The Island of Pearl Snakes

Banda Api volcano erupting May 1988. The most recent activity began in April 2017

Joan Aiken’s Limbo Lodge (1998) is one of the most detailed of the Wolves Chronicles to date, certainly in terms of the chronicles’ internal chronology if not their writing history. I have copious notes taken over the years on the characters, on the Aratu language, on board games around the world, on the novel’s timeline and on its literary connections. Here I want to talk about the geography of the fictional island of Aratu, on Joan’s possible inspirations for it and why she may have set her story in this part of the southern Pacific.

It’s noteworthy that in Dido’s global adventures Joan avoids taking her heroine to parts of the world formerly in the British Empire. So Dido never goes to Australia, Canada, India or Britain’s African colonies, though she does spend time in New England (and I don’t think that counts as an imperial possession!) and we also get references to stop-offs and other places connected to the UK of our world such as Bermuda, Trinidad and the Loyalty Islands. Instead she finds herself in, first, a South America that includes versions of Argentina and Peru, and then the Spice Islands where Britain had limited influence.

The archipelago that was to become Indonesia was squabbled over early on by European powers under the guise of East India Companies: those of Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain. The Malay peninsula has a long British association but in the seas between Malaysia and Papua New Guinea the main incursions were made by the Portuguese and then the Dutch.

So it is that we find that the non-indigenous people of Aratu (what Joan calls the Angrians) seem to have a Portuguese ancestry: we meet Enrique Ereira and his wife Esperanza, Mateo Ruiz, even a Senhor Manoel Roy, though he is not who he appears to be. I shall discuss the Brontë connection elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning here that the Brontës’ name for their ‘Angria’ may have been borrowed from an 18th-century pirate, Conajee Angria, who preyed on British shipping off the Malabar coast in India (just as they may also have taken the name of their province of ‘Zamorna’ from the title of the rulers of Calicut in Malabar, the Zamorin, who fought against the Portuguese).

Dido’s adventures in New Cumbria, as recounted in The Stolen Lake, culminated in late September 1834 (if my calculations are correct), but she then had to travel from Bath Regis in the Andes back down to Tenby on the eastern coast of South America. I’m going to suggest a more leisurely return journey to the port with, I surmise, HMS Thrush setting sail after receiving orders sometime in September or even early October. The orders (“to pick up Lord Herodsfoot, roving ambassador to King James III of England”) set the frigate on a wild goose chase around the tip of South America to Easter Island, thence to the Loyalty Islands, through the Torres Strait to the Molucca Sea. From here, still following an elusive Lord Herodsfoot, the ship had to do escort duty to British tea and spice clippers in the South China Sea, all taking “several more active weeks”. Finally, three months after leaving Tenby Thrush had arrived in Amboina (modern Ambon) only to find that to reach Herodsfoot in Aratu Dido’s party was required to ship aboard a smaller vessel, the Siwara.

Now we know that the rainy season for this part of Indonesia — the islands of Seram, Ambon and Buru in central Maluku — runs from November to March. We’re also told that local wind patterns can greatly modify the picture. As much of Dido’s time on Aratu is spent sheltering from heavy rain deluges we can safely say that the events in Limbo Lodge take place over nine days well before the end of March, probably in late January or early February.

The Thrush with Dido on board arrives in the Kalpurnian Sea from the South China Sea. With its echoes of Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, who famously had premonitions about his death, this clearly sets up our anticipation that mischief is afoot; the name is Joan Aiken’s mishmash of ‘Kepulauan’, from the Indonesian/Malay for an archipelago. Captain Sanderson refers to these entities as the Dice & Spice Islands, from the islanders predilection for games of all kinds. From Amboina Dido, now on board Sanderson’s trader Siwara, approaches Aratu from the north west — a five days sail — through a narrow, shallow winding channel, zigzagged by coral reefs. A couple of times in Limbo Lodge she is given details of the island: it is 20 miles long and 10 miles wide “like an inverted wedge”. My guess is that Joan had a teardrop shape like Sri Lanka in mind, itself an island with its own history of Dutch and Portuguese influence.

