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R.M. Ballantyne (1825-1894) - in full Robert Michael - pseudonym: Comus


Scottish writer for boys, noted for the adventure story The Coral Island (1858), which Robert Louis Stevenson acknowledged as the formative influence of his own love of the South Seas. The book, which also inspired J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1904) and William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), has not been out of print since it first appeared. Several abridged editions have been published for young readers. Ballantyne's narrative skill, colorful settings, and resourcefulness of his heroes have secured his popularity throughout generations.

"For many months after this we continued to live on our island in uninterrupted harmony and happiness. Sometimes we went out afishing in the lagoon, and sometimes went ahunting in the woods, or ascended to the mountain-top, by way of variety, although Peterkin always asserted that we went for the purpose of hailing any ship that might chance to heave in sight. But I am certain that none of us wished to be delivered from our captivity, for we were extremely happy, and Peterkin used to say that as we were very young we should not feel the loss of a year or two." (from The Coral Island, abridged edition)

R.M. Ballantyne was born in Edinburgh, the son of Anne Randall Scott Grant and Alexander Ballantyne, a newspaper editor and the brother of John and James Ballantyne (see below). Walter Scott's financial crisis had triggered in 1813 the collapse of John Ballantyne and Co., the printer of Scott's works, but the company was saved by a new contract of co-parthership. However, at the time of Ballantyne's birth, the financial crisis of 1826 had caused the family's ruin.

Ballantyne was educated at Edinburgh Academy (1835-37) and privately. Between the ages of 16 and 22 he was employed in Canada by the Hudson Bay Company, trading with local Indians in remote areas. Due to feelings of homesickness, Ballantyne started to write letters to his mother. "To this long-letter writing I attribute whatever small amount of facility in composition I may have acquired," Ballantyne recalled in Personal Reminiscences of Book-Making  (1893).

After returning to Scotland in 1847, Ballantyne worked as a clerk at the North British Railway Company in Edinburgh for two years, and was then employed by the paper-makers Alexander Cowan and Company. From 1849 to 1855 he was junior partner of Thomas Constable and Company, a printing house.

Ballantyne's autobiographical work Hudson's Bay: Or Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America (1848) depicted his youth and adventures in Canada. From 1856 he devoted himself entirely to free-lance writing and giving lectures. The first stories depicted his life in Canada, later works dealt with his adventures in Britain, Africa, and elsewhere. His other early works include Snowflakes and Sunbeams, or, The Young Fur Traders (1856), Ungava: A Tale of Esquimaux-Land (1857), and The Dog Crusoe (1860). Several of his books were based on personal experience. During his career Ballantyne wrote over 80 books. He had a considerable influence on boys and young men of the time, the future builders of the British Empire, who could identify themselves with his unchaperoned boy heroes. A good part of Ballantyne's  popularity can be attributed to the celebration of British racial, cultural, and moral superiority.  

The Coral Island tells a story of three English boys, Ralph Rover, the 15 years old narrator, three years older Jack, and humorous 14 year old Peterkin, who are shipwrecked on a deserted island. In the true Robinson Crusoe fashion they create an idyllic society despite typhoons, wild hogs, and hostile visitors. The boys make a fire by rubbing two sticks together and climb palm trees to gather thin-skinned coconuts  a mistake in detail Ballantyne was bitterly to regret. To sail to other islands they build a boat and make a sail out of the coconut cloth. After a fight Jack wins the native chief, Taroro. Then evil pirates kidnap Ralph whose adventures continue among the South Sea Islands. He manages to escape with one of the members of the crew, Bloody Bill, and with the pirates' schooner. Bill dies and Ralph and returns to his friends. When they try to help Avatea, a Samoan girl, to go to Christian natives, Tararo seizes them. However, an English missionary appears on the scene and Tararo becomes a Christian. Finally the three heroes return to civilization, matured and much wiser. "To part is the lot of all mankind. The world is a scene of constant leave-making, and the hands that grasp in cordial greeting today, are doomed ere long to unite for the last time, when the quivering lips pronounce the word  'Farewell'."

