Finding ‘Nemo’ - Lost in translation

No, this is not about Nemo the fish or the movie ‘Finding Nemo’ though I enjoyed that animated movie very much…As usual, at certain moments I felt sad for the Nemo family and my son was making fun of my teary eyes, ah ! Well, I am one of those sentimental guys – not much that can be done about it!!

Verne’s ‘20000 leagues under the sea’ written in 1869 has a special corner in my heart. This was the book that I read many a time to my second son when he was a child. At that time, the story was paramount, not the characters or the politics. Indeed, I never even sensed the messages, simply because I read the ‘English’ version (based on Leiws P Mercier’s ‘orribly tainted translation) of the story that deliberately took away a good amount of what Verne had written in the original French. In the latter book The Mysterious Island written in 1875, where the Indian connections of Capt. Nemo are established, the WHG Kingston translation removed all negative (from British eyes) connections, because Verne wrote in support of India’s struggle against the British. Some say over 25% of Verne’s work did not appear in the first translations which went on to become popular text. The first proper translations of Verne’s works were made by an American Sydney Kravitz in the 1950’s, after the sun had set on the English empire (Until then Brits had a huge control of the publishing world)!!

So this is about Jules Verne’s Nemo (from two books ‘20,000 leagues under the sea’ and Mysterious island) and what Nemo had to do with India…I started checking this out after seeing the ‘League of extraordinary gentlemen’ where Naseeruddin Shah played the role of Nemo - as a prince from India and I wondered, ‘what exactly did Jules Verne have in mind’? The research proved pretty interesting!! Verne actually unmasked Nemo in his second book ‘The Mysterious Island’.

Certainly, Nemo is Verne’s alter ego. The name Nemo can be traced to Greek myth and Homer's Odyssey. When the Cyclops asks Odysseus his name, he replies "Nemo," which is Latin for "nobody. Did you know that in all the previous public performances and plays of ‘20000 leagues…’, Nemo is characterized as an European? It took many years, until 2003, when Nemo was played by Naseeruddin Shah an Indian, in the movie ‘The league of extraordinary gentlemen’.

Nemo captained his submarine ‘Nautilus’ as a weapon against tyranny and oppression worldwide.When Verne first started to plan the character of Nemo, it was to be that of a Polish Nobleman who planned vengeance against the Russians (Polish Uprising against the Russians set the backdrop). Verne’s publisher was not happy as this would have meant a ban of the book in Russia and may have created problems with the good relationship between France & Russia at that time. It was thus that Verne became a person of mysterious origins in ‘2000 leagues..’ but with hints of Indian ancestry while rescuing some South Indians near Ceylon. Later on, in the ‘Mysterious Island’, Nemo at his death bed unmasks himself in more detail.

Jules Verne first mentioned India in ‘20000 leagues’. Then it was ‘Around the world in 80 days’ in 1873, Nemo in ‘Mysterious Island’ 1874, ‘The steam House’ and finally ‘Begums millions’ in 1879. Even though he wrote about India, British rule & travels to India with exacting details, he traveled only to a few places in Europe and once to the USA!! Obviously he hated British Subjugation of the Indian masses and found the ‘Sepoy mutiny’ somewhat of a parallel to the Polish Insurrection (young poles incited against the forced conscription to the Russian army). The Sepoy mutiny is covered in more detail in Verne’s ‘The steam house’.

But Verne like many Europeans had always thought of India as a mysterious place, and it has been reported in the past that
In 1839 he tried to run away from home, taking a position as a ship's boy on a vessel bound for India. He was recaptured by his father at Paimboeuf, down the coast from Nantes; in the face of whose displeasure he is supposed to have promised his mother 'je ne voyagerai plus qu'en reve' ('I will no longer travel except in my dreams').

Let us now look at how the Verne message gets lost in translation to English - Take a look at the way the distortion was done(the wrong but popular version in Italics)

The British yoke had weighed perhaps too heavily on the Hindu population. Prince Dakkar became the spokesman for the malcontents. He instilled in them all the hatred that he felt for the foreigners. He traveled not only to the still independent areas on the Indian Peninsula but also to those regions directly subject to British administration. He recalled the great days of Tippo Saïb who had died heroically at Seringapatam in the defense of his country. In 1857, the great Sepoy revolt broke out. Prince Dakkar was its soul. He organized the immense uprising, and he devoted both his talents and his wealth to this cause. (trans. Sidney Kravitz, 2001 Wesleyan UP, 590-91)

Instigated by princes equally ambitious and less sagacious and more unscrupulous than he was, the people of India were persuaded that they might successfully rise against their English rulers who had brought them out of a state of anarchy and constant warfare and misery, and had established peace and prosperity in their country. Their ignorance and gross superstition made them the facile tools of their designing chiefs. In 1857 the great sepoy revolt broke out. Prince Dakkar, under the belief that he should thereby have the opportunity of attaining the object of his long-cherished ambitions, was easily drawn into it. He forthwith devoted his talents and wealth to the service of this cause. (1986 Signet Classic, 463)

Here, Verne’s chastising commentary on the British rule in India is transformed into a glowing testimonial to their “civilizing” influence. The anti-colonial revolt is now attributed to ambitious and “designing” Indian princes who turned the ignorant masses against their enlightened foreign rulers. Details of how it was finally brought to light can be found in this link detailing Millers thoughts.

So who was Nemo really?? (Kravitz translation) For the full chapter 58 of ‘The mysterious Island’,
check this link.

