Deep Sea Sovereignty

Sovereignty is about power, boundaries, and sight. To possess we must define what it is we are possessing, to define we must see. How can one truly govern what one cannot see?

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a story about one man’s attempt to possess the unpossessible, which, on a surface level, is all that is below the surface (i.e. the deep sea). On a deeper level, it is about the characteristically masculine battle with his unsovereign unconscious. Verne is an unquestionably brilliant writer; we have grandiose 19th century themes of power, technology, and the obsessive controlling of nature, all of which is elucidated via Captain Nemo’s deep sea adventure in the Nautilus, the ultimate vessel of technological sovereignty.

Take for example chapter 22: the Captain allows his captives (i.e. the Professor, the Canadian Ned Land, and Conseil, the Professor’s faithful Dutch servant) to leave the Nautilus and visit the land of Papua New Guinea. The attempt to hunt local game draws attention from the native Papuans, who follow the men back to the Nautilus. The Professor is quite anxious and brings this to the attention of the Captain.

‘Ha, it is you, professor? he said to me. ‘Well, have you had good sport? Have you botanised successfully?’

‘Yes, captain,’ answered I, ‘but we have, unfortunately, brought back a troop of bipeds, whose neighborhood appear to me dangerous.’

‘What bipeds?’


‘Savages?’ answered Captain Nemo in an ironical tone. ‘And you are astonished, professor, that having set foot on one of the lands of this globe, you find savages there? Where are there no savages? Besides, those you call savages, are they worse than others?’

To his astonishment, the Captain is more irked by the Professor’s judgment than his fears. Nemo dismisses him with the reminder that while aboard the Nautilus, there is nothing to fear.

M. Aronnax,’ answered Captain Nemo, who had again placed his fingers on the organ keys, ‘if all the natives of Papua were gathered together on that shore, the Nautilus would have nothing to fear from their attacks.’

Over the course of the chapter, both Professor and reader are wondering how exactly the Captain will prevent the Papuans from entering the Nautilus. In order to replenish air reserves, the vessel will soon need to open its panels, thus exposing itself to the ever increasing presence of natives.

‘I have given order to have the panels opened.’

What about the Papuans?’

‘M. Aronnax,’ answered Captain Nemo tranquilly, ‘it is not so easy to enter the Nautilus through panels, even when they are opened.’

The lids were opened on the outside. Seventy horrible faces appeared. But the first of the natives who put his hand on the balustrade, thrown backwards by some invisible force, fled, howling and making extraordinary gambols. Ten of his companions succeed him. Ten had the same fate. Conseil was in ecstasies. Ned Land, carried away by his violent instincts, sprang up the staircase. But, as soon as he had seized the handrail with both hands he was overthrown in his turn.

‘Malediction!’ he cried. ‘I am thunderstruck.’

That word explained it all to me. It was no longer a hand rail but a metal cable, charged with electricity. Whoever touched it felt a formidable shock, and that shock would have been mortal if Captain Nemo had thrown all the current of his apparatus into this conductor (131-2).

This is one of many examples in which the Nautilus is literally the vessel of Nemo’s power. While the Professor and Nemo are similar in many regards (men of science, technology, and  systems of meticulous classification), both reader and Professor quickly become enamoured with Nemo’s ability to control every situation, to transform the bottom of the sea into his own sovereign state.

Sovereignty at this time in Europe involved the ability to take land from those considered less organized, to see and identify what was uncontrollable and control it. It was, in short, colonization. While Nemo and the Nautilus represent the ultimate patriarchy, there is an ambiguity to what such patriarchy entails. Several examples, such as Nemo’s challenge to the assumption of what is ‘savage,’ leads us to believe that Nemo’s deep sea sovereignty is about power, yes, control of course, but also a skepticism toward 19th century social rationalities. His sovereignty appears to the reader as ‘just.’ (‘Do you believe that I ignore the existence of suffering beings, of races oppressed in this world, of miserable creatures to solace, of victims to revenge?’ he rhetorically asks the Professor one day).

But, as the story continues, we see that actually it is the Professor who possesses greater rationality. Through his conversations with the Professor, we see that Whatever might be the motives that had forced him to seek independence under the seas, he was still a man! (217).

While his underwater kingdom represents sovereignty in its freedom from external control, Nemo is unable to control the desire to demonstrate his power, and for his captives, particularly the Professor, to acknowledge and be awestruck of that power. Nemo’s journey to the South Pole becomes the ultimate display of power.

