This page last revised 21 June 1999
Above: Christian George King (centre left) is shot by the militia, after Davis and the prisoners make their escape by raft. Illustration by F.A.Fraser, for Christmas Stories(1871). Image sourced from Laura Peters' Perilous Adventures: Dickens and the Popular Orphan Narrative(179).
Note: "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners" consists of three chapters. Chapters one and three consist of material written by Dickens, whilst chapter two comprises the work of Wilkie Collins', completed under the auspices of Dickens. As the material under consideration in this essay is taken from the first and third chapters, and considering Dickens' creative control over the second chapter, "Perils" has been discussed as a Dickens text.
'Colonial literature,' Abdul JanMohammed writes, 'is an exploration and a representation of a world at the boundaries of "civilisation," a world that has not (yet) been domesticated by European signification or codified in detail by its ideology. That world is therefore perceived as uncontrollable, chaotic, unattainable and ultimately evil' (18). In the wake of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Dickens' fictional response to that event, "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners," reflected both a culture of desired vengeance against the mutineers, and Dickens' sympathy with that viewpoint. This stance entailed a rejection of the then Governor of India Lord Canning's call for an initial period of discipline, followed by 'discrimination' to be shown toward the mutineers in the form of clemency (Oddie 3), and of Disraeli who 'spoke with considerable sympathy of the Mutiny as a justifiable Indian protest against British harshness' (Hutchins 80). Joining the vitriolic criticism of this viewpoint expressed by The Timesand the majority of the public, Dickens dismissed the governing forces in India for procrastinating and failing to protect British subjects in India (Oddie 4). The Mutiny was a direct threat to Victorian values transposed to India, embodied in the aforementioned British subjects: consider the 'almost universal demand for bloody revenge on the mutineers'(Oddie 3), for their reported brutality toward British women and children, which 'was the most direct outrage imaginable against the whole Victorian concept of women as pure and violable, the source of the sanctity of hearth and home' (Oddie 6).
This analysis of "Perils" will discuss the text as a manifestation of a disharmonious marriage of ragged defensive fantasy on Dickens' behalf, against the background of the reality of the predominating colonial framework: the discussion will aim to highlight the paradoxical Other negating tunnel vision through which the British colonial project felt both the balance and imbalance of its status as "colonial master." The terms "imperial" and "colonial" will be used according to Said's definitions in Culture and Imperialism:therefore ' "imperialism" means the practices, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory....[whilst] "colonialism" which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory' (8).
It is certain that Dickens empathised and had strong links with both Victorian concepts of family, duty and honour both at home and in India: his son Walter had left for military service in India in July 1857, shortly after the Mutiny (Peters 176), whilst Dickens had by that time played the role of the dutiful, self-sacrificing Walter Hartwright several times in Wilkie Collins' play The Frozen Deep(Oddie 14).
The desire for vengeance following the attack on these cultural cornerstones of Victorian life by the mutineers suggests an imperial culture under threat from a rebellious Other it prefers to leave unacknowledged. The Mutineers and the colonisers are, from the British colonial viewpoint, polar opposites. Therefore, as JanMohammed argues, 'if [the European] assumes that the Other is irremediably different, then he would have little incentive to adopt the viewpoint of that alterity: he would again tend to turn to the security of his own cultural perspective' (18).Such is the British colonial stance: the Mutiny provides an extreme example of the disruption of such a viewpoint. The colonised native forces his or her presence onto the coloniser, who is therefore placed under threat in terms of his or her position in the colony as "colonial master," and furthermore has 'his [or her] own cultural perspective' forcibly removed from its position of extreme alterity to be repositioned side to side with a now equally articulate native force. The British colonial presence, adopting a state of mind I shall term passive defensive fantasy, used to maintain the extreme alterity between itself and the "uncivilised" native, can only maintain the alterity it requires for its own sense of security under the new conditions imposed by an uprising, by changing its stance to that of active defensive fantasy: in this, brutal suppression of the native populace restores the feeling of security , superiority and alterity. Outward force repels the native figure, thus enabling the coloniser to once more occupy, if a little warily at first, the position of the passive defensive fantasy.
