19th Century

Victorian Killer Snakes | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK.

The British Empire (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)


During the days of the British Empire, colonial officers and civil servants enjoyed hunting wild animals: tigers, lions, bears, and elephants found themselves on the end of a bullet. To hunt such an animal was an exciting experience but these hunts were about more than simply ‘the thrill of the chase’; the hunting of big game promoted camaraderie and fostered a spirit of fair play among the participants that was integral to the late-Victorian and Edwardian imperialist ‘games ethic’.[1]

Allan Quatermain (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Most importantly, the events were a public spectacle which signified colonialists’ dominance over the landscape. The numbers of animals which the upper-class colonialists killed were staggering: Stephen Mosley points to the example of John Hewitt, the Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces, India, who shot over 150 tigers before his retirement in 1912.[2] Like their counterparts in real life, the heroes of popular literature were always good hunters: we first meet the rugged Allan Quatermain in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1886) laid up in bed having been in a scrap with a lion. The lion may have just gotten the better of him on this occasion, but it is no matter: over his lifetime he has short nearly 50 lions.[3]

The Boys of England

Lions have traditionally been thought of as the “king of the jungle” but this article analyses portrayals of the serpent—arguably a more deadly foe than the majestic lion—found in late-Victorian boys’ magazines such as The Boys of England and Sons of Britannia and other penny periodicals.

It contextualises these stories alongside newspaper reports of encounters with serpents and develops a typology of snakes illustrating how snakes were used in popular literature. This will help us to further understand the various ways in which Victorians viewed these enigmatic yet fearful animals because younger readers, from a variety of social classes, would have received their understanding of animals from penny magazines and novelettes. They would not have bought the latest scientific paper on snakes published in journals such as the newly-founded Nature (established in 1869 and still going strong) or the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (founded in 1834 and likewise still flourishing).

The three ways in which snakes were portrayed in popular literary works, then, are as follows: the snake was a tool of natives’ treachery; the snakes were invaders of the human realm; and finally, the snake appeared whenever adventurers had strayed too far into the jungle. In popular literary works, the serpent was the real king of the jungle.

The Idea of the Serpent

Late-Victorian popular fiction writers cared little for identifying the actual species of snake that they featured, even though a lot of scientific research was carried out in the Victorian era into these fascinating creatures. For many of these writers, as we will see, there were large snakes, and there were smaller venomous snakes.

For large snakes, writers probably had in mind the reticulated python (malayopython reticulatus), which can reach up to 21ft and weigh up to 165lbs.[4] Although the green anaconda (eunectes murinus), which can grow up to 17ft and weigh in at 154lbs, could well be a candidate—both species of snakes have been known to attack humans, if only rarely. Yet the fact that the anaconda is native only to South America and the heroes of boys’ magazines rarely went to that continent make this snake an unlikely candidate.[5]

The hero fights off a venomous snake in Three Daring Boys (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Venomous snakes were generalised and, as with the constrictor snakes, there was rarely an attempt by any writer to identify a specific species. This was in spite of the fact that, in academic journals, much research was being published which aimed to expand Europeans’ knowledge of these venomous animals, which of course were populous in their overseas colonies. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1836, for example, published one essay on the king cobra (Ophiophagus Hannah) which included highly detailed colour illustrations of the animal’s head and body, and sketches of its vertebrae.[6]

Even when boys’ magazines reported on true accounts of snake encounters—for they printed both short stories and interesting news items in their columns—they were sometimes very general when it came to identifying the species; the colour might be mentioned, as might its length and whether or not it was venomous. In Sons of Britannia, for example, we have a report of ‘a desperate fight with a black snake’ and few other details given.[7] Very few details were given. Novelists in the same magazine likewise did not need nuance, for they just needed a monster. The serpent, big or small, constricting or venomous, would suffice for their purposes.[8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

Snakes as Tools of Natives’ Treachery

The snake as a tool of native treachery more often than not appeared when serpent charmers entered the narrative of an adventure story. These were not new tropes in the late Victorian era when boys’ periodicals flourished. Articles on snakes and snake charmers appeared in the early nineteenth-century Penny Magazine and Saturday Magazine. Both of the articles which these magazines published on snake charmers implied that the men who practised these trades were rogues and not to be trusted. The piece published in the Penny Magazine, for example, said that

‘the professed snake catchers in India are of the lowest caste of Hindoos’.[13]

The article in The Saturday Magazine was similarly critical of the class of people who took to snake charming; the charmers were

“tribes of vagrants … universally despised … universally dreaded … who infest the villages and fairs, exhibiting their snakes.”[14]

