The English in the West Indies; Or, The Bow of Ulysses
The English in the West Indies; Or, The Bow of Ulysses
James Anthony Froude
The English in the West Indies; Or, The Bow of Ulysses
Colonial policy – Union or separation – Self-government – Varieties of condition – The Pacific colonies – The West Indies – Proposals for a West Indian federation – Nature of the population – American union and British plantations – Original conquest of the West Indies.
The Colonial Exhibition has come and gone. Delegates from our great self-governed dependencies have met and consulted together, and have determined upon a common course of action for Imperial defence. The British race dispersed over the world have celebrated the Jubilee of the Queen with an enthusiasm evidently intended to bear a special and peculiar meaning. The people of these islands and their sons and brothers and friends and kinsfolk in Canada, in Australia, and in New Zealand have declared with a general voice, scarcely disturbed by a discord, that they are fellow-subjects of a single sovereign, that they are united in feeling, united in loyalty, united in interest, and that they wish and mean to preserve unbroken the integrity of the British Empire. This is the answer which the democracy has given to the advocates of the doctrine of separation. The desire for union while it lasts is its own realisation. As long as we have no wish to part we shall not part, and the wish can never rise if when there is occasion we can meet and deliberate together with the same regard for each other's welfare which has been shown in the late conference in London.
Events mock at human foresight, and nothing is certain but the unforeseen. Constitutional government and an independent executive were conferred upon our larger colonies, with the express and scarcely veiled intention that at the earliest moment they were to relieve the mother country of responsibility for them. They were regarded as fledgelings who are fed only by the parent birds till their feathers are grown, and are then expected to shift for themselves. They were provided with the full plumage of parliamentary institutions on the home pattern and model, and the expectation of experienced politicians was that they would each at the earliest moment go off on their separate accounts, and would bid us a friendly farewell. The irony of fate has turned to folly the wisdom of the wise. The wise themselves, the same political party which were most anxious twenty years ago to see the colonies independent, and contrived constitutions for them which they conceived must inevitably lead to separation, appeal now to the effect of those very constitutions in drawing the Empire closer together, as a reason why a similar method should be immediately adopted to heal the differences between Great Britain and Ireland. New converts to any belief, political or theological, are proverbially zealous, and perhaps in this instance they are over-hasty. It does not follow that because people of the same race and character are drawn together by equality and liberty, people of different races and different characters, who have quarrelled for centuries, will be similarly attracted to one another. Yet so far as our own colonies are concerned it is clear that the abandonment by the mother country of all pretence to interfere in their internal management has removed the only cause which could possibly have created a desire for independence. We cannot, even if we wish it ourselves, shake off connections who cost us nothing and themselves refuse to be divided. Politicians may quarrel; the democracies have refused to quarrel; and the result of the wide extension of the suffrage throughout the Empire has been to show that being one the British people everywhere intend to remain one. With the same blood, the same language, the same habits, the same traditions, they do not mean to be shattered into dishonoured fragments. All of us, wherever we are, can best manage our own affairs within our own limits; yet local spheres of self-management can revolve round a common centre while there is a centripetal power sufficient to hold them; and so long as England 'to herself is true' and continues worthy of her ancient reputation, there are no causes working visibly above the political horizon which are likely to induce our self-governed colonies to take wing and leave us. The strain will come with the next great war. During peace these colonies have only experienced the advantage of union with us. They will then have to share our dangers, and may ask why they are to be involved in quarrels which are not of their own making. How they will act then only experience can tell; and that there is any doubt about it is a sufficient answer to those rapid statesmen who would rush at once into the application of the same principle to countries whose continuance with us is vital to our own safety, whom we cannot part with though they were to demand it at the cannon's mouth.
But the result of the experiment is an encouragement as far as it has gone to those who would extend self-government through the whole of our colonial system. It seems to lead as a direct road into the 'Imperial Federation' which has fascinated the general imagination. It removes friction. We relieve ourselves of responsibilities. If federation is to come about at all as a definite and effective organisation, the spontaneous action of the different members of the Empire in a position in which they are free to stay with us or to leave us as they please, appears the readiest and perhaps the only means by which it can be brought to pass. So plausible is the theory, so obviously right would it be were the problem as simple and the population of all our colonies as homogeneous as in Australia, that one cannot wonder at the ambition of politicians to win themselves a name and achieve a great result by the immediate adoption of it. Great results generally imply effort and sacrifice. Here effort is unnecessary and sacrifice is not demanded. Everybody is to have what he wishes, and the effect is to come about of itself. When we think of India, when we think of Ireland, prudence tells us to hesitate. Steps once taken in this direction cannot be undone, even if found to lead to the wrong place. But undoubtedly, wherever it is possible, the principle of self-government ought to be applied in our colonies and will be applied, and the danger now is that it will be tried in haste in countries either as yet unripe for it or from the nature of things unfit for it. The liberties which we grant freely to those whom we trust and who do not require to be restrained, we bring into disrepute if we concede them as readily to perversity or disaffection or to those who, like most Asiatics, do not desire liberty, and prosper best when they are led and guided.
