The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Sandokan Adventures (1883-1913)  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Sandokan Adventures were written by Emilio Salgari and began with “The Tiger of Malaysia” (original: “La Tigre della Malesia,” La Nuova Arena, Oct. 1883-Mar 1884). Salgari (1863-1911) was a Veronese writer of adventure fiction. He was prolific, writing almost eighty novels in several series, but he never knew financial success during his life and died in heartbreaking poverty as a suicide. Posthumously he has become extremely successful and is viewed as the Italian Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Sandokan is the son of the former rajah of a nameless, prosperous Malaysian state. When Sandokan's father and family are attacked and slaughtered, their guards, who are the personal guards of James Brooke, the English Governor of the island of Labuan, do nothing. Sandokan goes to live with his faithful old teacher, but after dreaming of the deaths of his family resolves to search out Brooke and find out why Brooke betrayed Sandokan's father. Sandokan takes to sea as a ship's boy on a steamer bound for Labuan. Sandokan and his best friend Janez, a Portuguese wanderer, escape from a trap set by Brooke and set ashore on Mompracem, an island that later becomes their hideout. They first have to capture it from a band of pirates, who are so impressed by the courage of Sandokan and Janez that they join them, becoming “the young tigers of Malaysia.”

Sandokan begins a Robin Hood-like life of piracy, picking up a girlfriend, Marianna, along the way. That Marianna is James Brooke's niece does not, in the end, threaten their relationship, for they get married after he proposes to her with a gift of opulent rubies. After fighting Thugs (in the dreaded Black Jungle of India), sorcerers, the English, the jungles of Malaysia, Honorata (the descendant of Circe), the slopes of the Himalayas, and various lost peoples, and after restoring at least one deposed princess of Assam to her throne, Sandokan defeats Brooke and his flunkies and regains the kingdom taken from his father.

The Sandokan novels are turn-of-the century pulp fiction. Salgari did a great deal of research for the novels, making sure that he captured the small details of his Asian settings accurately, but he then added fantastic elements to those settings in the service of more exciting stories. His plots are imaginative and inventive, with enough action and intrigue to satisfy most readers. The subplots are resolved satisfactorily, if predictably, and the characters are passionate (when they are not shrill). The novels are fast-paced, and if the characters are only one-dimensional the reader shouldn’t expect more than that from this type of novel. The novels have a higher level of gore than is normal for British and American adventure novels; in the first, serial edition of The Tiger of Malaysia men have seen Sandokan “drinking human blood and¼sucking up the brains of his dying victims,”1 although this passage was omitted when The Tiger of Malaysia was reprinted as a novel in 1901. But the gore only emphasizes the peace-loving change in Sandokan’s personality, brought about by his marriage to Marianna, at the end of The Tiger of Malaysia.

The novel’s main drawback is the melodrama of the dialogue:

‘Ah!’ he exclaimed, gnashing his teeth. ‘Whoever would have guessed that the day would come when the Leopards of Labuan would have beaten the Tigers of Mompracem? Who would have thought that I, the invincible Tiger of Malaysia, would have landed here, on this shore, beaten and injured? When will I get my revenge? Revenge! All my prahos, my island, my men, my very riches to destroy these odious white men that dare dispute my sea!’

‘What does it matter if they have beaten me for now, when in a month or two I shall return here with my ships and unleash my indomitable men upon these shores? Who can withstand a legion of my men thirsting for blood and revenge? What does it matter if today the British Leopard gloats over this victory? They will all fall dying at my feet! Let all the British of Labuan tremble, for they’ll see my flag flying proudly in battle once again!’

The Tiger of Malaysia has the problems of most pirate fiction: it makes the pirates, who in reality were usually vicious thugs, into heroes. This difficulty is exacerbated in Salgari’s work. The reader is repeatedly told about Sandokan’s generosity to the poor, his rescuing of stranded sailors, and his defending the weak against bullies, but what the readers see in The Tiger of Malaysia is a ferocious pirate who sinks several ships and shows no mercy to his enemies. Those who attempt to flee from him are “cowards.” Those who attempt to fight him gain his respect, although this does not prevent him from killing them. Sandokan is ruthless to his crew as well as his enemies, and he is willing to risk the lives of his band of pirates on missions which are doomed to fail. In The Tiger of Malaysia Salgari assumes that the readers will admire Sandokan because of his bravery, but the modern reader is likely to focus on Sandokan’s acts and conclude that he is not only not likable, but is in fact detestable.