Other magazines said that whatever money these charmers got “is almost immediately spent in the purchase of arrack and other intoxicating liquors.”[15]

Various similar articles on snake charmers, which were often illustrated, followed in The Illustrated London News during the 1840s and 1850s.[16] What is interesting here is that the snakes themselves are not condemned, but that the charmers are conmen who deceive “unthinking” Indians into hiring their often expensive services by convincing them that their villages or houses have a snake infestation, for which their services are required to lead the snakes away. So the charmers are often a cunning kind of Pied Piper.[17] (There is certainly more research for those interested in portrayals of snakes to undertake an examination of what I might tentatively call a serpent charmer “craze” in periodicals of the 1830s–50s; the most cursory online search reveals a large number of essays devoted to these men in this period).

These “despised and dreaded vagrants” who were seemingly able to tame nature’s most fearsome animals captivated the reading public. When snake charmers were brought to the Reptile House at the London Zoological Gardens in 1849, they were a sensation. Charles Darwin is reported to have flinched at seeing one of the serpents attempt to attack his master, even though the snakes were defanged and safely behind a glass screen. It was Englishmen’s inability to tame these creatures—who were supposed, by the 1860s, to be “lords of creation”—which “contributed directly to their typecasting as villainous characters in Victorian fiction and beyond.”[18]    

The Penny Magazine (and other magazines like it) regularly ran articles on snake charmers (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

In late-Victorian popular literature, snake charmers were regularly typecast as villains, ever-ready to betray their own people as well as Europeans. For example, in the adventure story of The Sacred Sapphire—the story of a search for a rare diamond—English explorers, led by a man named Ralph, find themselves lost in the Indian jungle. Coming across a seemingly helpless Hindu man who prostrates himself at their feet and begs for their help; the author builds tension by giving the reader clues as to why Ralph should not trust this man by saying that “he had an evil, saturnine expression.”[19]

Just as Ralph is about to pledge his help, “casting a look of deadly hatred at [him],” venomous serpents coil themselves around the Hindu’s limbs, and he springs to attack Ralph. Luckily, Ralph anticipates this and decapitates the serpents with his hunting knife.[20] Likewise, at the court of an Indian ruler in Paul Herring’s Comrades in Peril, a snake charmer, dissatisfied with his master’s favouring Europeans at his royal court, decides to put on a show of snake charming in order to direct one of the serpents to attack one of the Europeans. Yet Sidney, the European protagonist, anticipates this and just as the serpent is about to strike, he beheads it with a knife.[21]

Treacherous “native” snake charmers use their serpents to attack Europeans in The Big Budget magazine (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

It is due to the stereotyping of Eastern people as treacherous that such scenes with snake charmers occur. The serpent charmers ingratiate themselves with the “noble” English characters and then attempt to betray them, which is something that an Englishman would never do. The characterisation of snake charmers and their animals as villainous was in keeping with the Orientalist discourse which was prevalent in European writings about the East and articulated by Edward Said. He argued that, during the heyday of European imperialism, people from the West built up a large body of knowledge about the East and its people. 

As a result, a number of racialist stereotypes of the people and culture of ‘the East’; it was stereotyped as a backward place and paintings from the era depict it as a region which had not progressed since Biblical times; this was a place where, if one was to believe western artists and writers, people still lived in mud or clay huts and rode camels. They were not ‘civilised’ like Europeans. Arab men, in particular, were subjected to stereotypes; they were either childlike and in need of a Westerners’ care and guidance, or inherently cunning, mischievous, and treacherous. The latter points regarding treachery and cunning are particularly relevant for our discussion here: Said points to a passage in Lord Cromer’s Modern Egypt (1908) in which Cromer, who had spent much of his career in Egypt during the British occupation of the country and rose to the rank of British Controller-General of Egypt, made the following remarks about men of the Orient were

Gullible, ‘devoid of energy and initiative,’ much given to ‘fulsome flattery,’ intrigue, cunning … Orientals are inveterate liars, they are ‘lethargic and suspicious,’ and in everything they oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race.[22]

One ‘scientific’ article in the 1880s, in fact, classified the various peoples of India according to how similar or dissimilar they were to cunning serpents.[23] When The Friend of India reported on these ‘scientific’ findings, it simply confirmed the fact that Indians were ‘ten times more the children of the devil’.[24]

