Communicating with Indigenous People in "The Coral Island" by Ballantyne, "She" by Haggard and "The Prisoner of Zenda" by Hope

Seminar Paper 2017 18 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Coral Island

3 She

4 The Prisoner of Zenda

6 Conclusion

Works Cited


1 Introduction

Adventurers make a lot of acquaintances. On their travels, they stand up to cannibals of the South Pacific, live together with an African tribe or even disguise themselves as monarch of a fictitious Ruritanian folk. With whomever the protagonists get in touch, they cannot get around communicating. Thus, a lot of communication processes are also displayed in the three Victorian novels The Coral Island (1858) by Robert M. Ballantyne, She (1887) by H. Rider Haggard and The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) by Anthony Hope.

These communication processes, however, do not solely restrict themselves to spoken language, but also embody the mimic and gestural features of the body language. In terms of the former, it is striking that in each of the abovementioned novels, the language of the indigenous population is different to that of the adventurous main characters. Instead of their mother tongue, the adventurers are confronted with Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin[1] ; with German[2] and even with “ dialects of the language peculiar to the South Sea Islanders ” (Ballantyne 215). Since such a diversity of languages can also lead to communicational problems, it will be interesting to see how the characters can cope with misunderstandings or a limited vocabulary.

In general, I am interested in displaying the various ways of enabling intercultural communication. Therefore, I will analyse the linguistic qualifications of both, the adventurers as well as the indigenous people, in order to understand why certain communicative obstacles occur and how the characters are able to overcome them. Since the cultures of the three novels are very different, I have decided to divide my paper into the respective novels in the main part. In the conclusion, then, I will draw a comprehensive comparison to illustrate similarities as well as differences in regard to the novels’ communicative approaches.

2 The Coral Island

They are the sole survivors: the three boys Ralph Rover, Peterkin Gay and Jack Martin have just succeeded in swimming ashore on “ The Coral Island ” (Ballantyne 12), after “ an awful storm ” (Ballantyne 9) had made a wreck out of their ship. In this extreme situation, the unfortunate boys are on their own and have to care for themselves. They are all very young: Jack is eighteen years old, Ralph is fifteen and Peterkin thirteen. Without parental guidance or any experiences, they have to find food, build a shelter and rely on their own resources. If that is not enough, they come across pirates and cannibals, the latter of whom do not even speak English.

The first contact with these “ incarnate fiends ” (Ballantyne 173) happens only after several months[3]. They are depicted as “ almost entirely naked ” (ibid.) or “ tattooed from head to foot ” (ibid.) and their outward appearance appears rather beastly than human: “ they looked more like demons than human beings ” (ibid.) or “ seemed the most terrible monster ” (ibid.). When the two groups of cannibals start fighting, the three boys keep out of harm’s way in the first place observing the cruelties committed by the cannibals: “ Next moment one of the savages raised his club, and fractured the wretched creature’s skull. He must have died instantly ” (Ballantyne 175). But when the victors of the battle, after having taken fifteen prisoners[4], threaten to kill one of the captured women, the boys intervene eventually.

Similar to how the cannibals introduced themselves “ with a yell ” (Ballantyne 171), Jack also utters “ a yell that rang like a death-shriek among the rocks ” (Ballantyne 177) and thereby adapts one custom of the wild Polynesians. A moment ago, he only observed the scene and now, he participates in the battle being as violent to the cannibals as they have been before: “ With one blow of his staff Jack felled the man with the club; then, turning round with a look of fury, he rushed upon the big chief ” (ibid.).

Having successfully aided one group of the savages to defeat the other, the victorious cannibals crowd around Ralph, Peterkin and Jack to heap up “ a flood of questions, which, being wholly unintelligible, of course [they] could not answer ” (Ballantyne 180). This is the first instance in the novel delineating a clash of languages and resulting in a nonverbal solution. In order to express “ good-will ” (Ballantyne 180), Jack shakes the hand of the chief and as soon as the other savages understand his good intentions, they emulate Jack’s deeds. Again, the adaptation of Jack’s nonverbal behaviour as well as Jack’s adaptation of cannibalistic customs (see above), serve as examples of how both groups learn to communicate with one another by watching and finally copying their counterpart’s language.

As for the “ ceremony of shaking hands ” (Ballantyne 186), once established, it is used as an interculturally common communicational custom, as evident from the farewell when they shake hands again (ibid.). The savages, in return, add to it their own “ mode of salutation ” (ibid.) by rubbing noses with Ralph, Peterkin and Jack[5] and thus establish a second kind of salutation.

