R. M. Ballantyne was a Scottish author of juvenile fiction who wrote more than 100 books. He was also an accomplished artist, and exhibited some of his water-colours at the Royal Scottish Academy.
Robert Michael Ballantyne was born in Edinburgh on April 24th, 1825, the ninth of ten children and the youngest son, to Alexander Thomson Ballantyne (1776–1847) and his wife Anne (1786–1855). Alexander was a newspaper editor and printer, and Robert's uncle James Ballantyne (1772–1833) was the printer for Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. A UK-wide banking crisis in 1825 resulted in the collapse of the Ballantyne printing business the following year with debts of £130,000, which led to a decline in the family's fortunes.
Robert went to Canada aged 16, and spent five years working for the Hudson's Bay Company. He traded with the local Native Americans for furs, which required him to travel by canoe and sleigh to the areas occupied by the modern-day provinces of Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec, experiences that formed the basis of his novel Snowflakes and Sunbeams (1856).
His longing for family and home impressed him to start writing letters to his mother. Ballantyne recalled in his autobiographical Personal Reminiscences in Book Making (1893) that "To this long-letter writing I attribute whatever small amount of facility in composition I may have acquired."
In 1847 Ballantyne returned to Scotland to discover that his father had died. He published his first book the following year, Hudson's Bay: or, Life in the Wilds of North America, and for some time was employed by the publishers Messrs Constable. In 1856 he gave up business for the profession of literature, and began the series of adventure stories for the young with which his name is popularly associated.
The Young Fur-Traders (1856), The Coral Island (1857), The World of Ice (1859), Ungava: a Tale of Eskimo Land (1857), The Dog Crusoe (1860), The Lighthouse (1865), Fighting the Whales (1866), Deep Down (1868), The Pirate City (1874), Erling the Bold (1869), The Settler and the Savage (1877), and more than 100 other books followed in regular succession, his rule being in every case to write as far as possible from personal knowledge of the scenes he described.
The Coral Island is the only one of Ballantyne's novels still widely read and remembered today, but because of one mistake he made in that book, in which he gave an incorrect thickness of coconut shells, he subsequently attempted to gain first-hand knowledge of his subject matter. For instance, he spent some time living with the lighthouse keepers at the Bell Rock before writing The Lighthouse, and while researching for Deep Down he spent time with the tin miners of Cornwall.
In 1866 Ballantyne married Jane Grant (c. 1845 – c. 1924), with whom he had three sons and three daughters.
Ballantyne spent his later years in Harrow, London, before moving to Italy for the sake of his health, possibly suffering from undiagnosed Ménière's disease. He died in Rome on February 8th, 1894.
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