In this complex empire of ours the problem presents itself in many shapes, and each must be studied and dealt with according to its character. There is the broad distinction between colonies and conquered countries. Colonists are part of ourselves. Foreigners attached by force to our dominions may submit to be ruled by us, but will not always consent to rule themselves in accordance with our views or interests, or remain attached to us if we enable them to leave us when they please. The Crown, therefore, as in India, rules directly by the police and the army. And there are colonies which are neither one nor the other, where our own people have been settled and have been granted the land in possession with the control of an insubordinate population, themselves claiming political privileges which had to be refused to the rest. This was the position of Ireland, and the result of meddling theoretically with it ought to have taught us caution. Again, there are colonies like the West Indies, either occupied originally by ourselves, as Barbadoes, or taken by force from France or Spain, where the mass of the population were slaves who have been since made free, but where the extent to which the coloured people can be admitted to share in the administration is still an unsettled question. To throw countries so variously circumstanced under an identical system would be a wild experiment. Whether we ought to try such an experiment at all, or even wish to try it and prepare the way for it, depends perhaps on whether we have determined that under all circumstances the retention of them under our own flag is indispensable to our safety.
I had visited our great Pacific colonies. Circumstances led me afterwards to attend more particularly to the West ladies. They were the earliest, and once the most prized, of all our distant possessions. They had been won by the most desperate struggles, and had been the scene of our greatest naval glories. In the recent discussion on the possibility of an organised colonial federation, various schemes came under my notice, in every one of which the union of the West Indian Islands under a free parliamentary constitution was regarded as a necessary preliminary. I was reminded of a conversation which I had held seventeen years ago with a high colonial official specially connected with the West Indian department, in which the federation of the islands under such a constitution was spoken of as a measure already determined on, though with a view to an end exactly the opposite of that which was now desired. The colonies universally were then regarded in such quarters as a burden upon our resources, of which we were to relieve ourselves at the earliest moment. They were no longer of special value to us; the whole world had become our market; and whether they were nominally attached to the Empire, or were independent, or joined themselves to some other power, was of no commercial moment to us. It was felt, however, that as long as any tie remained, we should be obliged to defend them in time of war; while they, in consequence of their connection, would be liable to attack. The sooner, therefore, the connection was ended, the better for them and for us.
By the constitutions which had been conferred upon them, Australia and Canada, New Zealand and the Cape, were assumed to be practically gone. The same measures were to be taken with the West Indies. They were not prosperous. They formed no outlet for British emigration; the white population was diminishing; they were dissatisfied; they lay close to the great American republic, to which geographically they more properly belonged. Representative assemblies under the Crown had failed to produce the content expected from them or to give an impulse to industry. The free negroes could not long be excluded from the franchise. The black and white races had not amalgamated and were not inclining to amalgamate. The then recent Gordon riots had been followed by the suicide of the old Jamaican constitution. The government of Jamaica had been flung back upon the Crown, and the Crown was impatient of the addition to its obligations. The official of whom I speak informed me that a decision had been irrevocably taken. The troops were to be withdrawn from the islands, and Jamaica, Trinidad, and the English Antilles were to be masters of their own destiny, either to form into free communities like the Spanish American republics, or to join the United States, or to do what they pleased, with the sole understanding that we were to have no more responsibilities.
I do not know how far the scheme was matured. To an outside spectator it seemed too hazardous to have been seriously meditated. Yet I was told that it had not been meditated only but positively determined upon, and that further discussion of a settled question would be fruitless and needlessly irritating.
