an attack from giant octopuses and a visit to a sunken city.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Our edition, published this week, includes a specially-written Foreword by zoologist and television presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff. In it she explores how Verne both pre-empted and inspired future developments in oceanography and submarine technology. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the fourth book in the Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, which aims to celebrate the best in maritime fiction, both fiction and non-fiction.

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh) and The Sea Wolf (Jack London). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?

The Sea Wolf – a forgotten classic?

The Sea Wolf by Jack London is the third title we are publishing in our new Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, celebrating the best of maritime writing through the centuries, whether fiction or non-fiction.

When we first came up with the idea for the series it was a hard job selecting which titles to include in the first batch. Various people insisted we do something to ensure The Sea Wolf didn’t become a forgotten classic. Here in the office we were more familiar with Jack London’s most famous books, White Fang and Call of the Wild, but when we were reading The Sea Wolf we all agreed it was really rather good.

Informed by London’s own experience serving on a Pacific sealing schooner heading for the coast of Japan, The Sea Wolf is the story of Humphrey Van Weyden, a quiet bookish man who falls overboard after his ferry collides with another vessel. He is picked up by the crew of a seal-hunting schooner called The Ghost, but his relief at being rescued is short-lived once he meets her captain, the brutal Wolf Larsen.

Wolf Larsen would terrify even Captain Ahab. Nihilistic, cruel and vengeful, Wolf Larsen views the men under his command as little more than yeast. But he is not a mindless monster – indeed, he takes to Humphrey Van Weyden because he senses an intellectual equal. Caught between Larsen and his browbeaten crew, Van Weyden’s life-changing experience is punctuated by an attempted mutiny, a cataclysmic storm and the appearance of Wolf’s equally terrible brother, Death Larsen.

At once a cleverly written thrilling adventure and an insightful look at the fragility of humanity in the face of the unforgiving ocean, our brand new edition of The Sea Wolf features an exclusive Foreword by adventurer and television presenter Bear Grylls. In it he draws on his own experience of running into trouble hundreds of miles from land to give a unique perspective on the fundamental amorality of the natural world.

The Sea Wolf (Jack London)

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?

Reappraising the mutiny on board HMS Bounty

In late December 1787, HMS Bounty set sail for Tahiti under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh, a 33-year-old career sailor who had voyaged to the far reaches of the Pacific with Captain Cook and served with distinction during several sea battles against the Dutch in the American War of Independence. Today he is known only for what happened aboard the Bounty – in April 1789 roughly half of the crew mutinied against Bligh, cast him adrift and sailed away with the ship.

Most of what we know about the mutiny comes from Bligh’s own account, in which he gives notably less space to the possible grievances that may have led to the mutiny than he does the adventure he had afterwards. After all, he and his loyal crew were cast adrift in a 23ft (7m) open launch, thousands of miles from the nearest colonial outpost, with insufficient supplies to last. Due to Bligh’s seamanship, however, he and his loyal crew sailed over 3,500 nautical miles to Timor, and almost all of them lived long enough to see England again.

The mutiny on board HMS Bounty

Meanwhile the mutineers returned to Tahiti, and then some of them continued on to Pitcairn, where they scuttled the ship. Many of their descendants continue to live on the island to this day.

Even at the time, however, William Bligh’s account raised questions and doubts. The leader of the mutiny, Fletcher Christian, was no press-ganged pauper turned pirate. Indeed, his brother Edward was a lawyer, and following the court martial of half the mutineers (and the executions of three of them), plus the complete legal exoneration of Bligh, Edward Christian began his own investigation.

He talked to acquitted mutineers and even some of the crewmen who had remained loyal to Bligh. He published a diplomatically-worded but still highly critical alternative to Bligh’s account, which began a tit for tat back and forth reappraisal of the mutiny played out in public, full of implicit insinuation and apparent contradiction from both sides.

Today Bligh’s account still remains most well known, but read together with Edward Christian’s reports, the fascinating story really comes to life. For this reason in our brand new edition of Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty, we have decided to publish them together, allowing readers to make up their own minds.

An inaugural title in our new Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty features new maps and a special Foreword by world-class yachtsman and racing sailor Pete Goss, in which he describes his own experience of a collapse in captain-crew relations as he explores the grey areas surrounding the mutiny on the Bounty.

Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh)

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne) and The Sea Wolf (Jack London). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?

A feat of endurance – Shackleton’s greatest hour, 100 years on

Today is 100 years to the day since Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance left Plymouth, bound for the Antarctic. Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was supposed to take several months. Instead it would be almost three years before he returned to England.

Shackleton had been part of Robert Falcon Scott’s first but unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole, and after Roald Amundsen managed to do it, Shackleton set his sights on a new goal: crossing the entire Antarctic continent from sea to sea via the pole. He took two ships. The Endurance would carry the expeditionary party to the Weddell Sea. The Aurora would travel to the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent and her crew would then work inland, laying supply depots for the expeditionary party from the Endurance.

It all went infamously disastrously wrong. The Endurance became trapped in pack ice and drifted for months. Eventually the ice crushed the ship and all 28 men were stranded on the floe. They survived for some time in shelters made from salvaged material from the Endurance, and by supplementing their rations with penguin meat. Shackleton realised, however, that in the long term their prospects looked grim. So he took several men and set out in an uncovered lifeboat, sailing through freezing temperatures and stormy seas to summon help at South Georgia.

The Endurance trapped in pack ice, shortly before she sank.

The Expedition almost hadn’t happened at all. Britain declared war on Germany only a few days before departure and Shackleton offered to put both ships and their crews at the Admiralty’s disposal. The First Lord thereof (a certain Winston Churchill) responded that that wouldn’t be necessary. When Shackleton reached South Georgia, one of the first questions he asked the whalers was when the war ended. Over two and a half years after he left England, he learnt the war hadn’t been over by Christmas after all.

Shackleton later wrote an authoritative account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, detailing not only what went wrong, but also how all of the Endurance’s crew managed to survive – truly living up to their vessel’s name.

In time for the centenary we have republished South: The Last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance as part of our new series of Adlard Coles Maritime Classics. Our edition includes new maps and a Foreword by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, in which he uses his own experiences in the Antarctic to reflect upon Shackleton’s courage and leadership.


Adlard Coles Maritime Classics is a new series celebrating the best of maritime writing, both fiction and non-fiction, containing new Forewords by leading figures. Three other books in the series are published this month:
The Sea Wolf (Jack London; Foreword by Bear Grylls)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne; Foreword by Miranda Krestovnikoff)
Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh; Foreword by Pete Goss)

Next year we will be publishing two more:
Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe; Foreword by Ray Mears)
Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad; Foreword by Bruce Parry)

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?