Said’s theory of Orientalism has received praise and criticism from scholars such as Ibn Warraq and Daniel Martin Varisco, much of which hinges on Said’s very generalised points and disregard for certain sources which might undermine his thesis.[25] While the two snake charmer incidents cited above correlate with stereotypes of Orientals as treacherous, we should note that in The Sacred Sapphire there is an interracial love affair between an Indian queen named Ayesha and a British adventurer and that there are honourable Indians in both stories. Furthermore, in another serial in The Boys of England, entitled “Mahmoud the Snake Charmer,” the title character is the hero of the tale who comes to the aid of Europeans in danger.[26] There were exceptions to such stereotypes of snake charmers, then, which is why applying a blanket Orientalist lens to such seemingly simplistic popular literary texts can be unhelpful and misleading; not every popular literary work rehashed such negative stereotypes of people abroad, and this is something which we will encounter below, for in some stories it is, in fact, the Englishman’s “native” companion who takes charge of dispatching the serpent and saving his white friends from the serpent’s grasp.

The Snake as an Invader

In real life, snakes would much rather avoid human contact altogether. Yet they will, on occasion, find their way into people’s houses. In our modern era, tabloid news outlets will often print or upload some story about a huge python or other deadly serpent invading a family home.[27] A cursory glance on YouTube reveals videos of thousands of such encounters if one enters key terms such as “snake” and “home.” For real snake enthusiasts, there are television documentaries such as Snakes in City or Python Hunters (which began in 2010 and, as of the time of writing, has not yet been cancelled by the network), which both educates and titillates viewers with stories of snakes invading the human realm.

It was no different in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, as several such stories appeared in newspapers. Newspapers often carried stories of snakes invading people’s homes.[28] The Melbourne Punch joked in the 1870s that the public seemed to like snake stories so much that “a certain fortune would reward the industry of any person who would take the trouble to look over the newspaper files of the last few years, extract the snake stories therefrom, and publish them in a collected form.”[29] In their factual reporting of snake sightings, The Boys of England were a bit more sceptical as to the length of snakes people had apparently found in their houses:

A citizen of Delhi recently saw a snake in the bushes near his house, twenty feet long and as big round as a whisky keg. We do not dispute his statement, but we do believe he saw the whisky keg before he saw the snake.[30]

It was cobras and not constrictors, however, who seemed to be repeat offenders in these home invasions because their smaller size enabled them to easily slither into dwellings unnoticed, placing the lives of children and adults in jeopardy.[31] Other seemingly harmless snakes could be just as dangerous when they entered people’s homes. The Boys of England published a factual report in its news section of a whipsnake (hierophis viridiflavus) that poisoned and killed a poor Spanish man living in a small American coastal town.[32]

When it came to portrayals of the whipsnake as venomous, Victorian writers were ahead of our modern scientists; until 2013, the whip snake had largely been thought of among the scientific community as a non-venomous and relatively harmless snake until a ‘secret venom gland’ or Duvernoy’s gland, was “discovered” by scientists.[33] The researchers from 2013, however, noted that such a snake would have to have its fangs inserted into a human’s skin for between 5–10 minutes before enough venom was released to kill someone, while the Spanish victim in The Boys of England article is seen to die but minutes after having been bitten.

Cartoon adaptation of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

The scenario of a cobra invading a family home also occurred in fiction. A notable instance is Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1894) which tells the story of two fearsome cobras, Nag and Nagaina, who invade an Anglo-Indian family’s home but are defeated by the brave mongoose, Rikki. Kipling certainly knew how to build suspense when introducing his more fearsome animals to his readers:

At the foot of the bush there came a low hiss—a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-Tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra, and he was five feet long from head to tail. When he lifted one-third of himself clear of the ground, he stayed balancing to and fro exactly as a dandelion-tuft balances in the wind, and he looked at Rikki-Tikki with the wicked snake’s eyes that never change their expression … “I am Nag … Look, and be afraid!”[34]

Kipling’s story, written in 1894, is similar to an account of a real-life battle between a mongoose and a cobra which occurred in 1874, the graphic proceedings of which were reported in both Anglo-Indian magazine The Friend of India which reprinted it from Nature:

The snake was a large cobra 4ft. 10 ½ in. in length, the most formidable cobra I have seen. He was turned into an enclosed outer room, or verandah, about 20ft. by 12ft., and at once coiled himself up, with head erect, about ten or twelve inches from the ground, and began to hiss loudly. The mongoose was a small one of its kind, very tame and quiet, but exceedingly active. When the mongoose was put into the rectangle, it seemed scarcely to notice the cobra; but the latter, on the contrary, appeared at once to recognise its enemy … the mongoose, to the surprise of all, made a sudden spring at the cobra, and bit it in the inside of the upper jaw, about the fang, and instantly jumped back again. Blood flowed in large drops from the mouth of the cobra … it was now easy to see how the fight would end.[35]

In narratives of this kind which appeared in boys’ magazines, the protagonist is able to demonstrate his chivalric behaviour in being willing to protect more vulnerable members of his household or his associates, much like the humble mongoose, Rikki-Tikki, protects his human owners from both cobras.

