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Captain Nemo: the tech genius and social justice warrior driven by revenge

Image credit: Alamy

Captain Nemo, probably the most famous character created by the godfather of science fiction, 19th-century French writer Jules Verne, was a broken genius driven to acts of evil by the desire for revenge.

The protagonist of classics such as ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘The Mysterious Island’ was not a truly evil man. A descendant of the south-Indian monarch Tipu Sultan and inventor of the high-tech submarine Nautilus, Nemo had suffered greatly at the hands of the British Empire, which had tried to gain access to his inventions.

His family, including his wife and children, had been brutally killed by the British following the suppression of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. The loss of his loved ones, whom he mourned until the end of his life, prompted Nemo to reject human civilisation and retreat into the underwater kingdom.

A truly renaissance man, Nemo was also an accomplished organ player and a connoisseur of fine arts. The character’s status as a social justice activist and an early eco-warrior, as well as his psychological complexity, makes him relevant even 150 years after he was first introduced to the readers.

Nemo’s greatest invention, the submarine Nautilus, described by Verne as “a masterpiece containing masterpieces”, is a testament to Verne’s imagination and scientific foresight.

Verne named Nautilus after one of the first submarines ever constructed – a vessel built by American engineer Robert Fulton at the turn of the 19th century. The actual inspiration for the fictional watercraft, however, came from a vessel called Plongeur, the first ever submarine propelled by mechanical rather than human power which had been showcased to the public at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris.

Verne’s imagination took Nautilus’ technology far beyond Plongeur’s rather crude compressed air engine. While Plongeur required 23 huge tanks to store the compressed air, Nemo’s submarine was more conveniently powered by electricity and relied on sustainable sodium/mercury batteries, with the sodium being extracted from seawater.

While Plongeur was capable of reaching a meagre top speed of 7.2km/hr, the fictional Nautilus cruised the world’s seas at a far more impressive 93km/hr.

The 70m-long Nautilus, shaped like a giant cigar, was divided into several watertight compartments that protected the submarine from being flooded in case of an accident. The double-hulled vessel used floodable tanks to control its depth. The pumps expelling water from these tanks were so powerful that they created a jet effect when Nautilus emerged, which led onlookers to mistake the submarine for a giant whale.

The 1954 Disney adaptation of ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ replaced the electric propulsion with nuclear propulsion, a more state-of-the art technology at that time, which Nemo was said to have invented.

The crew of Nautilus harvested all types of seafood and made drinking water from seawater through distillation. The submarine, however, wasn’t equipped with an atmosphere regeneration system and had to emerge every five days to draw in fresh air.

Another feature taken from Plongeur was Nautilus’ ramming prow, designed to break holes in the hull of enemy ships. Nemo used the submarine as a weapon against ships of the hated empire.

One of the ships attacked by Nautilus was the US Navy frigate Abraham Lincoln, which had been sent to search for the mysterious sea monster. Three men survived the shipwreck and were taken aboard Nautilus as hostages – French marine biologist Professor Pierre Aronnax, his servant Conseil and harpoonist Ned Land. Nemo enjoyed the company of the educated Aronnax but made it clear he wouldn’t allow the trio to leave the submarine since they could reveal his secrets to the world. The three eventually managed to escape.

The positive side of Nemo, as well as the details of his past, were revealed in the sequel ‘The Mysterious Island’. After having narrowly escaped destruction in the maelstrom at the end of ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’, Nautilus and its crew secretly roamed the world’s oceans for years. Eventually, all Nemo’s crewmembers died, and the aging captain retreated to Nautilus’ secret homeport on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.

In the 1954 Disney movie, which combined motives from both books, the island was named Vulcania and was said to harbour many more genius inventions of Nemo. In the film, Nemo destroyed the island with what was believed to be a nuclear explosion to prevent the enemy empire from accessing his secrets.

The destruction of the island also happened at the end of ‘The Mysterious Island’. The book, however, first showed Nemo secretly helping a group of survivors whose balloon had crashed on the island. He provided them with a box of equipment and alerted them to the existence of another castaway on a nearby island. More of Nemo’s technical inventions were introduced in the story: he destroyed a pirate ship with a torpedo, killed pirates with an electric gun, which left no visible marks on their bodies, and secretly provided medicine to one of the settlers who contracted malaria.

It is to the settlers that Nemo eventually revealed his true identity. Upon his death, the group sank Nautilus with Nemo’s body aboard, turning the technological wonder into his grave. The island was then destroyed by a powerful explosion, of which Nemo forewarned the settlers, making sure to alert a passing ship to their existence.

Nemo’s qualities, his passion for social justice, rejection of the exploitative domination-seeking imperialistic nations and rooting for the world’s oppressed, could be traced already throughout ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’, both the original book and the 1954 film.

He chose the underwater world because it was out of reach of the world’s powers, and he only visited dry land if it was uninhabited. He actively supported oppressed nations such as the Cretans fighting against the Turks and helped struggling Ceylonese pearl divers. He even defended sea creatures attacked by predatory species.

He believed his destructive actions, breaching international maritime law, were justified since he was defending his free world from the ruthless empires.

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