Aratu, the Island of the Pearl Snakes, in Joan Aiken’s Limbo Lodge

The town of Regina (“Queen”) was at the north tip; the name was taken from the capital of Emily and Anne Brontë’s island of Gondal in the north Pacific. (Gondal had its sister island of Gaaldine in the south Pacific, colonised by Gondal, but Aratu isn’t it.) At the south end is the extinct volcano Mt Fura on a peninsula, separated by a ravine from the rest of the island; the name is inspired by the volcano on Banda Api known as Vuurberg, which in Dutch means ‘fire mountain’. The slopes of Fura are accessible from the north by a bridge over the River Kai (!), the name of which Joan took from the real island of Kai, just as she may have been influenced in the choice of Aratu by the island of Aru. (Lizzie Ross, however, points out that North Maluku — the islands north of Seram and Amboina — are properly known as Maluku Utara; as Utara means ‘north’ it’s only natural that its reversed, palindromic form, Aratu should be an island to the south of Amboina. See the modern map on the Dido and the Spice Islands post.)

Vuurberg (which had erupted ten years before Joan wrote this novel) may have inspired not only Mt Fura but also the active undersea volcano of Ximboë which was to feature at the end of Limbo Lodge; Ximboë, 100 miles south of Aratu, erupts every two months, sending a bore or tidal wave (onda) north past the west coast of Aratu. But genuine submarine volcanoes also exist in the Banda Sea: Nieuwerkerk and the wondrously named Emperor of China are two such, both to the southwest of the Banda Islands.

The approach to Regina harbour shows Aratu “shaped like a thistle” because of its tree cover. There are no beaches (except at Manati, to the east of Mt Fura, where there is a fishing village), and the soil is largely peaty and therefore combustible. As well as rainforest the interior is covered in spice plantations — mainly nutmeg, clove, white pepper, aloes, danda-bark, mace, vanilla, cassia-bark (cinnamon) and djeela — though there is also a strip of savannah across the waist of Aratu.

The indigenous Dilendi (“Forest People”) were conquered by the Portuguese-speaking Angrians in the early 15th century. In the late 18th century the Angrians were largely expelled back home, wherever that was, though a remnant called Los Outros stayed in Regina. Notable Angrian settlements also included Asgard Hall (now the jail block called the House of Correction), a hermitage inhabited by Mario Ruiz, Limbo Lodge on Mt Fura, with its associated ‘ghost house’ memorial, and the Quinquilho ranch owned by the Ereira family. (Quinquilho , a plant of the nightshade family, is Datura Stramonium or jimson weed, also called Devil’s snare because there is a narrow margin between its medicinal properties and fatal toxicity.) The occasional dwelling abandoned by the Dilendi (wocho) are to be seen, but the main evidence of their presence is Kulara or ‘place of stones’, looking remarkably like the ruins of the central Stonehenge trilithons.

Aratu, then, is an island where Dido can expect to find much to engage with, from islanders to wild creatures and from exotic vegetation to some less than innocent pastimes, all of which will make her stay there rather more than a nine days wonder.


More on the background to Limbo Lodge is to come!

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5 thoughts on “The Island of Pearl Snakes

    1. In the absence of anyone other than Joan’s daughter Lizza I thought I’d step into the breach! Having said which, Col, one or two others have had interesting things to say on chronology and on Joan’s sources of inspiration, so I’m not alone.

    1. Yes, I don’t how much of the Angria and Gondal material she’d read before embarking on this; maybe when I’ve delved more into them myself I’ll be in a position to say. They certainly appear to be worth exploring for their own sakes! But the siblings’ adult writings have a more pressing claim.

      I agree, Aratu is not my most favourite chronicle — I hesitated before launching back into it, so grim and unrelenting were my memories of it. But I’m glad I did!

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