A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

“Mr. Oseba’s Last Discovery”, or, Symzonia Down Under

Though written and published in New Zealand, Mr. Oseba’s Last Discovery (1904) is by the American George W. Bell, who the US Consul to Australia for seven years. It is a terra cava narrative that mixes American social and political philosophies with New Zealand’s environs, which Bleiler calls a ‘piece of real estate promotion’.[1] Throughout the text there are photographs from around New Zealand (identified in the caption, so there is no attempt to pretend these are images from the interior of the earth), which the Index clearly states ‘do not conform strictly to the text’ (p. viii).

‘The Author’ offers ‘A Note’ about his visit to New Zealand in 1903, a colony ‘submerged with socialism’ among other attributes: “I found in the Press, a broad independence; in the people, a sturdy self-reliance; and in the statesmen, a feeling that they were the chosen servants of the public’.[2] Intrigued by what he found in New Zealand (and Bell even dedicates the novel to its people), he sets out to express his Anglo-Saxon pride ‘in a garb of fiction, that I might wrest from the reader the memories of the daily struggle with stubborn facts’ (p. vi). This ‘garb of fiction’ implies a façade for truth in the narrative, and Bells claims to have ‘adopted a style that…would be appreciated for its audacious novelty’ (p. vi), though in reality, Bell is trotting on well worm literary grounds.

The narrative is framed around the posthumously read manuscript of Leo Bergin (a Virginian by birth), bequeathed to Sir Marmaduke, the secondary narrator/editor. Marmaduke opens by saying

This, being a true story, with the slight deviations necessary to the preservation of a due sense of proportion, it is deemed proper to casually introduce the characters on whom we must chiefly rely for the truthfulness or otherwise, of a most romantic adventure. (p. 1)

In other words, the truth of the narrative rests in the judgement of the reader, but the Editor cannot say one way or another if Bergin’s tale is true. Having a past acquaintanceship, the dying Bergin leaves his dying declaration of his visit to “Symmes’ Hole’ (p. 13) to Sir Marmaduke, who declares that ‘Leo Bergin was no dreamer’ (p. 16), and thus his tale must be truth. There are frequent interludes from Marmaduke throughout the text, playing Devil’s advocate and the reader’s own internal monologue as he reflects upon Bergin’s own narrative, speaking at times in the present tense: ‘Let us see what follows, for this is more interesting far, than a courtship’ (p. 28). In other instances Marmaduke abridges portions of the text: ‘Here is a lot of interesting details – interesting if life were not so short – but I’ll have to “boil it down,” for “spice” is the word’ (p. 40).

Mr. Amoora Oseba is Bergin’s cabin mate, ‘the finest type of manly beauty… ever beheld’ (p. 22), but also more than a little strange, claiming to come from the city of Eurania in the country of Cavitorus, inhabited by a people called Shadowas (p. 23). In only a few pages Oseba explains the structure of the world, verifying Symmes’s theory and chastising those who did not believe in Symmes. While using Symmes’s theory of the earth’s formation, Oseba cites more recent Arctic exploration for evidence, including the observations of Lt. Adolphus Greely of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (1881-1884) and the diary of Captain George Tyson, survivor of the Polaris Expedition (p.30). Oseba’s lessons in geography are the most didactic seen since Seaborn’s in Symzonia. After years of mingling among the ‘Outeroos’ (residents of the outer earth) Oseba is returning to report to his people, and decides to take Bergin with him. Bergin calls upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet to give credence to his own doubts about Oseba and the Shadowas: ‘There are more things in heaven, and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ (p. 36). Symmes’s theory is validated once again during Oseba’s presentation of his travels, displaying a true model’ of the earth, complete with a Symmes Hole in the north (p. 56). Mr. Oseba’s Last Discovery is among the last of the terra cava narratives (excepting the next section to follow, The Smoky God) to actually employ Symmes’s geography. By the early years of the twentieth century, enough explorers had ventured past Symmes’s proposed latitude of opening that alternative ideas of the hollow earth had to be utilised.