The Tiger of Malaysia has a few notable aspects. Salgari was one of the first Western novelists to write about piracy in Asia, rather than America, and to do so in a relatively balanced fashion; Salgari promulgated the usual stereotypes about Southeast Asia and Southeast Asians, but also tried to use as accurate information in the novel and in the Sandokan stories about the locations and characters he was writing about as possible.

Salgari was relatively progressive in his treatment of issues of race. He inverted the usual ethnic balance of adventure novels by making the hero Asian and the villain white. The villain of The Tiger of Malaysia, Sir James Brooke (1803-1868), was the English rajah of Sarawak in the 1840s. Brooke’s actions against pirates in Borneo, during which he slaughtered the defeated Sakuran Dyaks, led to a Commission of Inquiry being convened against him in the House of Commons in 1851, and his reputation in Asia and Europe was dire for decades afterward. Sandokan hates Brooke and hates all Europeans, especially the Spanish, Dutch, English, and Portuguese, but the love of a good woman who is English destroys Sandokan’s prejudices, although he and the novels remain anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist to the end. Salgari’s other work is notably free of the usual ethnic biases. In his later Captain Storm—the Lion of Damascus (original: Capitan Tempesta--Il Leone di Damasco, 1910) he has the Italian woman warrior Marfisa marry a Saracen commander.

The first Sandokan novel, published serially, brought record sales to the magazine in which it appeared, leading to a Sandokan craze and a fervent fan base for Salgari. “Imitators were quick to take advantage of the Salgari fad, while fraudulent editions of his works circulated widely, creating a textual jungle that is difficult to explore even today. In a country where illiteracy was still remarkably high and the reading public was mainly concentrated in urban centres, Salgari’s record-breaking sales constituted a publishing triumph of unprecedented proportions.”2 But the Sandokan novels in particular, and Salgari’s writing more generally, “exploited the conventions of exposition narratives and worked both within and against the generic standards of adventure novels.”3

If we agree with scholars such as Benedict Anderson, Homi Bhabha, and Timothy Brennan, and see narratives as the imaginative acts that help shape the communities that we call nations, then we must ask ourselves how much Salgari’s popular novels of adventure expressed the aggressively nationalistic, expansionistic, and Eurocentric mentality of their time, and in which ways they diverged from this mentality. Discussing this interplay of similarities and differences helps delineate Italy’s feelings about its status as nation state vis-à-vis its European neighbours. Salgari’s adventure tales contributed to Italy’s still fluid sense of nationhood by giving it shape as a cultural artefact – a popular narrative. This narrative, however, does not find its meaning in and of itself but together with, as well as against, the narrative acts of other imagined communities – France and Britain, primarily.4 

It is a shame that Salgari's work has only been translated into English in the twenty-first century, since twentieth-century fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs would undoubtedly have found Salgari’s work brisk, invigorating, and enjoyable, and would have been able to ignore its questionable morality.

Recommended Edition

Print: Emilio Salgari, The Tigers of Mompracem. London, ON: ROH Press, 2007.

For Further Research

Alessandro Portelli, “Emilio Salgari’s The Two Tigers: Exoticism, Anti-Imperialism and Ambivalence,” in Shaswati Mazumdar, ed., Insurgent Sepoys: Europe Views the Revolt of 1857 (New Delhi: Routledge, 2011): 211-220.


1 Qtd. in Nicolas J. Perella, “Popular Fiction Between Unification and World War I,” in Peter Bondanella and Andrea Ciccarelli, eds., The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 83.

2 Cristina Della Coletta, World’s Fairs Italian Style: The Great Expositions in Turin and Their Narratives, 1860-1915 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 124.

3 Della Coletta, World’s Fairs Italian Style, 126.

4 Della Coletta, World’s Fairs Italian Style, 125-126.