Politicians with a favourite scheme are naturally sanguine. It seemed to me that in a West Indian Federation the black race would necessarily be admitted to their full rights as citizens. Their numbers enormously preponderated, and the late scenes in Jamaica were signs that the two colours would not blend into one, that there might be, and even inevitably would be, collisions between them which would lead to actions which we could not tolerate. The white residents and the negroes had not been drawn together by the abolition of slavery, but were further apart than ever. The whites, if by superior intelligence they could gain the upper hand, would not be allowed to keep it. As little would they submit to be ruled by a race whom they despised; and I thought it quite certain that something would happen which would compel the British Government to interfere again, whether we liked it or not. Liberty in Hayti had been followed by a massacre of the French inhabitants, and the French settlers had done no worse than we had done to deserve the ill will of their slaves. Fortunately opinion changed in England before the experiment could be tried. The colonial policy of the doctrinaire statesmen was no sooner understood than it was universally condemned, and they could not press proposals on the West Indies which the West Indians showed so little readiness to meet.
So things drifted on, remaining to appearance as they were. The troops were not recalled. A minor confederation was formed in the Leeward Antilles. The Windward group was placed under Barbadoes, and islands which before had governors of their own passed under subordinate administrators. Local councils continued under various conditions, the popular element being cautiously and silently introduced. The blacks settled into a condition of easy-going peasant proprietors. But so far as the white or English interest was concerned, two causes which undermined West Indian prosperity continued to operate. So long as sugar maintained its price the planters with the help of coolie labour were able to struggle on; but the beetroot bounties came to cut from under them the industry in which they had placed their main dependence; the reports were continually darker of distress and rapidly approaching ruin; petitions for protection were not or could not be granted. They were losing heart – the worst loss of all; while the Home Government, no longer with a view to separation, but with the hope that it might produce the same effect which it produced elsewhere, were still looking to their old remedy of the extension of the principle of self-government. One serious step was taken very recently towards the re-establishment of a constitution in Jamaica. It was assumed that it had failed before because the blacks were not properly represented. The council was again made partially elective, and the black vote was admitted on the widest basis. A power was retained by the Crown of increasing in case of necessity the nominated official members to a number which would counterbalance the elected members; but the power had not been acted on and was not perhaps designed to continue, and a restless hope was said to have revived among the negroes that the day was not far off when Jamaica would be as Hayti and they would have the island to themselves.
To a person like myself, to whom the preservation of the British Empire appeared to be the only public cause in which just now it was possible to feel concern, the problem was extremely interesting. I had no prejudice against self-government. I had seen the Australian colonies growing under it in health and strength with a rapidity which rivalled the progress of the American Union itself. I had observed in South Africa that the confusions and perplexities there diminished exactly in proportion as the Home Government ceased to interfere. I could not hope that as an outsider I could see my way through difficulties where practised eyes were at a loss. But it was clear that the West Indies were suffering, be the cause what it might. I learnt that a party had risen there at last which was actually in favour of a union with America, and I wished to find an answer to a question which I had long asked myself to no purpose. My old friend Mr. Motley was once speaking to me of the probable accession of Canada to the American republic. I asked him if he was sure that Canada would like it. 'Like it?' he replied. 'Would I like the house of Baring to take me into partnership?' To be a partner in the British Empire appeared to me to be at least as great a thing as to be a State under the stars and stripes. What was it that Canada, what was it that any other colony, would gain by exchanging British citizenship for American citizenship? What did America offer to those who joined her which we refused to give or neglected to give? Was it that Great Britain did not take her colonies into partnership at all? was it that while in the United States the blood circulated freely from the heart to the extremities, so that 'if one member suffered all the body suffered with it,' our colonies were simply (as they used to be called) 'plantations,' offshoots from the old stock set down as circumstances had dictated in various parts of the globe, but vitally detached and left to grow or to wither according to their own inherent strength?
