"The Perils of Certain English Prisoners" (1857) the novella Charles Dickens wrote in collaboration with his protégé, Wilkie Collins involves British imperialism on two continents — Asia and South America. In preparation for writing the first and third chapters of the novella, for which he was responsible, Dickens consulted his scholarly subeditor for Latin American affairs, Henry Morley (1822-94), whom he had recruited to the staff in 1850, about details of politics, international relations, setting, and circumstance, as well as about the broader issues behind the rhetorical strategy of a first-person "captivity narrative" (see letter of 18 October 1857, Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens, 8: 468-69).

The inspiration for this tale set in South America was the courage exhibited by the British women and children captured during the Sepoy Mutiny of Indian troops earlier that year at Cawnpore and Lucknow; this was almost certainly the source of the intrepid Miss Marion Maryon. Lillian Nayder (2001) has pointed out that Dickens explained in a letter, "I wish to avoid India itself; but I want to shadow out in what I do, the bravery of our ladies in India" (Letters, 8: 469). As he stated, Dickens wished to examine the courage of the English women in India in a context far removed from that of the Indian Rebellion; he does so in "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners" by shifting the scene of the action to a British mining colony off the coast of Central America in the reign of George II, in 1744.

Since his inauguration of the weekly journal Household Words in 1850, Dickens had been interested in publishing occasional pieces on Latin America. Moreover, at the time that Dickens and Collins were writing the novella there was considerable interest in London and Paris in constructing a canal across the isthmus of Panama, in the very region where the story is set, to connect California with both the eastern United States and western Europe. Technologically, the engineering project was viable — and, indeed, potentially lucrative — but was mired in governmental red tape. Yet a third factor was Britain's seizing the Mosquito Coast of Belize, which it renamed "Grayville" after the colonial governor of Jamaica, whose forces had effected the conquest, supposedly in support of the Mosquito Indians. Since this annexation violated the Monroe Doctrine of the United States of America, Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton, Britain's "Mr. Fix-It" in Anglo-American relations, negotiated a settlement with the Americans according to which Britain abandoned its original notion of an independent "Mosquitia." Nonetheless, many in the engineering and financial communities in London and Paris continued to be interested in the possibility of constructing a Nicaraguan canal to link Atlantic and Pacific and thereby considerably reduce the length of the voyage from Europe and the eastern United States to the gold fields of California. This "canal zone" is precisely the region to which Morley, the Household Words South American specialist, had taken his "Phantom Ship" in the 22 February 1851:

Now that Central America is very generally looked to as a Land of Hope, the imagination glows over the picture of what it is destined to become. Though most of us like to know as much as travellers will tell us, about the country of the Incas, very few of us care to experience what it now actually is. Fleas, fevers, and frijoles, to say nothing of convulsions, political and natural, earthquakes and revolutions, go far to quench the spirit of the traveler. [516]

Already we have traversed the Atlantic in our Phantom Ship, and have been drenched by a good sheet of rain within the tropics by the time we reach Belize. As Britons, we will first visit Belize, the British settlement. Belize is on the coast of the free Indians, in the Bay of Honduras. . . . . The great part of the Atlantic coast line from Honduras southward is in possession of the Mosquito Indians. Costa Rica in the narrowest part of the Central American Isthmus, occupies the breadth from sea to sea, but has by a great deal its longest coast line on the Pacific side. Then comes the remainder of the Isthmus, including the line of railway between Chagres and Panama. . . . [516-17; for additional text from this article]

In "A Mysterious City," which appeared in Household Words on 19 April 1851 (pp. 94-6), Morley had described a pre-Columbian site and its Mayan monuments surrounded by the central American jungle (a setting used by Collins in the second chapter of "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners" six years later), a region thoroughly inimical to European intrusion both in terms of climate and vegetation as well as of its indigenous inhabitants. A jungle of a more generalized, Darwinian variety again served as the setting of "Our Phantom Ship on an Antediluvian Cruise" by Morley and H. G. Wills, Dickens's subeditor (Household Words on 16 August 1851). Samuel Sidney's "The Five Travellers" (27 December 1851) is a captivity narrative that anticipates the better known 1857 novella by Collins and Dickens. However, this earlier piece involves railway construction and steamer traffic at the Isthmus of Panama; in this story the natives are reasonable and their Spanish masters ferocious. At the opening of the story, the master of the British steamer Medway lands troops to assure the safety of five British subjects (among them one "Mr. Blanshard, late Governor of Vancouver's Island," p. 319) caught in the conflict between "native Indian boatmen at the town of Chagres, on the Atlantic side . . . and the Anglo-American boatmen" (p. 318). While the aboriginals are "the more civil and less extravagant" the latter go on a lawless rampage.