Several Victorian boys’ magazines likewise published fictional stories which related snakes invading human towns and residences. “Imprisoned by a Serpent,” published in the Boy’s Comic Journal, recounts the tale of a quiet town in West Africa where snakes could regularly be found in merchants’ warehouses, and the narrow escape from death of an old trader named Walter who gallantly fought off a venomous serpent to protect his associates (as in other stories, the species is never identified).[36] “Roughing it in Van Dieman’s Land,” published in Good Things (c. 1880) tells the story of a hardy old soldier named Syme who is called on by a family to rid them of the snakes in their garden; most of the snakes he charms away, having learnt the practice when he was in India, but there is another snake—a large venomous black one—who succeeds in biting him. Although he goes through terrible convulsions, however, he miraculously survives.[37]

A chivalrous Englishman rescues a woman from being bitten in The Boys of England (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

There was one fictional boy hero who, try as he might, he just could not get away from snakes: we are speaking of course about the famous Jack Harkaway. It is hard for us at a distance of over a century to appreciate just how popular Harkaway was with readers who grew up in the Victorian and Edwardian era; in many ways, he was the Harry Potter of the late-Victorian period, a character who basked in worldwide fame and who well into the 1950s was not just popular with children but also adults.[38]

Jack Harkaway (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

So high was demand among newsagents for the latest instalment of a Jack Harkaway, a “penny dreadful’’ serial, that they battled with each other outside the Edwin J. Brett’s offices—the publisher of The Boys of England—to obtain copies which they could then sell to their younger customers.[39] Hemyng’s first Harkaway serial, entitled Jack Harkaway’s Schooldays was originally published in 1871 in the columns of Brett’s The Boys of England, a penny magazine for younger readers.

Within months, the publishers of The Boys of England knew that they were on to a hit: it had already appeared in the United States in several periodicals by the end of that year, and two years later it was being reprinted in both the United Kingdom and the United States in different magazines. The London-based publisher Hogarth House decided to then issue the first run of serials in clothbound library editions, while similar publishers in America decided to follow suit. 

Jack Harkaway battles a snake! (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

So frequent were Harkaway’s encounters with snakes that, in one of the later stories, when Harkaway’s son asks Professor Mole to tell him a story, the professor replies gleefully that “it shall be a snake story and, haha! — a whopper!”[40] Let us examine, then, one of Harkaway’s “whopper” snake stories. Let us make no mistake: Jack Harkaway was a rascal; in Jack Harkaway After Schooldays (1873) he and his adoptive father, Professor Mole, join the crew of a sailing ship in the West Indies, but Jack learns that a scientist has brought a large snake on board as a specimen to study when they return to England. Ever reckless, he decides that he will release the snake from its box and then prank his professor by telling him someone wants to see him down below. It does not go as planned for the snake was

Fully fifteen long … the snake, astonished at his unexpected freedom, raised his ugly head and glared savagely at Jack, who picked himself up and retreated to a safe distance.

“Morning, Governor,” he said, nodding his head, “how do you find yourself?”

The python’s only reply to this was to uncoil himself and glide out of his box on to the floor. Jack was rather astonished at his prodigious size; he did not think he was half so big or formidable, and was rather sorry he’d let him out.[41]

Jack decides to scarper from the cabin and go up on deck. A few minutes later, a crewman comes running out on deck screaming about the huge serpent he has just spotted. Yet here is where Harkaway can demonstrate his true bravery as an Englishman: every other member of the crew is too scared to deal with the snake and so, saying a final goodbye to his friends “just in case,” Jack descends into the cabin to meet his scaly foe head-on, like a man. Although it was Harkaway who caused the problem in the first place, his willingness to protect those more vulnerable than him on the ship, such as some of the older passengers, is a chivalrous act. Harkaway was a rascal, undoubtedly, and certainly less respectable than the protagonists who featured in the contemporary works of authors such as G. A. Henty, but he was still an Englishman and would defend anyone from danger.