At one time the West Indian colonies had been more to us than such casual seedlings. They had been precious regarded as jewels, which hundreds of thousands of English lives had been sacrificed to tear from France and Spain. The Caribbean Sea was the cradle of the Naval Empire of Great Britain. There Drake and Hawkins intercepted the golden stream which flowed from Panama into the exchequer at Madrid, and furnished Philip with the means to carry on his war with the Reformation. The Pope had claimed to be lord of the new world as well as of the old, and had declared that Spaniards, and only Spaniards, should own territory or carry on trade there within the tropics. The seamen of England took up the challenge and replied with cannon shot. It was not the Crown, it was not the Government, which fought that battle: it was the people of England who fought it with their own hands and their own resources. Adventurers, buccaneers, corsairs, privateers, call them by what name we will, stand as extraordinary, but characteristic figures on the stage of history, disowned or acknowledged by their sovereign as suited diplomatic convenience. The outlawed pirate of one year was promoted the next to be a governor and his country's representative. In those waters, the men were formed and trained who drove the Armada through the Channel into wreck and ruin. In those waters, in the centuries which followed, France and England fought for the ocean empire, and England won it – won it on the day when her own politicians' hearts had failed them, and all the powers of the world had combined to humiliate her, and Rodney shattered the French fleet, saved Gibraltar, and avenged York Town. If ever the naval exploits of this country are done into an epic poem – and since the Iliad there has been no subject better fitted for such treatment or better deserving it – the West Indies will be the scene of the most brilliant cantos. For England to allow them to drift away from her because they have no immediate marketable value would be a sign that she had lost the feelings with which great nations always treasure the heroic traditions of their fathers. When those traditions come to be regarded as something which concerns them no longer, their greatness is already on the wane.
In the train for Southampton – Morning papers – The new 'Locksley Hall' – Past and present – The 'Moselle' – Heavy weather – The petrel – The Azores.
The last week in December, when the year 1886 was waning to its close, I left Waterloo station to join a West Indian mail steamer at Southampton. The air was frosty; the fog lay thick over city and river; the Houses of Parliament themselves were scarcely visible as I drove across Westminster Bridge in the heavy London vapour – a symbol of the cloud which was hanging over the immediate political future. The morning papers were occupied with Lord Tennyson's new 'Locksley Hall' and Mr. Gladstone's remarks upon it. I had read neither; but from the criticisms it appeared that Lord Tennyson fancied himself to have seen a change pass over England since his boyhood, and a change which was not to his mind. The fruit of the new ideas which were then rising from the ground had ripened, and the taste was disagreeable to him. The day which had followed that 'august sunrise' had not been 'august' at all; and 'the beautiful bold brow of Freedom' had proved to have something of brass upon it. The 'use and wont' England, the England out of which had risen the men who had won her great position for her, was losing its old characteristics. Things which in his eager youth Lord Tennyson had despised he saw now that he had been mistaken in despising; and the new notions which were to remake the world were not remaking it in a shape that pleased him. Like Goethe, perhaps he felt that he was stumbling over the roots of the tree which he had helped to plant.
The contrast in Mr. Gladstone's article was certainly remarkable. Lord Tennyson saw in institutions which were passing away the decay of what in its time had been great and noble, and he saw little rising in the place of them which humanly could be called improvement. To Mr. Gladstone these revolutionary years had been years of the sweeping off of long intolerable abuses, and of awaking to higher and truer perceptions of duty. Never, according to him, in any period of her history had England made more glorious progress, never had stood higher than at the present moment in material power and moral excellence. How could it be otherwise when they were the years of his own ascendency?
Metaphysicians tell us that we do not know anything as it really is. What we call outward objects are but impressions generated upon our sense by forces of the actual nature of which we are totally ignorant. We imagine that we hear a sound, and that the sound is something real which is outside us; but the sound is in the ear and is made by the ear, and the thing outside is but a vibration of air. If no animal existed with organs of hearing, the vibrations might be as before, but there would be no such thing as sound; and all our opinions on all subjects whatsoever are equally subjective. Lord Tennyson's opinions and Mr. Gladstone's opinions reveal to us only the nature and texture of their own minds, which have been affected in this way or that way. The scale has not been made in which we can weigh the periods in a nation's life, or measure them one against the other. The past is gone, and nothing but the bones of it can be recalled. We but half understand the present, for each age is a chrysalis, and we are ignorant into what it may develop. We do not even try to understand it honestly, for we shut our eyes against what we do not wish to see. I will not despond with Lord Tennyson. To take a gloomy view of things will not mend them, and modern enlightenment may have excellent gifts in store for us which will come by-and-by. But I will not say that they have come as yet. I will not say that public life is improved when party spirit has degenerated into an organised civil war, and a civil war which can never end, for it renews its life like the giant of fable at every fresh election. I will not say that men are more honest and more law-abiding when debts are repudiated and law is defied in half the country, and Mr. Gladstone himself applauds or refuses to condemn acts of open dishonesty. We are to congratulate ourselves that duelling has ceased, but I do not know that men act more honourably because they can be called less sharply to account. 'Smuggling,' we are told, has disappeared also, but the wrecker scuttles his ship or runs it ashore to cheat the insurance office. The Church may perhaps be improved in the arrangement of the services and in the professional demonstrativeness of the clergy, but I am not sure that the clergy have more influence over the minds of men than they had fifty years ago, or that the doctrines which the Church teaches are more powerful over public opinion. One would not gather that our morality was so superior from the reports which we see in the newspapers, and girls now talk over novels which the ladies' maids of their grandmothers might have read in secret but would have blushed while reading. Each age would do better if it studied its own faults and endeavoured to mend them, instead of comparing itself with others to its own advantage.