In general, the central role is assigned to nonverbal communication, vivid in the various examples depicted in The Coral Island . Every once in a while, either one of the boys or savages use nonverbal “ signs ” (Ballantyne 180) for several purposes: Jack uses them as an invitation, for instance, when he wants “ the natives to follow him ” (Ballantyne 183); Tararo makes “ a great many energetic signs ” (Ballantyne 185) trying to convince the boys to go away with him to his island[6] ; or in general, the boys use signs as attempts to “ converse with the natives ” (Ballantyne 182), “ but without effect ” (ibid). Whilst these signs are not always abundantly clear, the characters also avail themselves of nonverbal acts by directly getting in touch with their counterpart. In that sense, Jack takes “ the chief by the hand ” (Ballantyne 180) in order to “ conduct him to the bower ” (ibid.) or places an infant on the bosom of its mother (ibid.). As opposed to the nonverbal signs that are performed without being physically in touch with one another, these direct contacts establish more clarity in the understanding of the counterpart’s intentions.

Besides gestures, the characters display a whole slew of facial expressions as well. When, for instance, one of the cannibals is about to “ cut a large slice of flesh from [the] thigh ” (Ballantyne 184) of another savage, Jack looks disgusted and the cannibal understands his look “ perfectly ” (ibid.). Arising thereby, mimic expressions seem to be universally recognized as they register emotions that are not attached to any culturally established customs.

As the instances mentioned above are all examples of the body language, one should add the situations in which spoken language is performed or, at least, attempted. Unfortunately, the boys do not speak the natives’ language, nor do the natives speak English. This, however, results in a general lack of vocabulary and has to be compensated for with creative learning techniques. Again, the characters cannot solely base their techniques on spoken speech, but rather have to use nonverbal communication for the support of a verbal task. In this regard, after having failed to converse with the cannibals for some time, they “ hit upon a plan of discovering their names ” (Ballantyne 182) and use the strategy of ‘pointing to things’. That way, Jack at first points to himself and says ‘Jack’ and subsequently, he lays “ his finger on the breast of the chief ” (ibid.) who understands immediately and responds with ‘Tararo’. Luckily, with this didactic method, Ralph, Peterkin and Jack have found a way to approach some words and names of the foreign language, but also hit the wall as many misunderstandings still remain[7].

Some of the misunderstandings are almost fatal: “ The chief seemed to understand the appeal, for he stepped forward, raised his club, and was on the point of dashing out the brains of his offending subject, when Jack sprang forward and caught his uplifted arm. ‘Stop,’ he shouted, ‘you blockhead! I don’t want you to kill the man.’ ” (Ballantyne 184). Examples like this show that misinterpretations in communication can have crucial effects on the human co-existence. Nevertheless and despite such unfortunate examples, Ralph, Peterkin and Jack are improving their conversational skills (see above) which, at last, is due to their eagerness and many “ attempts to converse with the natives ” (Ballantyne 182).

Still, in the end, they are not able to free themselves out of captivity. It is thanks to a Christian missionary that the three boys are finally liberated after he has convinced the chief of the tribe to Christianize. Being able to speak the language of the savages, the missionary functions thus as a translator and finally, the boys are able to express themselves through him: “ To some of these Jack put questions through the medium of the missionary; and the replies were such as to surprise us at the extent of their knowledge ” (Ballantyne 291). The qualities of a translator like him are but not restricted solely to ‘translating’ but rather also extended to ‘evaluating’. When Jack, for example, wants another character (the teacher) to say something inappropriate[8] for him, the teacher suggests: “ Nay, my young friend, I had better not tell him that ” (Ballantyne 324), because “ it will only incense him ” (ibid.).

To sum up, the boys must take on a big task. They are too young to have much experience and unfortunately, they do not speak the language of the Polynesian inhabitants. Nevertheless, their eagerness to learn makes up for their lack of knowledge. First and foremost, it is the eldest one who comes up with creative ideas like introducing himself through a mode of salutation or pointing to things in order to learn new words. Since Jack democratically has been chosen their leader[9], Ralph and Peterkin follow his example and perform the communicational customs that Jack has introduced.

3 She

When Horace Holly and Leo Vincey open a locked iron box on Leo’s 25th birthday, professor Holly is in his element. The box, an heirloom of Leo’s father, unveils the “ Sherd of Amenartas ” (Haggard 30), an ancient relic, and aside from it, several texts in different languages as translations of the inscriptions which are engraved into the sherd. Holly has studied several languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Greek or Latin[10] and as a professor at Cambridge University[11], he can refer to a whole slew of educational testimonials. As someone who is that interested in ancient languages, he must very likely have taken a liking to reading the sherd and documents, all of which instruct him and his protégé Leo to travel to East Africa for tracing a legend of the Egyptian priest Kallikrates, an early ancestor of Leo’s.