‘Ah professor!’ answered the captain in an ironical tone, ‘you are always the same! You see only obstacles and difficulties. But I affirm to you that not only will the Nautilus be set free, but it will go farther still!’

Farther south?’ I asked, looking a the captain.

‘Yes, sir, it will go to the Pole.’

‘To the Pole!’ I cried, unable to restrain a movement of incredulity.

‘Yes,’ replied the captain coldly, ‘to the Arctic Pole, to that unknown point were all the meridians of the globe meet. You know whether I do all I please with the Nautilus.’

Yes. I knew it. I knew that man pushed boldness; to temerity…It then came into my head to ask Captain Nemo if he had already discovered this Pole, which no human being had set foot upon.

‘No professor,’ he answered, ‘and we will discover it together’ (259).

Verne’s choice of the deep sea is the perfect stage for exploring the murky depths of human psyche and terra unknown. In the beginning, Nemo appears to us as superhuman in his ability to control not only that which is around him, but what is also within him.  The Nautilus is a vessel of progress, but we begin to see that it is also a vessel of stagnation. Captain Nemo’s mastery of the environment is largely superficial, in his head. His renunciation of society, his choice of alienation over integration means progress as such is submerged in subjective interpretation.

Captain Nemo, leaning against a moss-covered fragment of ruin, remained motionless as if petrified in mute ecstasy. Was he dreaming about the long-gone generations and asking them the secret of human destiny? Was it here that this strange man came to refresh his historical memories and live again that ancient existence? (226)

When we arrive at the South Pole, the one place Nemo believes he will truly be at home, [a] master of unbound space (255), disaster begins.

His countenance, habitually so impassive, revealed a certain anxiety. He looked at the compass and manometer in silence, and put his finger on a point of the planisphere in that part that represented the South Seas.

I did not wish to interrupt him. When, a few instances afterwards, he turned towards me, I said to him, using an expression he had used in Torres Straits–

‘An incident, captain?’

‘No, professor,’ he replied. ‘An accident this time.’



‘The Nautilus has split upon something?’



‘Through a caprice of Nature, not through the incapacity of man. There has not been a fault committed in our manoeuvres. But no one can prevent equilibrium producing its effects. We man resist human laws, but we cannot stand against natural ones’ (277).

Here, we might recall another remarkable novel from the 19th century that uses the polar regions as the site of epic battle between man and nature. It is only in this unforgiving environment that Victor Frankenstein truly realizes that his quest for scientific wisdom and the control of nature has ultimately destroyed everything he cares about.

In this landscape, where water becomes earth, liquid becomes solid, Nemo realizes he is the sovereign ruler of nothing other than the desire to be such. The ice mountain that has turned over and blocked the Nautilus’s passage has destroyed Nemo’s illusion of control. Although the Captain can use scientific jargon to explain the cause of this event (‘When icebergs are undermined by warmer water or reiterated shocks, their centre of gravity ascends‘), he cannot transcend the reality that the iceberg is in fact impassable. At this moment, we see that his sovereignty, much like the sovereignty of 19th century imperialism, is about erasure and fiction. The act of making something legible is what allows for control. It is the ability to erase that which is illegible and rewrite, even at the risk of misrepresentation. The journey of the Nautilus is the journey by which the unconscious passes into the conscious, by which power extends across a geographical territory–until we reach the end of the earth.

Although Nemo has a Habermasean deep-seated cognitive interest in technical control, it is at this point of the adventure that he comprehends that man’s attempt to dominate nature is the most effective form of domination of self. True, the Nautilus eventually frees itself from the icy grips of the Pole, but the Captain must acknowledge that he is no longer in control. The dichotomy between man and nature, conscious and unconscious, ruler and governed is shattered. A slow, self-destructive attitude takes hold of the Captain in that classic 19th century style. But, by this time, Nemo’s legacy has already penetrated the consciousness of his captives.

‘When we return to land,’ added Conseil, ‘blase’ with so many marvels of Nature, what shall we think of the miserable continents and little works done by the hand of man? No, the inhabited world is no longer worthy of us’ (280).

Work’s Cited:

Chorely, R. J ‘Geography as Human Ecology’ in R.J. Chorely (ed) Directions in Geography, London: Metheun.

Gidden’s A. New Rules of Sociological Method: A Positive Critique of Interpretive Sociologies, London: Hutchinson.

Habermas, J. Knowledge and Human Interest. London: Heinmann, 1972.

Verne, J. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. London: Harper Collins, 2010.

One Response to “Deep Sea Sovereignty”
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