The Snake as the Real King of the Jungle

The people of the colonies may have been racially stereotyped as dangerous and treacherous. Yet for would-be colonial adventurers in the many boys’ periodicals, the physical environment posed a greater danger due to disease—Africa, in particular, was dubbed, from the early 1800s, as the ‘White Man’s Grave’—and because of the dangerous animals which lurked in the jungle. In literary works, the snake was the animal to be most afraid of when people had ventured too far into the wild; the jungle was the serpent’s domain where he was king. This plotline was used by various writers in the early-to-mid Victorian period. George William MacArthur Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London, to take one example, sees one of the criminals, Crankey Jem, transported to Van Dieman’s Land. Together with some fellow transportees, he escapes from the penal colony but, in order not to get as far away as possible from the soldiers, they have to venture into uncharted territory. Unfortunately for one of them who goes farther into the forests to procure some food, he is killed by a large serpent:

Then Blackley rose, and went farther into the wood … at length there was a strange rustling amongst the trees at a little distance; and then the cries of indescribable agony fell upon our ears … in a short time the cries ceased altogether … His fate was that which we had suspected: an enormous snake was coiled around the wretches corpse—licking it with its long tongue, to cover it with saliva for the purpose of deglutition … its huge coils had actually squeezed our comrade to death.[42]

The snake attack in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

This would not be the last time Reynolds used a serpent in his story to attack unwary travellers who ventured too far into the forests. A similar episode occurs in Mysteries of the Court of London (1849-56) and one of the protagonists in Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1857) likewise encounters

A monstrous snake—suspending itself by the tail to one of the lower boughs, and disporting playfully with its hideous head toward the ground. Then, with a sudden coil, it drew itself back into the tree, the entire foliage of which was shaken with the horrible gambolings of the reptile.[43]

Snake attack in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

In Wagner, however, the protagonist makes the wise decision to extricate themselves from the serpent’s grasp and simply run as far away as possible; Reynolds’s protagonists do not have the bravado in their encounters with snakes which would characterise those found in boys’ penny magazines.

The snake attack in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of the Court of London (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

The snake as the real king of the jungle is a theme that continued in several serials found in boys’ penny magazines. For example, in “Three Daring Boys; or, The Cruise of the Island Queen,” published in Sons of Britannia, three young lads go on an adventure overseas. While exploring a tropical forest, they encounter a large snake. The image accompanying one instalment sees two lads in the middle of the jungle; the weaker of two has fainted in fright, but the bigger, braver boy has decided to take on the snake, striking the reptile dead with one sweep of a stick.[44] In “Stories of Many Kinds,” published in the Boy’s Comic Journal, the writer builds tension, much as Reynolds did, by first having someone, in this case, a naïve professor, disappear into the densest part of the jungle. Suddenly, his cries for help are heard by his companions on the outskirts. The professor’s companion rushes in to behold a horrific sight: a boa constrictor—again we have a generalised idea of a big snake and no specific mention of the species—has coiled itself around him, although due to the quick thinking of his companion who beats the snake to death, the professor is saved.

Illustration from In Search of Gold (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

It is in such encounters in the wild that explorers can usually show off their strength and athletic prowess, and thus demonstrate to the young Victorian reader the value of physical fitness when surviving in the colonies. This was the era, of course, which witnessed the diffusion of the public school ethos—which promoted the values of athleticism, muscular Christianity, fair play and patriotism—into popular literature to build

“a new generation of men not characterised by literary accomplishment or varnish of culture, but disciplined and strong.”[45]

The heroes of popular literature manifested these qualities. We see such principles shine through in encounters with snakes: the adventurers have to be strong enough to beat the animals in mortal combat, but they need the presence of mind, bravery, and to think quickly. “In Search of Gold,” published in the Boy’s Comic Journal in 1896, sees the hero Ben Baxter come face to face with a large serpent who pounces on him; were it not for Ben’s swiftness and agility, the serpent might have coiled himself around the young explorer. Yet Ben lives to see another day and plunges his blade repeatedly into the serpent’s head and kills it.[46]

A Fight with a snake (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Yet while strength and agility served one well in encounters with big snakes, but one had to be brave and have the presence of mind to fight off the snake and win. A serial in The Gentleman’s Journal and Youth’s Miscellany entitled Gold Mountain; or, the African Talisman—which interestingly calls the serpent, not the lion, ‘the monarch of the African jungle’—sees an explorer in the same situation as Ben Baxter found himself, with a serpent coiled around him ready to devour.[47]

Likewise, in “British Jack and Yankee Doodle,” published in The Boys of England featuring protagonist who was almost a carbon-copy of Jack Harkaway, we find the explorers venture too far into the American swamps. In the course of just one chapter, the explorers’ boat capsizes, they are attacked by alligators, then by crazed pigs, and finally a large serpent coils itself around Jack’s old professor, Zeke.[48]