Howsoever, Holly is not the only gifted linguist in the crew that sets sail to their African destination. According to his father’s wishes, Leo was taught Arabic by Holly and in the matter of Greek, he has also received a comprehensive education[12]. Leo is also the first to be described as “ airing [his] Arabic with that man at the tiller ” (Haggard 52). The man at the tiller refers to Mahomed, the first Arab the reader gets to know in the course of the story, and one can hardly hear him speak except for several “ Allah! ”s (Haggard 58, 64, 69) and one “ Simba! ” (Haggard 52).

Parallel to The Coral Island , the adventurers are shipwrecked with their dhow, and this time, only four members of the crew survive including Mahomed, Leo, Holly and his servant Job[13]. Under these circumstances, they have to fight their way through an uncharted region of the African interior until, after a few days, the four are rudely awakened by the sudden appearance of the indigenous tribe of the Amahagger [14] . In their salutation, one of the Amahagger says “ Peace ” (Haggard 73) in Arabic; nevertheless, the situation seems very unpeaceful inasmuch as one of the natives holds a spear “ against [Holly’s] throat, and behind it other spears gleamed cruelly ” (ibid.).

In this situation, it is very fortunate to be proficient in the Arabic language. Thus, it enables Holly, in his “ best Arabic ” (Haggard 73), to assure good intentions, justifying their presence by saying that they are “ travellers, and have come hither by chance ” (ibid.). Auspiciously, the Amahagger decide not to “ slay ” (ibid.) them since they obey the word of the mysterious “ She-who-must-be-obeyed ” (ibid.) who said that “ if white men come, slay them not ” (Haggard 73f). As the situation has been defused and the adventurers are carried away by the natives, Leo takes the opportunity to deliver some comic relief (in English): “ Well! (...) it is a blessing to find anybody to carry us after having to carry ourselves so long ” (Haggard 74).

Succeeding situations, due to his qualifications, mainly have Holly leading the conversation. Once again, he defends Job who flees from an Amahagger lady after she kissed him: “ I took an opportunity to explain to our hosts that Job was a married man, and had had very unhappy experiences in his domestic relations ” (Haggard 85). Not only can Holly evaluate his own command of Arabic, he is furthermore capable of giving a professional opinion on the Arabic qualities of others. Accordingly, he considers Ayesha’s Arabic to be “ much purer and more classical Arabic than the Amahagger talk ” (Haggard 128) and says about his travel companion: “ Leo, who, thanks to years of tuition, spoke Arabic very prettily ” (Haggard 89).

In similar fashion, the reader discovers that some of the indigenous people come up with good linguistic competence as well. This holds true especially for queen Ayesha and chief Billali who, according to their fields of functions, relish a superior social position. They pun, for instance, on the names of Leo and Holly, “ as expressive of their respective lion- and tree-like qualities ” (Haggard xv): “ And the young one, the lion, it was a beautiful stand that he made ” (Haggard 101) or “ Well, thou hast a prickly and yet a tree-like look ” (Haggard 135). As for the articulate Ayesha, she speaks several languages as well[15] and boasts an “ archaic syntax ” (Haggard xv), thus, it is sometimes hard for Holly to follow. Whilst She rather pokes fun at the puns created on the adventurers’ names[16] and only calls Holly a “ dog ” (Haggard 178) in rage, Billali constantly uses animal names for Holly: “ Yes, yes, my Baboon ” (Haggard 107) or “ It is wonderful my son the Baboon ” (Haggard 129)[17]. He, and the Amahagger in general, blacken Job by calling him a “ Pig on account of his fatness, round face, and small eyes ” (Haggard 112) and thus create a characteristic contrast between him and Leo, the Lion [18] ; at the end of the day, they do not seem to take Job’s concerns seriously.

