An Image of Africa From the Sky: Jules Verne’s “Five Weeks in a Balloon”

By John RiederApril 1, 2017

An Image of Africa From the Sky: Jules Verne’s “Five Weeks in a Balloon”

Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne

FREDERICK PAUL WALTER’S new translation of Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon is the latest in a distinguished series of Wesleyan University Press editions of Verne’s novels. Delightful illustrations of the original Parisian edition of 1863 generously decorate the beautifully produced volume. Walter’s adroit translation captures the verve and pace of Verne’s French, bringing this classic to life in English in a way that — as with much of Verne’s work — previous translations have fallen sadly short of accomplishing. Walter’s readable, welcoming introduction and explanatory notes, a full bibliography of Verne’s work and of selected secondary sources and criticism, a brief biography of Verne, and a “Gallery of Heroes” identifying the many explorers, travel writers, and other 19th-century figures referenced in the novel supplement the text. In short, this new edition makes a classic piece of French speculative fiction accessible to English readers in an admirably attractive and usable way.

Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne’s first great commercial success, was one of his most enduringly popular novels. It has perhaps been overshadowed, at least in the Anglophone world, by some of his better-known later works such as Around the World in Eighty Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and The Mysterious Island. This new translation and critical edition should help to move Five Weeks back into its deserved visibility in the history of speculative fiction. The first reason it should occupy our attention is the skill with which Verne tells his story. Walter’s introduction praises Verne’s “plotting skills and gift of invention, especially his knack for conjuring up tight spots, cliff-hangers, and ingenious escapes,” and indeed, the headlong pace of Verne’s episodic plot surely forms the basis for the novel’s popularity with Verne’s contemporaries and much of its enduring appeal. Five Weeks also sets forth for the first time a set of standard Vernean characters, named by Walter “the brain, the antagonist, and the stand-up comic,” that is repeated throughout Verne’s best-known work. As with Journey to the Center of the Earth, the plot follows a voyage of exploration into an exotic land, and as in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or From the Earth to the Moon, the vehicle of transportation itself lies very much at the center of interest. However, the travelers in Five Weeks in a Balloon explore a real place, Africa, rather than the imaginary underground realm of Journey to the Center of the Earth. They also employ a real technology, the lighter-than-air balloon, rather than the imaginary submarine-cum-luxury-cruiser of Twenty Thousand Leagues or the gigantic cannon and projectile passenger cabin of From the Earth to the Moon.

A significant part of the novel’s charm, in fact, lies in the way it catches so well the excitement and risks of long-range traveling in such an unsteerable and alarmingly vulnerable vehicle as the 19th-century balloon. Something of the thrill and glamour associated with ballooning in its heady early days in the late 18th and early 19th century survives in Verne’s prose. The sheer capriciousness of early balloon travel forms the core of Richard Holmes’s excellent (and highly recommended) account of it in The Age of Wonder (2009). My favorite moment in Holmes’s narrative is the landing of the first hydrogen balloon, piloted by Dr. Alexandre Charles in 1783. After a successful 27-mile flight, the balloon was brought to earth and secured, but when Charles asked his companion to step out of the basket, the balloon unexpectedly “rapidly relaunched and climbed into the sunset, reaching the astonishing height of 10,000 feet in a mere ten minutes.” Charles managed to reach earth again in 35 minutes, but he never flew again. Despite intense and partially successful efforts to find ways to steer and better control the flight of balloons, they remained in the 19th century, as Holmes puts it, “beautiful, expensive and dangerous toys.”

A good part of Verne’s story is, as anyone familiar with Verne would expect, concerned with the technical details of constructing and controlling the balloon. But it is the inescapable risks of balloon travel that drive the plot of its five-week journey over Africa. The plot turns for the last three quarters of the narrative on both the literal ups and downs and the uncontrollable waywardness of the attempt to travel from the east to the west coast of Africa in a vehicle entirely at the mercy of the winds for its direction and speed. The travelers are caught in dangerous, high-speed windstorms and left languishing in the desert hoping for a breeze to carry them into the vicinity of some potable water. At one point, the balloon’s tether to the land is grabbed by an elephant who pulls the entire vehicle and crew across the savannah, threatening to wreck them; at another (and more decisive) crisis, vultures attack the balloon itself while in flight, tearing its outer fabric and determining the ultimate failure of the attempt to cross the continent. Nonetheless, the travelers’ decision to put themselves at the mercy of the winds and the fragile technological wonder that is the balloon is often and pointedly compared to the far greater risks involved in traveling on the surface and having to deal with the threats posed by the human inhabitants of the African continent.