In both accounts, the explorers’ strength and ‘presence of mind’ enables them to either escape the grip of the serpent or rescue their friend.[49] Reaching for his revolver while in the grip of death, the explorer in “Gold Mountain” fires it straight into the snake’s mouth and kills it instantly.[50] Bravery was a buttress of the empire: the ‘presence of mind’ demonstrated by the explorers on these occasions place them firmly within the sphere of military heroes such as Henry Havelock, General Gordon, and Lord Kitchener, all of whom—if one believed their portrayals in popular literature—faced adversity with a manly fortitude and overcame any obstacle.[51]

After all, admiration of the hero who possessed an ability to stand over others and overcome adversity—be it on the battlefield or, as in our case, in the jungle—was part of what Walter Houghton has called ‘the Victorian frame of mind’, which began with Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship (1840).[52] The explorers’ bravery, cited above, separated them from earlier depictions of men wandering too far into the jungle. In Reynolds’s Mysteries of London, the poor convict gets crushed to death by the snake and is not saved by strong, quick-thinking, and chivalrous companions, while in Reynolds’s Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, the man who encounters a snake simply runs away. Of course, Reynolds’s convicts in The Mysteries of London were of a wholly different class of people to the heroes of late-Victorian adventure fiction; the latter were supposed to be examples of virtue, heroism, bravery for young readers to admire.[53] For this reason, in none of the late-Victorian boys’ adventure stories do the boys or their companions ever get killed by the snakes. This simply would not be appropriate in an era when popular literature was promoting the idea of the hardy, tough English adventurer going abroad and, in their own small way, projecting British power across the world.

Interestingly, in one Jack Harkaway story, it is the native who has to save his English masters from the snake. This is a further complication, in one of the most popular serials no less, of contemporary stereotypes of natives as weak and cowardly. This scenario occurs when Jack Harkaway and several of his companions when they are forced to find accommodation in a cave in an unspecified colony in Jack Harkaway’s Adventures Afloat and Ashore (1873), the sequel to Jack Harkaway After Schooldays. Unbeknownst to the lads who have sought refuge in the cave, a large snake, ‘fully twelve feet long and very thick’, has also made its home there.[54] It is Harkaway’s friend Monday—a character based on Defoe’s Man Friday in Robinson Crusoe—who steps up to the task of dispatching the serpent.[55] He bravely grabs the snake by its neck and carries it out of the cave. Harkaway and another associate follow him out and the three of them beat the snake to death. While many Harkaway serials regularly use racist words to describe “native” characters, when it came to battling with snakes, such characters were as brave and equal to the task of any Englishman.


To some extent, two of these tropes are still with us in popular culture. Snake charmers may have lost their threatening allure, although we do find some movies feature snake-handling villains, primarily of black or ethnic minority origin, using serpents to harm others. The film Stanley (1972) sees a Native American man use a rattlesnake to take vengeance on those whom he believes has wronged him, while other cult classics such as Natural Born Killers (1994) likewise see a Native American man able to somehow control a rattlesnake. The James Bond movie Live and Let Die (1973) features a deadly voodoo cult who use snakes to assassinate people. Stories involving serpents invading human domains are popular. We saw earlier how there are regular news reports relating home invasions by snakes. On occasion, moviemakers have taken up the trope of snakes invading human domains: a cult classic movie entitled Venom (1981) sees a black mamba invade a family home at the same time as burglars with deadly consequence for all involved. A similar movie was Fair Game (1988), in which a jilted man locks the object of his affection in her house and releases a black mamba into it. A more recent example might be the film Snakes on a Plane (2006); airplanes are for humans and we do not expect snakes to be on board them (there was actually an Italian illustrated boys’ magazine from the 1920s which featured the story of a king cobra terrorising a pilot on a place, thus anticipating the more recent film).[56] In some respect these films are much like the Victorian magazines we have studied in this chapter: cheap horrors certainly not “quality” cinema perhaps, with the exception, of the James Bond films we have briefly mentioned. Just as many a Victorian “action hero” did before him, in one film, Moonraker (1979), Bond proves just how tough and “manly” he is by wrestling with a large serpent. While more research is required, perhaps we might make the case that, at least in action films, the snake has displaced the lion as the king of the jungle. The Anaconda quadrilogy (1997–2004) sees explorers venture into tropical rainforests where they are stalked by a larger-than-life green anaconda.