This only was clear to me in thinking over what Mr. Gladstone was reported to have said, and in thinking of his own achievements and career, that there are two classes of men who have played and still play a prominent part in the world – those who accomplish great things, and those who talk and make speeches about them. The doers of things are for the most part silent. Those who build up empires or discover secrets of science, those who paint great pictures or write great poems, are not often to be found spouting upon platforms. The silent men do the work. The talking men cry out at what is done because it is not done as they would have had it, and afterwards take possession of it as if it was their own property. Warren Hastings wins India for us; the eloquent Burke desires and passionately tries to hang him for it. At the supreme crisis in our history when America had revolted and Ireland was defiant, when the great powers of Europe had coalesced to crush us, and we were staggering under the disaster at York Town, Rodney struck a blow in the West Indies which sounded over the world and saved for Britain her ocean sceptre. Just in time, for the popular leaders had persuaded the House of Commons that Rodney ought to be recalled and peace made on any terms. Even in politics the names of oratorical statesmen are rarely associated with the organic growth of enduring institutions. The most distinguished of them have been conspicuous only as instruments of destruction. Institutions are the slow growths of centuries. The orator cuts them down in a day. The tree falls, and the hand that wields the axe is admired and applauded. The speeches of Demosthenes and Cicero pass into literature, and are studied as models of language. But Demosthenes and Cicero did not understand the facts of their time; their language might be beautiful, and their sentiments noble, but with their fine words and sentiments they only misled their countrymen. The periods where the orator is supreme are marked always by confusion and disintegration. Goethe could say of Luther that he had thrown back for centuries the spiritual cultivation of mankind, by calling the passions of the multitude to judge of matters which should have been left to the thinkers. We ourselves are just now in one of those uneasy periods, and we have decided that orators are the fittest people to rule over us. The constituencies choose their members according to the fluency of their tongues. Can he make a speech? is the one test of competency for a legislator, and the most persuasive of the whole we make prime minister. We admire the man for his gifts, and we accept what he says for the manner in which it is uttered. He may contradict to-day what he asserted yesterday. No matter. He can persuade others wherever he is persuaded himself. And such is the nature of him that he can convince himself of anything which it is his interest to believe. These are the persons who are now regarded as our wisest. It was not always so. It is not so now with nations who are in a sound state of health. The Americans, when they choose a President or a Secretary of State or any functionary from whom they require wise action, do not select these famous speech-makers. Such periods do not last, for the condition which they bring about becomes always intolerable. I do not believe in the degeneracy of our race. I believe the present generation of Englishmen to be capable of all that their fathers were and possibly of more; but we are just now in a moulting state, and are sick while the process is going on. Or to take another metaphor. The bow of Ulysses is unstrung. The worms have not eaten into the horn or the moths injured the string, but the owner of the house is away and the suitors of Penelope Britannia consume her substance, rivals one of another, each caring only for himself, but with a common heart in evil. They cannot string the bow. Only the true lord and master can string it, and in due time he comes, and the cord is stretched once more upon the notch, singing to the touch of the finger with the sharp note of the swallow; and the arrows fly to their mark in the breasts of the pretenders, while Pallas Athene looks on approving from her coign of vantage.
