'Tomorrow, on the ebb tide, the brig Forward, captain KZ and second-in-command Richard Shandon, will leave New Prince's Docks; destination unknown.'
Thus read the Liverpool Herald of 5 April 1860. (p. 5)
Summary: The mystery of who the captain might be will lay the seeds of mutiny. Even the second-in-command starts the voyage not knowing who the captain is, or what the destination is. It's clear that the Forward is designed for an arctic expedition, but nothing is known beyond that. The rumors around the docks are that the ship is captained by a dog. And the captain, John Hatteras, doesn't even reveal himself until chapter 12.
Hatteras is obsessed with a single idea: to plant the British flag at the North Pole. His crew is not so interested, except for Dr. Clawbonny, a genial man who has read everything about arctic exploration and is hoping for the chance to participate himself. Hatteras has failed before, in one case being the only member of the expedition to survive, which is very likely the reason for the secrecy. It is thus not surprising that it all reaches a point at which the crew mutinies and strands Hatteras, Hatteras's dog Duke, Clawbonny, and a few loyal crewmen on the Arctic ice. Due to Clawbonny's encyclopedic knowledge and the talents of each of the crew, they survive, and come across a survivor from another expedition, Altamont, who, to Hatteras's horror, is an American. The expedition will inevitably proceed to a catastrophic success, symbolized by Verne's placement of the North Pole in a volcano in the middle of tempest-tossed sea.
From the manuscripts, it is clear that this was one of Verne's primary interests. He had originally planned to have Hatteras and Altamont fight a duel over naming rights, and Hatteras would succeed in his mission only to die at the North Pole. His publisher didn't like this, and Verne had to re-write the tale, creating a sort of reconciliation and softening Hatteras's end from death to madness, the death of reason. But the tale is one of obsession driving toward catastrophe. In some ways it reminded me a great deal of Moby Dick.
On the other hand, despite the title, there is a very real argument that the hero of the work is Dr. Clawbonny. He's certainly British (presumably Scottish), but he has the larger view. Hatteras, and to a lesser extent Altamont, are driven by visions of national glory; Clawbonny is interested in the greatness of humanity. He draws from the whole experience of the human race in its attempt to explore the Arctic, and it is his irreplaceable knowledge of that experience that makes the expedition's success possible, not Hatteras's obsession. He is the peacemaker who keeps the group from falling part, and whose enthusiasm bubbles through most of the book. Hatteras is not a sympathetic character; he is not intended to be. It is Clawbonny who shows humanity at its best: scientific, benevolent, enthusiastic in the achievement of great deeds.
Part of the reason for this duality is that there is a sense in which the book is two stories. Two of Verne's favorite kind of tale were Expeditions -- thus the voyages part of Voyages extraordinaires -- and Robinsonades. This tale is a melding of both; it's a Robinsonade interwoven into the framework of an Expedition, with Hatteras being the driving force behind the Expedition and Clawbonny being the primary figure of the Robinsonade. The result is an interesting contrast between understanding exploratory and scientific discoveries as national achievements and understanding them as human achievements -- a duality that is certainly a major part of all the great discoveries of the nineteenth century, and one that occasionally raises its head even today.
It was a curious and touching sight to see the pretty animals running, jumping, and leaping trustingly; they landed on the good Clawbonny's shoulders; they lay down at his fee; they spontaneously offered themselves to the unaccustomed caresses; they did their utmost to welcome the unknown guests; the many birds, joyously chirping, called to each other and came from all points of the valley; the doctor resembled a veritable charmer. The huntsmen continued their journey by climbing up the soggy banks of the stream, followed by this friendly group; and at a bend in the valley they spotted a herd of eight or ten reindeer, grazing on some lichen half-buried under the snow, charming animals to look upon, gracious and calm, the females bearing antlers as proudly as the males. Their woolly hides were already exchanging wintry whiteness for the brown and dull grey of summer; they appeared no more frightened and no less tame than the hares or birds of this peaceful country. Such must have been the relationship between the first man and the first animals when the world was young. (p. 285)
Jules Verne, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, Butcher, tr. Oxford UP (New York: 2005).