The snake was always the monster in Victorian popular literature. It was, as Harkaway calls the large snake whom Monday had carried out of the cave, a ‘brute’, and one which needed to be defeated at all costs. Rudyard Kipling’s Kaa from The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) was an exception in this regard, for Kaa serves as a wise mentor for the young “man-cub,” Mowgli. The lack of any sympathetic regard for an animal should not surprise us for, after all, since the dawn of Western civilization, the serpent has been feared because of its role in convincing Eve to commit her original sin. As this chapter has shown, snakes were fearsome animals in popular literary works because of how they were appropriated: as tools of natives’ treachery; as invaders of the family home; and as a symbol of when colonial explorers had ventured too far into the jungle.


This is a pre-print of a chapter of his that was published a couple of years ago in Victorian Animals and their Children (Routledge, 2019).

[1] J. A. Mangan, The Games Ethic and Imperialism (New York: Viking, 1986), 18.

[2] Stephen Mosley, The Environment in World History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 23.

[3] Henry Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, ed. Roger Luckhurst, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1.

[4] R. Shine, et al., “The influence of sex and body size on food habits of a giant tropical snake, Python reticulatus,” Functional Ecology 12 no. 2 (1998): 248–58

[5] Alfred R. Wallace, A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro with an Account of the Native Tribes, 2nd ed. (London: Ward, Lock and Co., 1889), 33–4.

[6] Thomas Cantor, “Sketch of an Undescribed Hooded Serpent with Fangs and Maxillar Teethm,” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, January (1836), 86–96; “Large Venomous Snake,” The Asiatic Journal October 1, 1836, 65.

[7] “Desperate Fight with a Black Snake,” Sons of Britannia 8 no. 201 (1874), 30.

[8] Laura Carnelos, “Clumps, Bearers and Frisket Bites: the Production of Popular Books in Early Modern Italy.” Lecture, The Bibliographical Society, London, 19 February 2019.

(There will, of course, be exceptions to this typology, which is not at all meant to be exhaustive, and we should note that this only applies to popular literature (although “popular literature” is a relative term, by this I mean those stories which appeared in the various late-Victorian and Edwardian boys’ magazines, printed in a hurry with poor quality materials and selling for a penny or less) There were political uses of snakes to be found, for example, in Chartist poetry, where the snake was on one occasion used to represent a devious and treacherous establishment. Serpent symbolism in jewellery, for example, was highly prized by the Victorians, especially after Prince Albert presented Queen Victoria with a golden serpent ring as a symbol of everlasting love. Rider Haggard often likened his “dangerous” female protagonists such as Cleopatra and She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed to serpents in several of the best-selling books he wrote. The serpent had a variety of uses in Victorian culture, but in popular literature, they were useful animals for writers to use when they needed a monster who had to be overcome by the heroism of a colonial adventurer)

[9] “The Lion and the Serpent,” The English Chartist Circular [n. d.], 276.

[10] Claire Mabilat, “British Orientalism and Representations of Music in the Long Nineteenth Century Ideas of music, otherness, sexuality and gender in the popular arts,” Unpublished PhD thesis, Durham University, 2006, 108.

[11] Jay David Bolter, “Posthumanism,” in The International Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and Philosophy, vol. 4, ed. Klaas Bruhn Jensen and Robert T. Craig, 1556–63 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). Finally, the majority of essays in this volume emphasise a post-humanist approach to the study of literary texts and their portrayals of animals. “Post-humanism,” as Jay David Bolter points out, signifies “a new way of understanding the human subject and its relationship to the natural world.” However, this is an awkward lens through which to examine stories of snakes from popular literature. The snakes who appear in the works below were not featured in high-minded philosophical literary works; if post-humanism is applicable to a text such as D. H. Lawrence’s Snake, in which the poet considers his relationship to non-human creatures, it is not applicable to popular boys periodicals.

[12] Derek Ryan, “Following Snakes and Moths: Modernist Ethics and Posthumanism,” Twentieth-Century Literature 61 no. 3 (2015): 287–304. At no point do the fictional jungle explorers ask the reader to consider their relationship with the serpent. In these works, by contrast, serpents were reimagined in such a generic manner, always typecast as the villainous fearsome beast, and their appearance always contributed to putting in sharp relief some human characteristic, be it the villainy of an ‘oriental’ or the bravery and athleticism of a colonial adventurer.

[13] “Charmers of Serpents,” The Penny Magazine February 9, 1833, 49.

[14] “The Indian Snake Charmers,” The Saturday Magazine May 23, 1835, 186.

[15] G. Gogerly, “Serpent Charmers,” Missionary Magazine and Chronicle March 1, 1837, 1–2.

[16] “Snake Charming at Cairo,” The Illustrated London News August 20, 1842, 239; “The Snake Charmers,” The Illustrated London News December 17, 1859, 574; “Serpent Charmers,” The Wesleyan Juvenile Offering, November 1, 1865, 161–62.