The simple plot of "Perils" affirms this: Gill Davis and his fellow soldiers arrive on the island of Belize, an English colony and silver mine, which is overrun by pirates in league with the "treacherous" native Christian George King. The survivors escape their pirate captors and, led by Davis, make their escape from a prison on the mainland down river by raft. King is shot by a newly arrived group of soldiers, and the pirates are routed by the Royal Navy.
Abstract conceptions of individuals, embodying both "immovable" Victorian ideals (duty, the woman figure, children) are mingled in "Perils" with their presence in the Indian Mutiny, and transposed to Belize in Central America. Equally so, reflecting the mingling of the individual and the mythic national stereotypes in the British colonisers is an oppositional abstraction of the native figure as primeval and threatening, in its perceived emanation of a void of non-culture, the "civilising" presence and principles of the British.
In "Perils" Dickens reinforces JanMohammed's statement that '[i]nstead of being an exploration of the racial Other, such literature merely affirms its own ethnocentric assumptions' (19). An discussion of Christian George King and Gill Davis in relation to the framework of "Perils" will examine the text's position as a fictional defensive fantasysupporting the larger colonial defensive project, with the aim of reinforcing what JanMohammed terms the 'manichean allegory,' signifying the desire to 'fetishize a nondialectical, fixed opposition between the self and the native' (JanMohammed 19).
Dickens encapsulates the threat to Victorian identity in Christian George King. In so doing, Dickens conforms to Bhabha's concept of 'colonial mimicry.' Bhabha defines this as 'the desire [on the behalf of the colonist] for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite' (361). Imperialist Victorian England, as has been shown, views itself as the civilising centre. Logic dictates that any community external to that centre is automatically marginalised: yet the marginalised Other cannot be eradicated due to its integral part in the power structure of colonialism. The reality of the colonial framework necessitated interaction between the colonist and native, regardless of the self induced blindfold of the passive defensive fantasy. Ania Loomba acknowledges this when she writes that 'Colonial landscapes were....penetrated, mapped, and annexed literally on the shoulders of local inhabitants. The imperial structure rested on an alien scaffolding' (69).
The native populace's only means of being "accepted" by the coloniser was to become a dim reflector of the characteristics of that ruling power.This mimicry, Bhabha continues, 'in order to be effective,....must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference' (361).The native reflection must show a poorly realised desire to be like the coloniser: therefore, the "superior guiding hand" of the colonial presence is in its own eyes affirmed, justified and self-perpetuated. This is present within Dickens' text: simultaneously, he moves beyond it, yet still remaining within the range of Bhabha's theory.
Initially, like the benevolent, procrastinating official Mr Pordage, Gill Davis comes to trust Christian George King, although on Davis' behalf it is an uneasy bond. King is granted grudging respect by Davis when he helps the colonisers rescue the sinking ship (5).Davis concludes that 'if ever a man, Sambo or no Sambo, were trustful and trusted, to what may be called quite an infantine and sweetly beautiful extent, surely, I thought that morning....it was that Sambo pilot, Christian George King'(6).Alongside Davis' uneasy trust of King as a loyal colonial servant, is his suspicion of King's attempts to emulate the behaviour of the colonisers.Davis notes King's failed attempt to sound like the comradely soldiers: ' "Yup, So-Jeer!"[Davis comments]....which was that Sambo Pilot's barbarous way of saying, Hallo Soldier!' (4) Furthermore, King aspires but fails to replicate the Victorian idealisation of the Englishwoman, and his resultant speech is portrayed as a base parody: 'boofer ladies[Davis notes of King's speech]....boofer being that native's expression for the beautiful' (8).Even King's name is used to highlight his poor reflecting nature: 'Christian George King....was no more a Christian, than he was a King, or a George....'(2).