The remaining folk of the Amahagger is not as privileged by social status and creates togetherness by ritualised communication. When they decide to slay Mahomed, for instance, “ a man from the other side of the circle called out in a loud voice - ‘Where is the flesh that we shall eat?’ ” (Haggard 94) to which the others reply: “ The flesh will come. ” (ibid.). Very often, the Amahagger speak “ with one voice ” (ibid.) like in this scenario; or on other occasions, they sing “ a monotonous song ” (Haggard 76) together. While performing their religiously motivated rituals, the Amahagger do not isolate themselves but acceptingly let the four adventurers participate, as evident from the “ periodical passing of the vase ” (Haggard 93). Their speech is “ rhythmical ” (Haggard 88) in general, which, for Leo and Holly, sounds like “ musical gibberish ” (Haggard 89). Whenever the Amahagger, for once, do not sing, they usually keep silent, “ as was their custom ” (Haggard 91). Hence, their communicational behaviour takes a little getting used to for Leo and Holly inasmuch they are not familiar with ritualized talking and to some extent, their silencing even serves to create suspense, as vivid in the procedure of passing the vase: “ Somehow I did not at all like the appearance of this tray and the accompanying pincers. There I sat and stared at them and at the silent circle of the fierce moody faces of the men, and reflected that it was all very awful, and that we were absolutely in the power of this alarming people ” (Haggard 93).


[1] In She : “ ‘Peace,’ said a voice, speaking in Arabic “ (Haggard 73) / “ ‘Knowst thou Greek also?’ ‘Yes, oh Queen, and something of Hebrew’ ”(Haggard 137) / “ ‘Leo!’ said Ayesha, in an absent voice; ‘why, that is 'lion' in the Latin tongue’ ” (Haggard 142).

[2] In The Prisoner of Zenda (Hope 8).

[3] In the beginning of Chapter XIX, Ralph narrates: “ For many months after this we continued to live on our island in uninterrupted harmony and happiness. ”(Ballantyne 168)

[4]Indeed, their enemies, now that they were conquered, seemed anxious to take them alive; and they succeeded in securing fifteen ” (Ballantyne 174)

[5] In this South Sea, this kind of salutation is called a “ hongi ”, as it was performed mainly by the Maori. (Rawlings-Way 352)

[6] At least, that is the interpretation of the boys: “ which, after much consideration, we came to understand were proposals that we should go away with him to his island ” (Ballantyne 185)

[7] When Avatea introduces herself with the same method and points to the sun afterwards, the boys do not understand: “ The woman smiled sadly, and nodded her head, at the same time pointing to her breast and then to the sun, in the same manner as the chief had done. We were much puzzled to know what this could signify, but as there was no way of solving our difficulty we were obliged to rest content. ” (Ballantyne 183)

[8]‘Tell him,’ replied Jack, ‘that we have not abused his hospitality, for his hospitality has not been extended to us. I came to the island to deliver Avatea, and my only regret is that I have failed to do so. If I get another chance, I will try to save her yet.’ ” (Ballantyne 324)

[9] Ralph narrates: “ we would have agreed to any proposal that Jack made, for, besides his being older and much stronger and taller than either of us, he was a very clever fellow, and I think would have induced people much older than himself to choose him for their leader, especially if they required to be led on a bold enterprise. ” (Ballantyne 24)

[10] To the question why he can speak Arabic, he answers: “ I have studied it (...) for many years. ” (Haggard 136). Later in that scene, Ayesha asks him whether he can also speak Greek and he answers: “ Yes, oh Queen, and something of Hebrew, but not to speak them well. ” (Haggard 137). And Ayesha: “ Ah, thou canst speak the Latin tongue, too! ” (ibid.) after Holly said: “ Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant ” (ibid.)

[11] Holly speaks of his “ rooms at Cambridge ” (Haggard 16)

[12]We followed out his father's instructions as regards his education strictly enough, and on the whole the results, especially in the matters of Greek and Arabic, were satisfactory. ” (Haggard 28)

[13]The dhow had gone down with them (...) And we four were saved. ” (Haggard 59)

[14] It takes some time to discover the tribe’s name, but when Holly talks to Billali, the latter explains: ” The name of my people is Amahagger ” (Haggard 77)

[15] She holds conversations with Holly in Arabic, Latin, Greek and Hebrew (Haggard 137).

[16] Ayesha says: “ But how call they thee? Baboon he says ” (Haggard 135) and laughs.

[17] There are several more instances to be found: “ my Baboon ” (Haggard 103), “ Down, my son, down, my Baboon ” (Haggard 129), “ Oh my Baboon ” (Haggard 131), “ Good, my Baboon, good ” (Haggard 132) and so forth.

[18]The Lion has it badly, but he is young and he may live. As for the Pig, his attack is not so bad; it is the ‘little fever’ which he has ” (Haggard 113)


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
452 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Osnabrück
The Coral Island H. Rider Haggard She R. M. Ballantyne The Prisoner of Zenda Anthony Hope Indigenous People Ruritania South Pacific Children's Literature




Title: Communicating with Indigenous People in "The Coral Island" by Ballantyne, "She" by Haggard and "The Prisoner of Zenda" by Hope