Annoyed by a mistake he made in The Coral Island, Ballantyne travelled widely to gain first-hand knowledge and to research the backgrounds of his stories. He spent three weeks on Bell Rock to write The Lighthouse (1865), and was for a short time a London fireman (Fighting the Flames, 1867), for Deep Down (1868) he lived with the tinminers of St. Just for over three months. Experiences as a fireman on board the tender of the London-to Edinburgh express and weeks on the Gull Lightship also gave material for his subsequent novels. Ballantyne was especially careful with the details of local flora and fauna, giving believable settings for his dramatic adventures, shipwrecks and other colorful events.

In 1866 Ballantyne married Jane Dickson Grant; they had four sons and two daughters. After 1883 he lived in Harrow, Middlesex. Ballantyne died on February 8, 1894, in Rome, Italy. He had been suffering from a mysterious ailment, which was later diagnosed as Ménière's disease. Ballantyne was buried in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome. Upon his death, thousands of schoolboys raised £600 to commemorate him. On the advice on R.L. Stevenson, £40 was devoted to purchasing the tombstone and the rest of the money went to Ballantyne's widow and his children.

Ballantyne opened views into the world, that just waited for brave explorers, for the sons of the rapidly expanding literati of middle- and working-class families. He became the hero of Victorian youth. Ballantyne's straitjacketed Puritanism did not rouse any questions, and the lighthearted descriptions of the slaughter of fauna and natives of the islands were then passed without comment. With his books Ballantyne made his contribution to the success of missionaries, soldiers, sailors, trail-blazers, and adventurers of the age of Imperialism.

James Ballantyne (1772-1833), brother of John Ballantyne, at first a solicitor, then a printer in Kelso and later in Edinburgh. Although his printing business with his brother and Walter Scott was highly successful, he was bankrupted by the crash of Constable and Co. in 1826. Scott named him Aldiborontiphoscophoria after a character in H. Carey's burlesque Chrononhotonthologos. John Ballantyne (1774-1821), brother of James Ballantyne, became in 1809 manager of the publishing firm started by himself and Sir Walter Scott, who named him 'Rigdum-Funnidos' after a character in Henry Carey's (1687?-1743) burlesque Chrononhotonthologos.

For further reading: The Young Fur Trader; the Story of R. M. Ballantyne by L. C. Rodd (1966); Ballantyne the Brave: A Victorian Writer and His Family  by Eric Quayle (1967); R.M. Ballantyne: A Bibliography of First Editions by Eric Quayle (1968); Literature and Imperialism, edited by Robert Giddings (1991); The Robinsonade Tradition in Robert Michael Ballantyne's the Choral Island and William Golding's the Lord of the Flies by Karin Siegl (1996); St James Guide to Children's Writers, ed. by Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast (1999); 'Separate Accounts: Class and Colonization in the Early Stories of R.M. Ballantyne' by Robert P. Irvine, in Journal of Victoria Culture, Volume 12, Number 2 Autumn (2007)  - Note: Suomeksi on käännetty myös mm. Pikku Ailin matka maailman merillä. Kirjailijan tunnetuin teos, Korallisaari, ilmestyi suomeksi ensimmäisen kerran 1918. Kariston julkaisemana Crusoe-koirasta ja Gorillanmetsästäjistä otettiin uusintapainokset vuonna 1989. See also: William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954)

Selected works:

  • Hudson's Bay: Or Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America, During Six Years' Residence in the Territories of the Hudson's Bay, 1848
  • Snowflakes and Sunbeams; or, The Young Fur Traders: A Tale of the Far North, 1856
  • Mister Fox: A Children's Nursery Rhyme , 1857 (as Comus)
  • My Mother (Chit-Chat), 1857 (as Comus)
  • The Life of a Ship from the Launch to the Wreck, 1857
  • Ungava: A Tale of Esquimaux-Land, 1857
  • The Coral Island, 1857
    - Korallisaari (suom. Erkki Walkeala, 1918)
    - TV mini-series 2000, prod. Zenith North Ltd, dir. John Gorrie, adaptaton Barry Purchese, starring Nicholas Ball, Trevor Byfield, Adam Deacon, William Mannering, Ashley Walters
  • Three Little Kittens Lost Their Mittens, 1858 (as Comus)
  • The Robber Kitten, 1858 (as Comus)
  • Martin Rattler, 1858
  • Mee-a-ow!, 1859
  • How Not to Do It: A Manual for the Awkward Squad, or, A Handbook of Directions Written for the Instruction of Raw Recruits in Our Rifle Volunteer Regiments, 1860  
  • The World of Ice, 1860
  • The Dog Crusoe and his Master, 1860 (see Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe)
    - Crusoe-koira (suom. Hannu Sarrala, 1977)
  • The Golden Dream, 1861
  • The Gorilla Hunters, A Tale of the Wilds of Africa, 1861
    - Gorillanmetsästäjät (suom. Inkeri Uusitalo, 1974)
  • The Red Eric, 1861
  • The Wild Man of the West, 1863
  • Fighting the Whales, 1863
  • Away in the Wilderness, 1863
  • Fast in the Ice, 1863
  • Gascoyne, 1864
  • The Lifeboat, 1864
  • Chasing the Sun, 1864
  • Freaks on the Fells, 1864
  • The Lighthouse, 1865
  • Fast in the Ice; or, Adventures in the Polar Regions, 1865
  • Shifting Winds: A Story of the Sea, 1866
  • Fighting The Flames, 1867
  • Silver Lake, 1867
  • Deep Down, 1868
  • Erling the Bold: A Tale of the Norse Sea-Kings, 1869
  • Sunk at Sea, 1869
  • Lost in the Forest, 1869
  • Over the Rocky Mountains, 1869
  • Saved by the Lifeboat, 1869
  • The Cannibal Islands, 1869
  • Hunting the Lions, 1869
  • Digging for Gold, 1869
  • Up in the Clouds, 1869
  • The Battle and the Breeze, 1869
  • The Floating Light of the Goodwin Sands, 1870
  • The Iron Horse , 1871
  • The Pioneers, 1872
  • The Norsemen in the West: America before Columbus, 1872
  • Life in the Red Brigade, 1873
  • Black Ivory:  A Tale of Adventure among the Slavers of East Africa, 1873
  • Man on the Ocean. A Book about Boats and Ships, 1874 (rev. ed.)
  • Rivers of Ice, 1875
  • The Story of the Rock, 1875
  • Under the Waves: Diving in Deep Waters, 1876
  • The Settler and the Savage, 1877
  • In the Track of the Troops, 1878
  • Jarwin and Cuffy, 1878
  • Six Months at the Cape; or, Letters to Periwinkle from South Africa, 1878 (with illus. by S. E. Waller from sketches by the author)
  • Philosopher Jack, 1880
  • The Lonely Island, 1880
  • Post Haste, 1880
  • The Red Man's Revenge, 1880
  • My Doggie and I, 1881
  • The Giant of the North, 1882
  • The Kitten Pilgrims, 1882
  • The Battery and the Boiler: Adventures in the Laying of Submarine Electric Cables, 1883
  • Battles with the Sea, 1883
  • The Thorogood Family, 18883
  • The Madman and the Pirate, 1883
  • The Pirate City: An Algrine Tale, 1884
  • Dusty Diamonds, Cut and Polished, 1884
  • The Young Trawler, 1884
  • Twice Bought, 1885
  • The Rover of the Andes, 1885
  • The Island Queen, 1885
  • Red Rooney, 1886
  • The Prairie Chief, 1886
  • The Lively Poll, 1886
  • The Big Otter, 1887
  • The Fugitives; or, The Tyrant Queen of Madagascar, 1887
  • Blue Lights: or, Hot Work in the Sudan, 1888
  • The Middy and the Moors (Slave of the Moors), 1888
  • The Crew of the Water Wagtail, 1889
  • The Eagle Cliff, 1889
  • Blown to Bits, 1889
  • The Garret and the Garden, 1890
  • Charlie to the Rescue, 1890
  • The Buffalo Runners, 1891
  • The Coxswain's Bride, 1891
  • The Hot Swamp: A Romance of Old Albion, 1892
  • Hunted and Harried, 1892
  • The Walrus Hunters: A Romance of the Realms of Ice, 1893
  • Personal Reminiscences of Book-Making , 1893
  • Reuben's Luck, 1896
  • Gascoyne, the Sandal-Wood Trader, 1923 (edited by Brookes More)
  • Black Ivory: A Tale of Adventure among the Slavers of East Africa, 1969 (foreword by Jean-Louis Brindamour)
  • The Coral Island, 1977 (with a preface for the Garland ed. by Edward Hower)
  • The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean, 1990 (edited with an introduction by J.S. Bratton)

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