Captain Nemo was an Indian prince, the Prince Dakkar, the son of the rajah of the then independent territory of Bundelkund, and nephew of the hero of India, Tippo Saib. His father sent him, when ten years old, to Europe, where he received a complete education; and it was the secret intention of the rajah to have his son able some day to engage in equal combat with those whom he considered as the oppressors of his country. He hated the only country where he had never wished to set foot, the only nation whose advances he had refused: he hated England more and more as he admired her. This Indian summed up in his own person all the fierce hatred of the vanquished against the victor. The son of one of those sovereigns whose submission to the United Kingdom was only nominal, the prince of the family of Tippo-Saib, educated in ideas of reclamation and vengeance, with a deep-seated love for his poetic country weighed down with the chains of England, wished never to place his foot on that land, to him accursed, that land to which India owed her subjection. This artist, this savant, this man was Indian to the heart, Indian in his desire for vengeance, Indian in the hope which he cherished of being able some day to re-establish the rights of his country, of driving on the stranger, of making it independent. In 1857 the Sepoy mutiny broke forth. Prince Dakkar was its soul. He organized that immense uprising. He placed his talents and his wealth at the service of that cause. He gave himself; he fought in the first rank; he risked his life as the humblest of those heroes who had risen to free their country; he was wounded ten times in twenty battles, and was unable to find death when the last soldiers of independence fell before the English guns. Prince Dakkar, unable to die, returned again to his mountains in Bundelkund. There, thenceforward alone, he conceived an immense disgust against all who bore the name of man—a hatred and a horror of the civilized world—and wishing to fly from it, he collected the wreck of his fortune, gathered together twenty of his most faithful companions, and one day disappeared.

Question – How did the Hindu Rajput prince become a nephew of Muslim Tippu Sultan and get depicted as a Sikh in the books? A chap called Santosh Menon explains - Hindu families in punjab sometimes initiated the eldest son into the Sikh faith; Sikhism being a martial religion in some sense and sikhs being the defenders of the faith and the land - more or less. it is actually possible for Nemo to be Tipu's nephew. In fact it is quite easily explained. There are several parallels of Muslim/Moghul monarchs marrying the daughters of Rajput/Hindu Kings in Indian history. And possibly vice-versa. Many of these were intended to achieve alliances between the kingdoms sometimes in the face of a perceived common enemy – though Tippu operated in Karnataka whereas Bundelkhand was in Central India!!

So where is
Bundelkhand ? It is a region around 80 deg. East and 25 deg. North between Jhansi and Allahabad. They have a website!!

Prof Swati Dasgupta, a Verne researcher adds - India attracted renewed attention in France during the 1857 ‘sepoy mutiny’ or first war of independence, as it should more properly be called. Jules Verne often evoked that unsuccessful rebellion on which de Valdezen, the French consul general in Calcutta at the time, had extensively reported. The widespread tendency in France not to make any difference between Muslims and other Indians who were all until recently labelled ‘Hindus’ accounts for this historical inconsistency and has allowed some researchers to speculate that Nemo may have been, in Verne's thinking, none other than the vanished Marahta leader Nana Sahib. Clearly Verne shared the widespread sympathy that the French public felt for the cause of Indian independence which they often related to their own Republican revolutionary past.


In Around the world in 80 days there is an episode about Aouda (Auoudad)– a kingdom in India. It was inserted after Verne learnt of his wife flirting with an Indian prince!!

Jules Verne’s ideas of the future have been so prophetic…try this excerpt from

"Paris in the 20th Century" is an often cited example of this as it describes air conditioning, automobiles, the internet, television, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts. In Paris in the Twentieth Century, published for the first time in 1994, Verne described fax machines, gas-powered cars and an elevated mass transit system. None of these existed when he wrote the book in 1863.

Another good example is "From the Earth to the Moon", which is uncannily similar to the real
Apollo Program, as three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula and recovered through a splash landing- He nailed many details perfectly. In his version (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865, and its sequel, All Around the Moon, 1870), an aluminum craft launched from central Florida achieves a speed of 24,500 miles per hour, circles the moon and splashes down in the Pacific. A century later Apollo 8, made of aluminum and traveling at 24,500 miles an hour, took off from central Florida. It circled the moon and splashed down in the Pacific.

Before he died in 1905, Verne had depicted- a world eerily like ours: airplanes, movies, guided missiles, submarines, the electric chair, air conditioning and the fax machine. Even Islamic terrorists make their precocious debut in Invasion Of the Sea (1905), in which they face off against Western technocrats!!

Verne never studied science formally. Pushed to get a law degree by his lawyer father, he toiled as a stockbroker. He sucked in scientific knowledge from 15 newspapers a day, as well as half a dozen magazines and the bulletins of various scientific and geographic societies. His genius lay in extrapolation.

Sydney Kravitz was a professional scientist and engineer. He spent fourteen years translating The Mysterious Island, correctly.
Lewis Mercier and WHG Kingston, were instrumental in providing dastardly translations – How did they do it? Here is the answer.

Another nice article on the
Politics of Capt Nemo by Anil Menon!!

A brilliant essay -Journey to the Center of Jules Verne… and Us
by Walter McDougall

Steamhouse – has many other names ‘End of Nana Sahib’, ‘The demon of Cawnpore’, Tigers & Traitors.

A nice
Fortune article

Pictures from various sites - thanks


harimohan said…
that again was an eyeopener ,good links but in UAE many couldnt be opened
( another of those cover ups by powers ),the uncovering of mercers translation was captivating ,it is 3am now and i was lost in the world of mercer .
Nanditha Prabhu said…
Thank you for this wonderful post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading. you must have done a fair amount of research to come up with so many interesting facts !
Happy Kitten said…
How do u manange always to come out like an Encyclopedia? and an entirely new subject.. have never thought abt Jules Verne in this way..