Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne

Title: The Coral Island
Author: R M Ballantyne
First Published: 1857
ISBN-13: 9780140367614
Pages: 296/ Penguin Young Readers Group
Rating: 4/5

I read it first when I was 13 years old. Now I re-read it for my 10-year-old nephew. I possess a very old copy of it, which is completely unabridged with all the ‘racist’ terms intact. I censored those out for him!

This story begins with 15-year-old Ralph Rover telling about his life. As he belongs to a family of seafarers, he too has it in him to sail the seas. He is allowed to go to sea as an apprentice on a ship by his father where he makes two great friends, eighteen-year-old Jack Martin who is a tall, strapping, broad-shouldered youth with a good sense of humour and 14-year-old Peter Gay, a funny, mischievous boy. Their ship is caught in a huge storm and the trio end up as the only people to wash ashore on a South Pacific island.

This, however, is not a story of excessive hardship as one might expect! With many adventures of discovery, bloody battles, and pirates and of course a cat, it is evident from the beginning that it is far from the customary run-of-the-mill survival stories. This novel is a creative and educational story of three shipwrecked boys on a Coral Island and how they learn to survive in the wilderness after encountering natives and pirates. Captured by pirates, Ralph escapes and returns to the island with Jack and Peterkin to try to sort out family problems with some of the natives they met.

Ballantyne's thinks that the free acceptance of Christianity by the natives can bring them all the benefits of European civilization. Ballantyne has an unshakeable belief in the adequacy of voluntary conversion to Christianity to improve the conditions and conduct of the natives, and there is no hint in his novel that altruistic concern should lead to measures forced on the natives for their own good.

Ballantyne also attempts to place economic motives beyond the light of civilization by identifying them with the pirates, who represent the purely economic motifs of Europeans. Although the natives are transformed, the Europeans in the story remain unchanged by their experiences. This compares with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad where the character of Kurtz goes native with horrendous consequences.