[17] “Charmers of Serpents,” 49.

[18] J. R. Hall, “Encountering snakes in early Victorian London: the first reptile house at the Zoological Gardens,” History of Science 53 no. 3 (2015), 360.

[19] “The Sacred Sapphire,” The Boys of England May 2, 1890, 297.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Paul Herring, “Comrades in Peril,” The Big Budget, July 10, 1897, 5.

[22] Evelyn Baring, Modern Egypt, vol. 2 (New York: MacMillan, 1908), 146–67. Quoted in Edward Said, Orientalism, 3rd ed (London: Penguin, 2003), 39–40.

[23] J. F. Hewitt, “Notes on the Early History of Northern India. Part II,” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 21 no. 2 (1889): 187–359.

[24] “The Serpent Races of India,” The Friend of India, December 17, 1868, 1471–72.

[25] Ibn Warraq, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 36.

[26] “No. 208 Novelette: Mahmoud the Snake Charmer,” The Boys of England, June 10, 1898, 1–8.

[27] Kristy Sexton-McGrath, “Hefty 5.5m python proves tough to bag after removal from woman’s Mission Beach house,” ABC News February 16, 2019, http://www.abc.net.au

[28] “Destruction of a Serpent,” The Times October 14, 1841, 6; “Killing a Serpent,” The Wesleyan Juvenile Offering, November 1, 1851, 130–31; “Page for the Young,” Illustrated Missionary News April 1, 1874, 46–47; “For the Young,” The Missionary News April 1, 1868, 43.

[29] “Waking Snakes,” Melbourne Punch January 21, 1875, 28.

[30] “A Citizen of Delhi,” The Boys of England, July 7, 1876, 92.

[31] “Boy Bitten by a Serpent,” The Juvenile Missionary Magazine February 1, 1836, 9.

[32] “The Whip Snake,” Sons of Britannia 1 no. 12 (1870), 186.

[33] M. Dutto et al., “Snakebites by “harmless” snakes: What is a venomous snake?” Toxicon 75 (2013), 207.

[34] Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book (New York: The Century Co., 1920), 182.

[35] “Fight Between a Cobra and a Mongoose,” The Friend of India February 21, 1872, 249

[36] “Imprisoned by a Serpent,” Boy’s Comic Journal, 11 no. 284 (1888), 398–99.

[37] ‘Roughing it in Van Dieman’s Land’, Good Things ([n. d.]), 122–23.

[38] “The Most Exciting Boat Race: No Wonder Jack Harkaway Felt a Bit Baked After Oxford’s Win,” The Times March 31, 1960, 14.

[39] Christopher Mark Banham, “Boys of England and Edwin J. Brett,” PhD diss., University of Leeds, 2006, 61.

[40] Bracebridge Hemyng, Jack Harkaway and his Son’s Adventures Round the World, vol. 2 (London: Boys of England Office, 1879), 292; Bracebridge Hemyng, Jack Harkaway’s Adventures in America and Cuba (Chicago: M. A. Donohue [n. d.]), 199.

[41] Bracebridge Hemyng, Jack Harkaway After Schooldays (London: Publishing Office, 1873), 25–6.

[42] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, vol. 2 (London: G. Vickers, 1856), 181–2.

[43] G. W. M. Reynolds, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (London: John Dicks, 1865), 70.

[44] “Three Daring Boys; or, The Cruise of the Island Queen,” Sons of Britannia 15 no. 388 (1877), 377.

[45] Mangan, The Games Ethic and Imperialism, 26.

[46] “In Search of Gold,” The Boy’s Comic Journal 27 no. 684 (1896), 236–7.

[47] “Gold Mountain; or, The African Talisman,” The Gentleman’s Journal and Youth’s Miscellany of Literature, Information, and Amusement, 3 no.89 ([n. d.]), 385.

[48] “British Jack and Yankee Doodle,” Boys of England August 20, 1880, 249–50.

[49] Ibid., 250.

[50] “Gold Mountain,” 386.

[51] Max Jones et al., “Decolonising Imperial Heroes: Britain and France,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 45: 5 (2014), 789.

[52] Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 310.

[53] Geoffrey Cubitt, ‘Introduction’, in Heroic Reputations and Exemplary Lives, ed. by G. Cubitt & A. Warren, 3 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).

[54] Bracebridge Hemyng, Jack Harkaway’s Adventures Afloat and Ashore (Chicago: M. A. Donohue [n. d.]), 62.

[55] Ibid., 63.

[56] “In Brutta Compagnia,” La Domenica del Corriere May 20, 1929, 16.