The initial stages of the text portray what I have termed the passive defensive fantasy on the behalf of the colonisers, who balance their presence in Belize on their ability to mould their perspectives to see an eager native willing to improve his or her status, but ultimately incompetent of that goal. Ultimately, Dickens wrote "Perils" and his readers read it with the knowledge of the events of the Mutiny in mind. After the attack on the island by the pirates, an event that simultaneously reveals King's treachery, Dickens reveals himself to be advocating the active defensive fantasy. Christian George King, a perverted paradigm of the Indian mutineers, has articulated his voice: the only way to silence him, and by implication all rebellious colonised individuals, is by the use of oppressive force.This use of force is a key used to regain the fantasy of colonial centrality and superiority. Such is Dickens' viewpoint in "Perils" : he indicates the threat perceived to himself and the colonial centre to which he belonged, by a marginalised Other whom he views as only being capable of reflecting British culture, or having no other form of identity apart from exuding a base animalistic threat. King becomes a figure that represents the entire native populace, male andfemale. He reflects, ultimately, not the description of the indigenous member of a colony who is known and understood by the coloniser: rather, his perceived "treachery" underlying his poor reflection of the coloniser's culture is an ironic second mirror that reflects both Dickens' and his culture's fear of alterity. JanMohammed perfectly expresses this when he writes that 'In describing the attributes or actions of the native, issues such as the intention, causality[of that figure]....and so forth are completely ignored in the....colonialist realm, to say "native" is automatically "evil"....'(19)
The shooting of Christian George King and his subsequent hanging from a tree, like a dead crow to warn other birds away from a farmer's land, is a scathing portrayal of the indigenous populace of an area as scavengers by a writer belonging to a colonial culture which assumes the right to the ownership of that territory. "Perils" oscillates between the passive and the active defensive fantasies, ultimately resting at the time of Dickens' writing the text at the latter position. "Perils" illustrates that, as Bhabha concludes, the 'ambivalence of colonial authority turns from mimicry -- a difference that is almost nothing but not quite -- to menace -- a difference that is almost total but not quite' (369). This is a cyclical process in which Dickens and the contemporary colonial movement is trapped, positioned in "Perils" at the threat point on Bhabha's scale of mimicry.
Dickens' model of the passive defensive fantasy in "Perils" is found in the protection of Belize, the women and children, by Pordage and his officials. Pordage's approach is portrayed as heavily flawed. During the attack, he continues to benevolently trust the natives: 'it was considered that the friendly Sambos would only want to be commanded in case of any danger' (7). The success of the pirate attack leaves Pordage incapable of aiding the British citizens: Dickens writes of his 'Diplomatic coat....[hanging] about him in discoloured shreds like a mop' (30).Implicit in this portrayal of Pordage is a criticism of the views of Lord Canning. Placed as he is in a position advocating the active defensive fantasy, Dickens relocates the Imperial centre to the dutiful, practical Gill Davis and his fellow soldiers, who, as Davis notes of his friend Harry Charker, adhere to 'Duty':'I don't believe, though I admire learning beyond everything, that he could have got a better idea out of all the books in the world....'(2).Furthermore, Davis embodies the principle of the idealisation and defense of children, and Englishwomen: 'It was easy to see,' he thinks of an officer's daughter,'that she was the light and spirit of the island'(3). Davis is Dickens' paradigm for all Victorian values: his adherence to these values is impregnable, and by placing him in the role as defender of all undiluted Victorian culture transposed to a colonial setting, "Perils" becomes a fictional defensive fantasy which aims to negate alterity by reinforcing JanMohammed's 'nondialectical, fixed opposition'(19) between coloniser and native.
