Magellania: A Socio-Political Statement

Jules Verne's final tale of adventure features an individualist hero who leaves his country behind for an unclaimed island. What he finds there, however, are political quagmires he never expected.

A man was standing atop a cliff gazing south, below him the ocean…

“He was tall and fit, with indestructible good health. Everything about him bespoke energy, which sometimes took the explosive form of anger... His face was marked with gravity, a little like the gravity of the American Indian, and his entire being exuded pride, quite different from the pride of egoists who are in love with themselves. This gave him a true nobility of gesture and stance” (Magellania, pp 3-4).

This is how Jules Verne introduces the reader to Kaw-djer, the protagonist of his recently rediscovered novel, Magellania. The original manuscript of the book was not published until 1977, with the first English edition published in 2002.

“Kaw-djer” means “friend” or “benefactor” in the native language of the inhabitants of Magellania, the domain that includes the islands between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, at the southernmost tip of the American continent. (Today, this domain is a part of Tierra del Fuego, the “Land of Fire.”) Kaw-djer is the name given to the protagonist by the land’s inhabitants, the Fuegian tribes. His real name and identity remain a mystery.

Kaw-djer is a skillful, self-sufficient man who abandons the civilized world and chooses to live by himself in Magellania. He chooses this land because no country had bothered to claim it. Magellania belongs to no one, so no one has jurisdiction over it, leaving Kaw-djer free to answer only to himself. For Kaw-djer’s greatest passion is complete, unbridled independence — his motto is “Neither God nor master!”

As pointed out in a previous column, Jules Verne’s staunchly independent protagonists are not provided with a moral code to sustain their independence. Verne accepted the conventional negative view of egoism as “being in love with oneself.” Nevertheless, Kaw-djer’s pride and his dedication to his personal code are admirable and appealing.

Kaw-djer is not a misanthrope. As a trained physician, he tends to the sick among the natives, hence the origin of the name they give him. The natives and the few missionaries who visit them respect his wish to be left alone. Little by little, the reader finds out more about Kaw-djer, and about the ideas that set him against society with all its laws and governments. An idealistic anarchist in mid-Nineteenth Century Europe, he is repulsed by the violent methods used by his comrades, and realizes that the only way to practice his ideology is to abandon civilization and society:

“An untamed, indomitable, stubborn spirit, who tolerated no authority, incapable of obedience, rebelling against all the laws, which despite their doubtless imperfections, are necessary for people to live among one another” (p 71).

Living by choice like the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe, Kaw-djer finds his Friday, the native Karroly, whose son Kaw-djer saves from attack by local warriors. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, however, Kaw-djer does not become Karroly’s master, but remains his equal and friend; his personal code requires that he neither obeys nor commands.

Verne integrated his fictional story with the geographic and historical facts of Tierra del Fuego, relying heavily on Charles Darwin’s journal of his research in the area. Darwin recorded the following about the communal property of the native inhabitants:

“The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization…In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, such as the domesticated animals, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved. At present, even a piece of cloth given to one is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another” (p 242).

Back in Europe, Kaw-djer’s anarchist comrades are also socialists, convinced that the abolition of private property is necessary for the abolition of the laws that protected it, and the governments that enforced those laws. Verne surveys the evolution of socialist ideas in Nineteenth Century Europe and criticizes their proponents, notably Proudhon and Karl Marx. The socialists’ motto, Verne says, is “expropriation of the capitalist bourgeoisie.” He asks: “Can they pretend to be unaware that what they unjustly call thievery really should be called savings, and that savings is the basis of any society?” (p 71)

With the treaty of 1871, Tierra del Fuego became an integral part of the Chilean republic. This event is integrated into the plot of Magellania, as Kaw-djer is exasperated and distraught about the imminent encounter with the civil servants sent over to register the inhabitants. He flees to the remote uninhabited Hoste Island in a desperate attempt to preserve his independence, and is about to commit suicide at the prospect of living as a fugitive. But then a passenger liner called The Jonathan is shipwrecked near the island. Kaw-djer is faced with a critical decision: Should he try to save the castaways and expose his existence? His decision brings him in contact with the civilized world he had abandoned.

Since the passengers were en route to colonies in South Africa, they decide to remain in Hoste Island and establish a new colony. The Chilean government, eager to encourage colonization of Magellania’s other islands, grants them total independence and ownership of Hoste Island, an offer they cannot refuse. Kaw-djer has no reason to hide from the Chilean government any more.

As Kaw-djer becomes acquainted with the colonists, he is drawn to their companionship, and his personal code — which allows no social relationships — is cracked. The colonists are not a homogenous group, however; among them are some socialists and anarchists, or as Verne describes them, “professional revolutionaries, always battling with the law, enemies of any social order, agents of chaos” (p 95). They had already started trouble on board The Jonathan, and are determined to impose their anarcho-socialist ideology on the rest of the colonists. They demand that the land be owned in common by everybody.

The majority of the colonists, however, want to allocate the land among the individual families and establish a system of laws to protect private ownership. They elect a council and call upon Kaw-djer to become their leader. Kaw-djer, however, is bound by his personal code, which demands that he neither obeys nor commands. Sensing his ideological affinity with them, the anarcho-socialists call upon Kaw-djer to join them. As the conflict between the two factions develops, and inevitably becomes violent, Kaw-djer must make a fateful decision.

was never published in Verne’s lifetime. It was published posthumously by his son, Michel, who took many liberties in altering it, including the cutting of the opening part. Michel Verne changed the title Magellania to The Castaways of The Jonathan, shifting the focus from the land chosen by Kaw-djer to the shipwrecked people whom he rescues. Overall, the book was altered to reduce Kaw-djer’s stature and the role of his ideology in the story.

With the first English edition of the original manuscript published in 2002, we can finally appreciate Verne’s socio-political statement: his frank and well-reasoned rejection of both anarchism and socialism in favor of limited-government capitalism.

Michelle Fram Cohen, a native of Israel, has lived in the United States since 1981. She holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature and works as a computer programmer, as well as a freelance translator and writer. Her writings have been published in Navigator, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and Full Context. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and son.

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