Random meditations of this kind were sent flying through me by the newspaper articles on Tennyson and Mr. Gladstone. The air cleared, and my mind also, as we ran beyond the smoke. The fields were covered deep with snow; a white vapour clung along the ground, the winter sky shining through it soft and blue. The ponds and canals were hard frozen, and men were skating and boys were sliding, and all was brilliant and beautiful. The ladies of the forest, the birch trees beside the line about Farnborough, were hung with jewels of ice, and glittered like a fretwork of purple and silver. It was like escaping out of a nightmare into happy healthy England once more. In the carriage with me were several gentlemen; officers going out to join their regiments; planters who had been at home on business; young sportsmen with rifles and cartridge cases who were hoping to shoot alligators, &c., all bound like myself for the West Indian mail steamer. The elders talked of sugar and of bounties, and of the financial ruin of the islands. I had heard of this before I started, and I learnt little from them which I had not known already; but I had misgivings whether I was not wandering off after all on a fool's errand. I did not want to shoot alligators, I did not understand cane growing or want to understand it, nor was I likely to find a remedy for encumbered and bankrupt landowners. I was at an age too when men grow unfit for roaming, and are expected to stay quietly at home. Plato says that to travel to any profit one should go between fifty and sixty; not sooner because one has one's duties to attend to as a citizen; not after because the mind becomes hebetated. The chief object of going abroad, in Plato's opinion, is to converse with θειοι ἅνδρες inspired men, whom Providence scatters about the globe, and from whom alone wisdom can be learnt. And I, alas! was long past the limit, and θειοι ἅνδρες are not to be met with in these times. But if not with inspired men, I might fall in at any rate with sensible men who would talk on things which I wanted to know. Winter and spring in a warm climate were pleasanter than a winter and spring at home; and as there is compensation in all things, old people can see some objects more clearly than young people can see them. They have no interest of their own to mislead their perception. They have lived too long to believe in any formulas or theories. 'Old age,' the Greek poet says, 'is not wholly a misfortune. Experience teaches things which the young know not.'[1 - ὦ τἑκνον, οὐχ ἅπαντα τῷ γήρᾳ κακἁ;] Old men at any rate like to think so.
The 'Moselle,' in which I had taken my passage, was a large steamer of 4,000 tons, one of the best where all are good – on the West Indian mail line. Her long straight sides and rounded bottom promised that she would roll, and I may say that the promise was faithfully kept; but except to the stomachs of the inexperienced rolling is no disadvantage. A vessel takes less water on board in a beam sea when she yields to the wave than when she stands up stiff and straight against it. The deck when I went on board was slippery with ice. There was the usual crowd and confusion before departure, those who were going out being undistinguishable, till the bell rang to clear the ship, from the friends who had accompanied them to take leave. I discovered, however, to my satisfaction that our party in the cabin would not be a large one. The West Indians who had come over for the Colonial Exhibition were most of them already gone. They, along with the rest, had taken back with them a consciousness that their visit had not been wholly in vain, and that the interest of the old country in her distant possessions seemed quickening into life once more. The commissioners from all our dependencies had been fêted in the great towns, and the people had come to Kensington in millions to admire the productions which bore witness to the boundless resources of British territory. Had it been only a passing emotion of wonder and pride, or was it a prelude to a more energetic policy and active resolution? Anyway it was something to be glad of. Receptions and public dinners and loyal speeches will not solve political problems, but they create the feeling of good will which underlies the useful consideration of them. The Exhibition had served the purpose which it was intended for. The conference of delegates grew out of it which has discussed in the happiest temper the elements of our future relations.
But the Exhibition doors were now closed, and the multitude of admirers or contributors were dispersed or dispersing to their homes. In the 'Moselle' we had only the latest lingerers or the ordinary passengers who went to and fro on business or pleasure. I observed them with the curiosity with which one studies persons with whom one is to be shut up for weeks in involuntary intimacy. One young Demerara planter attracted my notice, as he had with him a newly married and beautiful wife whose fresh complexion would so soon fade, as it always does in those lands where nature is brilliant with colour and English cheeks grow pale. I found also to my surprise and pleasure a daughter of one of my oldest and dearest friends, who was going out to join her husband in Trinidad. This was a happy accident to start with. An announcement printed in Spanish in large letters in a conspicuous position intimated that I must be prepared for habits in some of our companions of a less agreeable kind.
'Se suplica á los señores pasajeros de no escupir sobre la cubierta de popa.'
I may as well leave the words untranslated, but the 'supplication' is not unnecessary. The Spanish colonists, like their countrymen at home, smoke everywhere with the usual consequences. The captain of one of our mail boats found it necessary to read one of them who disregarded it a lesson which he would remember. He sent for the quartermaster with a bucket and a mop, and ordered him to stay by this gentleman and clean up till he had done.
The wind when we started was light and keen from the north. The afternoon sky was clear and frosty. Southampton Water was still as oil, and the sun went down crimson behind the brown woods of the New Forest. Of the 'Moselle's' speed we had instant evidence, for a fast Government launch raced us for a mile or two, and off Netley gave up the chase. We went leisurely along, doing thirteen knots without effort, swept by Calshot into the Solent, and had cleared the Needles before the last daylight had left us. In a few days the ice would be gone, and we should lie in the soft air of perennial summer.