Davis is a 'foundling child,' who 'cannot read or write' (Dickens 1).Laura Peters has traced the influence of the popular orphan narrative (175) on the creation of the character. For Peters, Davis, held back as he is from promotion in the world of officialdom by his illiteracy and social background, 'shares[in his respective country] the marginal status, albeit unequally and with some discomfort, with Christian George King' (178). She concludes that "Perils" ends with a paradox, which requires Gill's reconciliation with imperial officialdom and distancing from 'British internal social structures....[because] Dickens needs to validate the colonial power structure as proper and civilised in response to the Cawnpore mutiny, while maintaining his long held criticism of English society....'(181).It would be fairer to read the conclusion as ragged wish-fulfilment on the part of Dickens and his fictional defensive fantasy, an attempt to (albeit unevenly) sideline internal social discontent in England to present an unsteady Imperial centre in which all elements unite to fend off the threat of the Other. Interestingly, Peters writes that '[f]or Dickens, imaginative stories and cultural products are not only rejuvenating influences but can be seen to contrubute to national greatness' (176). Loomba's insistence on the importance of the family is equally as important for the coloniser as for the colonised. 'The family,' he writes, 'is both used as metaphor for the nation, and as an institution, cast as the antithesis of the nation. It is itself dehistoricized, seen as timeless and unchanging....'(218). These are themes that Dickens weaves into "Perils." Class difference is forgotten, as shown in Miss Maryon's discussion with Davis, in favour of convincing him that he is of value to another conception of England, one unified against the Other and which respects and has a place for anyone who defends its inherent values: England, she says, ' "is to be much to you yet - everything to you. You have to take back to England the good name you have earned here, and the gratitude and respect you have won here....you have to make some good English girl very happy and proud, by marrying her....'(32). The conclusion of the text, in which Gill still finds his promotion barred by his learning difficulties, and exists in a platonic, sexless relationship with the idealised, Miss Maryon (who has married another) signifies the desire to impose the fantasy of a secure Imperial England onto an imbalanced reality. This schizoid interface presents a text which raggedly and unconvincingly attempts to manifest and justify the suppression and oppression of the native presence.
This discussion commenced with an analysis of the cultural influences affecting the creation of "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." If it is noted that the text was printed in the popular journal Household Words, and bearing in mind Peters' comments, quoted above, concerning Dickens' desire for literature to aid the greatness of its country, it is possible to conclude, as JanMohammed writes, that 'the relation between imperial ideology and fiction is not unidirectional....the fiction forms the ideology by articulating and justifying the position and aims of the colonialist....it also....obsessively [portrays]....the supposed inferiority and barbarity of the Other, thereby insisting on the profound moral difference between self and Other' (23).
"Perils" stands as a prototype for the range of texts, influenced by and an influence on contemporary culture, that form the basis of Patrick Bratlinger's study of Mutiny texts in the decades following 1857. His comment illustrates that the themes highlighted in this discussion of "Perils" are developed by writers in the wake of Dickens' text, indicating the immensity of the cultural influence of the reaction to the Mutiny. These texts portrayed 'the imperialist dominators....[as] victims and the dominated, villains. Imagining the Mutiny in this way totally displaced guilt and projected repressed, sadistic impulses onto demonicized Indian characters' (222).
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds). The Post Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.
Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." Rice and Waugh 360 - 7.
Bratlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness:British Literature and Imperialism, 1830 - 1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1988.
Dickens, Charles and Wilkie Collins. "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." Household Words 19 (extra number) Christmas, 1857.
Hutchins, Francis G. The Illusion of Permenance: British Imperialism in India. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967.
JanMohammed, A.R. "The Economy of Manichean Allegory." Ashcroft et. al 18 - 23.
Loomba, Ania.Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.
Oddie, William. "Dickens and the Indian Mutiny." The Dickensian 68 (1972): 3 - 15.
Peters, Laura. "Dickens and Popular Orphan Adventure Narratives." The Dickensian 94 (1998): 172 - 83.
Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh. Modern Literary Theory: A Reader.3rd ed. London: Arnold, 1996.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.
David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page. Contains information, links and a Dickens biography.
The Dickens Project(at the University of California)
The Dickens Page
"The Perils of Certain English Prisoners": an e-text of the first and third chapters
The Postcolonial Site : This is an excellent site containing a wealth of material,including a subsection containing theory and history relating to all aspects of India as a British colony.
The Victorian Web Overview: This site contains links and articles concerned with all aspects of Victorian culture.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Nicholas Stewart. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
Top of This Page
[QUB Home Page][Prometheus Home Page][The Imperial Archive]