The Shadowas have resided in Cavitorus for 21,000 years (p. 57), exiles from a hostile takeover of their old kingdom on the surface of the world who floated on an iceberg to the interior, finding a fertile – and uninhabited – country to provide new succour (p. 35). This rich land soon led to an over-abundance of population, and controlling measures were put in place. Eugenics plays a significant part in Shadowas culture, where the state is the ‘universal mother’ controlling all procreation (p. 37) so as to turn out ‘the finest type of people mentally, morally and physically, that ever inhabited this planet’ (p. 38). The utopian trope of a perfect people is hereby fulfilled; Bergin describes them on first sight as ‘over-tall and very symmetrical in form, and they move as gracefully as trained actors’ (p. 43). Interestingly, though, they are not white, but ‘slightly bronzed’; though their non-Anglo heritage is not a detriment. What the Shadowas lack, though, are any extremes in emotions, neither ‘gravity’ nor ‘hilarity’ as ‘all passion of the animal has gone’, leaving only serene intellect (p. 43). Marmaduke does not seem to be as enamoured by these cool intellectuals as Bergin, saying that ‘it makes me crawl’ (p. 57). This perception may be influenced by Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril-ya, when the narrator first encounters one of that race: ‘a nameless something in the aspect, tranquil though the expression, and beauteous though the features, roused that instinct of danger which the sight of a tiger or serpent arouses.’[3]

Next to the beautiful people there is the beautiful city with its ‘statues of gold, and other eye-ravishing objects’ (p. 42), and besides the rich apparel of silks, ‘gold was too common, cheap and vulgar’ (p. 44). There is more gold than iron, more platinum than silver, and the gems shine brighter ‘owing to the peculiarities of the light’ (p. 48). Marmaduke only ever mentions in passing that Bergin does indeed go into scientific explanations for many of the phenomena in Cavitorus, but never elaborates on those passages from the narrative.

Bell appears to have borrowed liberally from the Māori in crafting the customs and practices of the Shadowas. This practice of being adopted by the State might be compared to the Māori adoption custom of whāngai, taken to the extreme of recognising the Shadowas as a single family unit. Rather than Christianity, they embrace a polytheism that demonstrates ‘not only hope for the future, but appreciation for the blessings of to-day’ (p. 52). In a moment of ‘conversation’ between author and editor, Bergin says ‘These people evidently made their Gods, for they admit it. I wonder if we made ours?’, to which Marmaduke replies ‘Careful Leo!’ (p. 52). Herbert Spencer is referenced by Marmaduke (pp. 43-4) when the latter is considering a society in which family bonds do not exist, musing on the differences between the perception of what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘custom’. This comes from Spencer’s Man Versus the State.

There is actually a strong anti-imperialism in Bell’s novel. The missionaries to China are heavily criticised for their conceited approach, while the Chinese are praised for being ‘industrious and frugal’ (p. 63). When asked if they are ‘and inferior race’, Oseba responds that they are only ‘different’ (p. 68). Bell’s experiences around the globe, and his involvement in international politics lent to him a broader perspective of the world than his home-bound contemporaries. The achievements of continental Europe are attributed to its geography, ‘a garden and nursery for the most active, sturdy, intelligent, and emotional of all peoples on the globe’ (p. 67), who are prone to warring with each other over pretensions of superiority. The hypocrisy of European armies and European Christianity – ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – is highlighted in Oseba’s presentation to his people, to the great consternation of the audience (p. 69). The British Isles are hailed as ‘he best suited for the development of the ideal man…. And, having been peopled by sturdy tribes, all the suggestive hopes of Nature have been realised’ (p. 72). Though discounting on one page the idea of superiority and inferiority among race, on the next Bell still champions the Anglo-Saxon, beneficiary of good geography. Despite Bell’s message of anti-imperialism and sympathy for China and Japan, he champions Great Britain for its ‘conquests in the arts of peace’ (p. 73), planting the great colonies of America, Canada, “Australasia”, and “saving” India and Africa from themselves (p. 76). As for the United States, it is ‘the noblest country ever given by God to his children’ (p. 87) according to Oseba. This invocation of ‘God’ stands in direct contrast to the earlier statements about the Shadowas being polytheistic. For all the praise heaped upon America, Oseba also highlights its flaws, quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘The Cry of the Children’ (p. 91). Labelled as ‘scenes’, ‘First “Discovery”’, ‘The British Isles Discovered’, ‘America “Discovered”’, and ‘Australasia Discovered’, these chapters quote population figures, land mass, industry, and their perceived traits of these regions. Bell writes reportage like the diplomat that he was. This large portion of the narrative is given over not to an examination of Cavitorus and its utopia, but the supposed ‘alien’ perspective of the earth; Mr. Oseba is an alter ego for Bell.