Singula de nobis anni prædantur euntes:
Eripuere jocos, Venerem, convivia, ludum —
But the flying years had not stolen from me the delight of finding myself once more upon the sea; the sea which is eternally young, and gives one back one's own youth and buoyancy.
Down the Channel the north wind still blew, and the water was still smooth. We set our canvas at the Needles, and flew on for three days straight upon our course with a steady breeze. We crossed 'the Bay' without the fiddles on the dinner table; we were congratulating ourselves that, mid-winter as it was, we should reach the tropics and never need them. I meanwhile made acquaintances among my West Indian fellow-passengers, and listened to their tale of grievances. The Exhibition had been well enough in its way, but Exhibitions would not fill an empty exchequer or restore ruined plantations. The mother country I found was still regarded as a stepmother, and from more than one quarter I heard a more than muttered wish that they could be 'taken into partnership' by the Americans. They were wasting away under Free Trade and the sugar bounties. The mother country gave them fine words, but words were all. If they belonged to the United States they would have the benefit of a close market in a country where there were 60,000,000 sugar drinkers. Energetic Americans would come among them and establish new industries, and would control the unmanageable negroes. From the most loyal I heard the despairing cry of the Britons, 'the barbarians drive us into the sea and the sea drives us back upon the barbarians.' They could bear Free Trade which was fair all round, but not Free Trade which was made into a mockery by bounties. And it seemed that their masters in Downing Street answered them as the Romans answered our forefathers. 'We have many colonies, and we shall not miss Britain. Britain is far off, and must take care of herself. She brings us responsibility, and she brings us no revenue; we cannot tax Italy for the sake of Britons. We have given them our arms and our civilisation. We have done enough. Let them do now what they can or please.' Virtually this is what England says to the West Indians, or would say if despair made them actively troublesome, notwithstanding Exhibitions and expansive sentiments. The answer from Rome we can now see was the voice of dying greatness, which was no longer worthy of the place in the world which it had made for itself in the days of its strength; but it doubtless seemed reasonable enough at the time, and indeed was the only answer which the Rome of Honorius could give.
A change in the weather cut short our conversations, and drove half the company to their berths. On the fourth morning the wind chopped back to the north-west. A beam sea set in, and the 'Moselle' justified my conjectures about her. She rolled gunwale under, rolled at least forty degrees each way, and unshipped a boat out of her davits to windward. The waves were not as high as I have known the Atlantic produce when in the humour for it, but they were short, steep, and curling. Tons of water poured over the deck. The few of us who ventured below to dinner were hit by the dumb waiters which swung over our heads; and the living waiters staggered about with the dishes and upset the soup into our laps. Everybody was grumbling and miserable. Driven to my cabin I was dozing on a sofa when I was jerked off and dropped upon the floor. The noise down below on these occasions is considerable. The steering chains clank, unfastened doors slam to and fro, plates and dishes and glass fall crashing at some lurch which is heavier than usual, with the roar of the sea underneath as a constant accompaniment.
When a wave strikes the ship full on the quarter and she staggers from stem to stern, one wonders how any construction of wood and iron can endure such blows without being shattered to fragments. And it would be shattered, as I heard an engineer once say, if the sea was not such a gentle creature after all. I crept up to the deck house to watch through the lee door the wild magnificence of the storm. Down came a great green wave, rushed in a flood over everything, and swept me drenched to the skin down the stairs into the cabin. I crawled to bed to escape cold, and slid up and down my berth like a shuttle at every roll of the ship till I fell into the unconsciousness which is a substitute for sleep, slept at last really, and woke at seven in the morning to find the sun shining, and the surface of the ocean still undulating but glassy calm. The only signs left of the tempest were the swallow-like petrels skimming to and fro in our wake, picking up the scraps of food and the plate washings which the cook's mate had thrown overboard; smallest and beautifullest of all the gull tribe, called petrel by our ancestors, who went to their Bibles more often than we do for their images, in memory of St. Peter, because they seem for a moment to stand upon the water when they stoop upon any floating object.[2 - This is the explanation of the name which is given by Dampier.] In the afternoon we passed the Azores, rising blue and fairy-like out of the ocean; unconscious they of the bloody battles which once went on under their shadows. There it was that Grenville, in the 'Revenge,' fought through a long summer day alone against a host of enemies, and died there and won immortal honour. The Azores themselves are Grenville's monument, and in the memory of Englishmen are associated for ever with his glorious story. Behind these islands, too, lay Grenville's comrades, the English privateers, year after year waiting for Philip's plate fleet. Behind these islands lay French squadrons waiting for the English sugar ships. They are calm and silent now, and are never likely to echo any more to battle thunder. Men come and go and play out their little dramas, epic or tragic, and it matters nothing to nature. Their wild pranks leave no scars, and the decks are swept clean for the next comers.