"The Perils of Certain English Prisoners," which followed these other texts about South America in Household Words, takes the form of a tale of captivity and escape: When the pirates attack Silver-Store Island (in the vicinity of the British colony of Belize) aided by the turncoat King, they murder a number of the British colonists before stealing the silver and taking a number of the survivors hostage before retreating to the interior of Honduras. Under the combined initiative of Miss Maryon and Davis, the captives manage to escape down river.

Dickens's views appear to be voiced by his narrator, Gill Davis, the plain-spoken private in the Royal Marines, who to an extent anticpates Kipling's proletarian defenders of empire. A benign miles gloriousus — the braggart soldier of classical and Shakespearean tradition — Davis responds to the solemn beauty of the Central American jungle in a manner sometimes sentimental and sometimes comic, and the illiterate soldier speaks positively about the "accommodations" that the British garrison and colonists have made with local customs. And yet, especially in describing the treacherous mulatto ('Sambo') collaborator, "Christian George King," Gill makes racist comments that render Dickens's chapters awkward reading today.

According to Nicolas Stewart's discusison of the novella as a "Defensive Fantasy of Imperial Stability,"

Dickens' model of the passive defensive fantasy in "Perils" is found in the protection of Belize, the women and children, by Pordage and his officials. Pordage's approach is portrayed as heavily flawed. During the attack, he continues to benevolently trust the natives: 'it was considered that the friendly Sambos would only want to be commanded in case of any danger' (7). The success of the pirate attack leaves Pordage incapable of aiding the British citizens: Dickens writes of his 'Diplomatic coat . . . . '[hanging] about him in discoloured shreds like a mop' (30). Implicit in this portrayal of Pordage is a criticism of the views of Lord Canning. Placed as he is in a position advocating the active defensive fantasy, Dickens relocates the Imperial centre to the dutiful, practical Gill Davis and his fellow soldiers, who, . . . [like] his friend Harry Charker, adhere to 'Duty'. . . . [Stewart]

A particularly personal influence upon Dickens's attitudes towards British imperialism and colonialism of course was the position of his son Walter (1841-63), who left for military service in India in July 1857, shortly after the Mutiny and six months before the novella appeared. Dickens's friend, the banking heiress Angela Burdett Coutts, had helped Dickens's son obtain his appointment as a cadet in East India Company, and the anxious father, one surmises, might have been especially concerned about inept imperial leaders who placed those under their command and under their protection in great danger by misunderstanding conquered peoples. Perhaps his son's position in India offers an explanation why he did not want to set the novella there and thud appear to be criticizing his son's superiors.

Related Materials


Dickens, Charles, and Wilkie Collins. "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." Household Words, Extra Christmas Number, 7 December 1857. Pp. 1-36, after Vol. 16.

Dickens, Charles. "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." Ch. 1 and 3 only. Household Words (extra number) Christmas 1857. http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Charles_Dickens/The_Perils_of_Certain_English_Prisoners/

---. "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners." Ch. 1 and 3 only. Christmas Stories, intro. Margaret Lane. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1966. Based on the Charles Dickens Edition of 1871. Pp. 161-208.

Hollington, Michael. "Dickens, Morley, and Latin America." Conference paper given at the Eighth Annual Dickens Symposium. The Dickens Society of America. ,Oakland University, Michigan. Session Six, "Influences on the Dickens World." 12 October 2003.

Lohrli, Anne. Household Words: A Weekly Journal Conducted by Charles Dickens: Table of Contents, List of Contributors and Their Contributions Based on the Household Words Office Book in the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists in the Princeton University Library. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1973.

Morley, Henry. "The Mysterious City."Household Words. Vol. 2. 19 April 1851. Pp. 94-6.

---. "Our Phantom Ship. Central America." Household Words. Vol. 2. 22 February 1851. Pp. 516-522.

---. "Our Phantom Ship on an Antediluvian Cruise."Household Words 16 April 1851. Pp. 492-6.

Nayder, Lillian. Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, & Victorian Authorship. London and Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. P., Dec. 2001.

Sidney, Samuel. "The Five Travellers." Household Words. Vo1. 4. 27 December 1851. Pp. 318-21.

Stewart, Nicolas. "'The Perils of Certain English Prisoners': Dickens' Defensive Fantasy of Imperial Stability."(Belfast University: 21 June 1999).http://www.qub.ac.../../../imperial/india/perils.htm. Accessed 3 October 2005.

Victorian Web Charles Dickens Wilkie Collins

Last modified 12 December 2005