Charming as the balloon adventure is, what is most likely to attract the wonder and consternation of 21st-century readers is the novel’s depiction of Africa and Africans. Walter is at some pains in his introduction and explanatory notes to point out that some earlier translations of Five Weeks erroneously introduced “racial epithets and pejorative slang” for the two terms Verne used for blacks in Africa, “Nègre” and “Noir.” But the issues go far beyond choices of diction. The story serves as a deeply symptomatic fantasy of colonial appropriation. Our travelers fly over Africa, mapping its land and resources into the treasury of European knowledge while avoiding contact with the human inhabitants, for whom, we are told, “tracing the Nile’s headwaters was akin to grand larceny.” When Dr. Fergusson (the brain) declares to his crew that they need to disembark in order to authenticate the results of their overhead survey of the course of the Nile, he adds that they will do so “even if we have to exchange gunfire” with the hostile inhabitants. So, he continues, “science marches on, weapon in hand.” This is hardly an isolated incident. The discourse about Africa and Africans is immersed in assumptions of white superiority and colonial entitlement, from the chorus of “Long live the Queen! Long live England!” at the launching of the balloon to the desperate struggle to keep the balloon aloft long enough to land in French colonial West Africa and so escape violence at the hands of the “barbarians and fanatics” native to the continent.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not attacking Jules Verne. He writes as a representative of his time. Given the prevailing attitudes of Europeans during his cultural and historical moment, here is nothing extraordinary about his depiction of African tribes as cannibals who decorate a “war tree” with “heaps of human bones” that nearly hide a trunk decorated with “freshly decapitated human heads […] hanging from daggers stuck in the bark.” These are commonplace representations during this time (as is the all-male cast of characters, a typical feature of later 19th-century travel narratives and adventure fiction), and to Verne’s credit, he has his travelers go on to say among themselves, “if hanging’s less cruel, it’s just as barbaric.” In the ensuing moments, the balloon flies over a gruesome battle on the surface, and Dr. Fergusson, enjoining his companions to fly on and not to intervene, eerily anticipates Star Trek’s liberal “prime directive” of non-interference: “We mustn’t meddle, it isn’t our affair! Do you know the rights and wrongs of it, you who’d play the role of Providence?” Nonetheless, the constant assumption about the Africans that the balloon happily flies over remains that they are hostile and deadly. Whenever the balloon comes into their range of vision, the Africans shout threats and imprecations; if the balloon flies low enough it is sure to be attacked by arrows. No explanation for their hostility is ever offered; why the three Englishmen’s aerial exploration of the continent might look like an invasion to those on the ground is not an issue that comes up for discussion.

All of the colonial ideology is deeply entangled in notions of progress, of course, and this makes it all the more interesting when Verne has his “brain,” Dr. Fergusson, speculate that the future belongs to Africa. In an interesting exchange between Dr. Fergusson and his crew, Fergusson delivers a sketch of the history of civilization as a “progress” motivated by the depletion of resources, with migration to new territories as a result:

Asia was the first to suckle the world, true? She was in constant labor for maybe 4,000 years, she conceived, she bore fruit, and finally when stones sprang up instead of old Homer’s golden crops, her children turned away from her withered and depleted bosom. Then you see them flocking to young, energetic Europe, and she nurtured them for 2,000 years. But already her fertility is on the wane. […] [Eventually] Africa will offer new races the treasures that have accumulated for centuries in her bosom. These climates so fatal to foreigners will be cleansed by crop rotation and soil drainage; these scattered watercourses will be combined into one common bed and will form a thoroughfare for shipping. And this country we’re soaring over will become more fertile, wealthy, and vital than any other.

Fergusson’s vision of Africa one day becoming “the center of the civilized world” no doubt comes at the cost of expropriating its land and resources from its present benighted inhabitants and trusting them to more enlightened and productive stewardship. But who exactly will those “new races” be that convert Africa to fertile modernity? Not, apparently, Fergusson’s European contemporaries, as Fergusson makes quite clear when the stand-up comic, Joe, expresses a fervent desire to see Fergusson’s vision fulfilled: “You entered the world too soon, my boy.” And there is also another voice to be heard. Crew member and big game hunter Dick Kennedy, the character Walter calls the antagonist, declares that “it might be a pretty tiresome time if industry takes over the globe and runs everything for profit! After inventing machines, man will be devoured by ’em!” Sanguine as Verne is about the progress of science, he is no mere apologist for European colonialism or industrial capitalism.

There is a great deal more to say about Five Weeks in a Balloon, and this edition makes it more likely that such a conversation will take place among English-speaking readers. Frederick Paul Walter, editor Arthur B. Evans, and Wesleyan University Press have done a real service to all interested in speculative fiction by providing us with this fine new translation and critical edition of Verne’s entertaining, historically important, and complex breakthrough novel.


John Rieder has been teaching at UH Manoa’s English Department since 1980, the year he received his PhD from Yale University.

LARB Contributor

John Rieder has been teaching at UH Manoa’s English Department since 1980, the year he received his PhD from Yale University. For the first 20 years of his career he was mainly a specialist in English Romanticism, publishing a book on William Wordsworth, Wordsworth’s Counterrevolutionary Turn (University of Delaware Press, 1997) and numerous essays on the poetry of Percy Shelley. From around 2000 on his research agenda has focused on science fiction. His book on early science fiction, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2008. In 2011 he received the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pioneer Award for his essay “On Defining Science Fiction, Or Not: Genre Theory, Science Fiction, and History.” He currently serves on the editorial board of Extrapolation, the oldest journal in the field of science fiction studies.


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