It turns out that Oseba has been touring the earth’s surface looking for a place where the Shadowas might establish a colony. China is rejected for its lack of ‘varieties’, Japan for its lack of space, Europe for its militarism, Britain for being nothing more than ‘a park for her nobles’, Africa for having ‘the black plague’, America for being ‘owned by the trusts’ and controlled by ‘party bosses’, and Australia for joining the Commonwealth (pp. 106-7). What does this leave for the Shadowas? New Zealand. Or, ‘Zelania’ in the Shadowas language (p. 107), and this is Oseba’s ‘last discovery’. How wonderful is New Zealand? Marmaduke relates the entire eight-page poem Bergin wrote in tribute. Oseba’s relation of New Zealand’s wonders fills the next 117 pages, or, the rest of the narrative. The true utopia, then, is not Cavatorus, but New Zealand/Zelania:

The State gives nothing. There is humiliating charity nowhere, but elevating justice everywhere. The State puts a man on a farm, loans him money, helps him uphill, and then demands that he pay the Hercules. It will loan him a spade – not to lean upon or to pawn, but to dig with – and he must keep it bright and pay for its use.

The idea in Zelania, my children, is to have no lords and no paupers – that all men shall be producers, and not vagrants; tax-payers, and not tax-eaters – and that every citizen shall become a sturdy democrat, who will honorably strive as a stock-holder in a paying concern. (p. 155)

The Māori are described as ‘a fine race of romantic savages’ (p. 130) who are ‘intellectually… superior to any other tames savage’ (p. 131), thus making them seem, to readers, rather pleasant native neighbours to have, who won’t kill you and eat your family. Bell even includes a picture of a ‘Maori Beauty’ to entice his male audience should words not suffice. New Zealand’s ‘Lands for Settlement Act’ (footnoted on page 153) is seen as a great achievement in ‘State landlordism’ that results in ‘few grievances and fewer scandals’ (p. 154).

A short history of women, and women’s rights, makes it into Mr. Oseba’s address to his people, from the wooing of women ‘with a bludgeon’ (p. 182) to the growth of civilisation via ‘the emancipation of women’: ‘How can a mother, with the feeling of inferiority, a feeling of subdued dependence, with no courage nor conscious individuality, bring forth brave, independent, high-minded offspring? Only by emancipated mothers can full-statured men be reared’ (p. 184). Women in New Zealand were granted voting rights in the 1893 Electoral Bill (though they would not be eligible for legislative seats for decades), the first country to do so in the British Empire or America. Bell makes this part of his tribute to the country: ‘in Zelania, women are “people”… and liberty and social rights are not limited to any particular cut of the garments’ (p. 185).

New Zealand’s labour history and other footnotes – presumably added by Marmaduke as editor – fill out the ‘evidence’ of New Zealand’s utopic existence. They benefit from speaking English, which grew in usage throughout the nineteenth century as ‘the “polite” language of the “civilised” world’ (p. 194), and benevolently teach this to Māori (p. 194). The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1900 is referenced (p. 203), as is the Employment Liability Act (1882), The Workers Compensation for Accident, 1900, Act (p. 204), the Government Accident Insurance Act of 1899 (p. 205), and the Old Age Pension act of 1898 (p. 212), all making New Zealand seem a worker’s paradise for any man. If any such thing exists in Cavitorus, Mr. Oseba never mentions it.

There is no closing to the narrative from Marmaduke, no conclusion. He relates Bergin’s own relations of Oseba’s speech up until the last page. How the Shadowas act upon Oseba’s report is never revealed; how Bergin returns to the surface world, or what he did in Cavitorus, is never elaborated upon; Marmaduke never offers further commentary on what he learns in Bergin’s manuscript. The existence of a lost race living in the hollow earth, accessible from the Poles, is of little consequence in comparison to the existence of New Zealand. The abrupt conclusion makes it seem as if Bell was operating under a word constraint from the publisher, or perhaps instruction to offer no deviation from the glories of New Zealand in the latter half of the text.

[1] Bleiler, Science Fiction, p. 48.

[2] George W. Bell, Mr. Oseba’s Last Discovery (Wellington, NZ: The New Zealand Times Co., 1904), p. v. All other references cited in text from this edition.

[3] Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race, p. 12.

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