The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888)    

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was written by James De Mille. De Mille (1833-1880) was a Professor of English at Dalhousie University in Canada. He wrote prolifically, especially adventure fiction and boys’ stories, and was one of Canada’s most popular novelists in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

A Strange Manuscript is a combination of satire and the Lost Race story. The novel’s framing story involves a yacht, owned by an upper-class twit, which comes upon a copper cylinder in the middle of the Atlantic. Inside the cylinder is a manuscript, written on a scrap of parchment. The author of the manuscript, Adam More, describes how, in 1843, on the return trip from conveying convicts to Van Dieman’s Land, he was stranded in the seas north of the South Pole. More eventually landed on a large, warm, desolate island, and after privation and an encounter with brutish cannibals More met the Kosekin, a race of small white men who may have been descended from the lost tribes of Israel. The Kosekin lived in caves, and their culture was the reverse of Western culture in many ways. The Kosekin poor were honored and the rich were scorned, and the Kosekin were ruled over by the Grand Council of Paupers, a group of old, impoverished men and women. Death was seen by the Kosekin to be a high honor, and ritual sacrifices and lethal hunts of the dinosaur-like beasts which inhabited the Kosekins’ country were welcomed parts of their culture. The highest honor, to the Kosekin, was to be served as the main dish at a sacred feast. Lovers among the Kosekin did not marry, for lovers want to give all to the ones they love, and marrying them therefore implied selfishness. More met Almah, a beautiful woman from another (undescribed) Antarctic country. Almah was not of the Kosekin and greatly disliked their culture, and she and More fell in love. This marked the two of them for sacrifice, and after a failed attempt at escape the pair were brought to the sacrificial pyramid. More killed several of the Kosekin with his rifle, saving Almah from being sacrificed. More’s use of his rifle caused the Kosekin see him as “the Father of Thunder! Ruler of Cloud and Darkness! Judge of Death!,”1 a supernatural power to be worshiped rather than sacrificed. The novel ends as More and Almah set about changing the Kosekin society.

Although A Strange Manuscript was published in 1888, it was written in the late 1870s, before H. Rider Haggard began the Lost Race craze with King Solomon’s Mines (see: The Allan Quatermain Adventures) and She. A Strange Manuscript was undoubtedly brought out by its publisher to capitalize on the popularity of Haggard’s novels, but De Mille actually preceded Haggard. This wasn’t entirely original on De Mille’s part, of course; there were a number of predecessors to Haggard, even in the 1870s, who De Mille could have modeled A Strange Manuscript on.2 But A Strange Manuscript anticipates Haggard’s approach, if not his style, in ways that Haggard’s predecessors generally did not. De Mille includes a large amount of realistic detail, from environmental to nautical, so that the novel’s premise is as credible as possible. As well, De Mille takes from Jules Verne the tactic of using current science in a serious manner to support the more fantastic elements of the novel. De Mille clearly put some thought into the writing of A Strange Manuscript, and from a purely technical standpoint it is a better written novel than many of the pre- and post-Haggard Lost Race romances. De Mille also includes a great deal of satiric material, sending up contemporary British society and thought, from New Money status seekers to British gentlemen adventurers to utopias and utopianists to communists.

And yet A Strange Manuscript is uninteresting. Much of the satire is obvious and unsophisticated. If De Mille intended to parody the characterization of British adventurers in the person of More, he did so only too well, creating a stodgy and drearily boring character, and Almah is little better. Critical claims for wit in A Strange Manuscript are sadly misplaced; De Mille’s humor is only of the broadest kind. De Mille used a hammer when a scalpel would have been more effective. Ultimately the novel is lacking in any sense of energy or verve. One gets the sense that De Mille was merely going through the paces after the initial inspiration for the novel.

Intriguingly, though, some critics have noted an anti-colonialist theme running through the novel, based on De Mille’s personal history:

While I do not wish to attribute a 1990s mind-set to a man who died in 1880, I think that De Mille's individual historical position on the margins of several political and economic empires opens his text to concerns about discourses and manifestations of power. It is not farfetched to suggest that references to the suppression of Indigenous peoples, while casually placed within the text, were not penned by De Mille in utter ignorance of their wider implications. When Adam More teaches the Kosekin melodies "created by the genius of the Celtic race" (De Mille 108), he is likely more oblivious than was De Mille to the English appropriation of the culture of conquered Celts. By drawing our attention to De Mille's use of William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico as a source for his description of the sacrificial practices of the Kosekin, Wayne Kime likewise invites us to situate A Strange Manuscript within the broader framework of postcolonial analysis (290-93).3 

A Strange Manuscript is the final result of a good, educated mind spending its time and energy on a project which ultimately bored it.

Recommended Edition

Print: James De Mille, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2011.



1 James De Mille, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1888), 284.

2 Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s wonderful catalogue of Lost Race novels gives an idea of the extent to which the idea of the Lost Race preceded Haggard.

3 Carole Gerson, “A Contrapuntal Reading of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder,” Essays on Canadian Writing no. 56 (Fall 1995): 224.