The tropics – Passengers on board – Account of the Darien Canal – Planters' complaints – West Indian history – The Spanish conquest – Drake and Hawkins – The buccaneers – The pirates – French and English – Rodney – Battle of April 12 – Peace with honour – Doers and talkers.
Another two days and we were in the tropics. The north-east trade blew behind us, and our own speed being taken off from the speed of the wind there was scarcely air enough to fill our sails. The waves went down and the ports were opened, and we had passed suddenly from winter into perpetual summer, as Jean Paul says it will be with us in death. Sleep came back soft and sweet, and the water was warm in our morning bath, and the worries and annoyances of life vanished in these sweet surroundings like nightmares when we wake. How well the Greeks understood the spiritual beauty of the sea! θάλασσα κλύξει πάντα τἀνθρώπων κακά, says Euripides. 'The sea washes off all the woes of men.' The passengers lay about the decks in their chairs reading story books. The young ones played Bull. The officers flirted mildly with the pretty young ladies. For a brief interval care and anxiety had spread their wings and flown away, and existence itself became delightful.
There was a young scientific man on board who interested me much. He had been sent out from Kew to take charge of the Botanical Gardens in Jamaica – was quiet, modest, and unaffected, understood his own subjects well, and could make others understand them; with him I had much agreeable conversation. And there was another singular person who attracted me even more. I took him at first for an American. He was a Dane I found, an engineer by profession, and was on his way to some South American republic. He was a long lean man with grey eyes, red hair, and a laugh as if he so enjoyed the thing that amused him that he wished to keep it all to himself, laughing inwardly till he choked and shook with it. His chief amusement seemed to have lain in watching the performances of Liberal politicians in various parts of the world. He told me of an opposition leader in some parliament whom his rival in office had disposed of by shutting him up in the caboose. 'In the caboose,' he repeated, screaming with enjoyment at the thought of it, and evidently wishing that all the parliamentary orators on the globe were in the same place. In his wanderings he had been lately at the Darien Canal, and gave me a wonderful account of the condition of things there. The original estimate of the probable cost had been twenty-six millions of our (English) money. All these millions had been spent already, and only a fifth of the whole had as yet been executed. The entire cost would not be less, under the existing management, than one hundred millions, and he evidently doubted whether the canal would ever be completed at all, though professionally he would not confess to such an opinion. The waste and plunder had been incalculable. The works and the gold that were set moving by them made a feast for unclean harpies of both sexes from every nation in the four continents. I liked everything about Mr. – . Tom Cringle's Obed might have been something like him, had not Obed's evil genius driven him into more dangerous ways.
There was a small black boy among us, evidently of pure blood, for his hair was wool and his colour black as ink. His parents must have been well-to-do, for the boy had been in Europe to be educated. The officers on board and some of the ladies played with him as they would play with a monkey. He had little more sense than a monkey, perhaps less, and the gestures of him grinning behind gratings and pushing out his long thin arms between the bars were curiously suggestive of the original from whom we are told now that all of us came. The worst of it was that, being lifted above his own people, he had been taught to despise them. He was spoilt as a black and could not be made into a white, and this I found afterwards was the invariable and dangerous consequence whenever a superior negro contrived to raise himself. He might do well enough himself, but his family feel their blood as a degradation. His children will not marry among their own people, and not only will no white girl marry a negro, but hardly any dowry can be large enough to tempt a West Indian white to make a wife of a black lady. This is one of the most sinister features in the present state of social life there.
Small personalities cropped up now and then. We had representatives of all professions among us except the Church of England clergy. Of them we had not one. The captain, as usual, read us the service on Sundays on a cushion for a desk, with the union jack spread over it. On board ship the captain, like a sovereign, is supreme, and in spiritual matters as in secular. Drake was the first commander who carried the theory into practice when he excommunicated his chaplain. It is the law now, and the tradition has gone on unbroken. In default of clergy we had a missionary, who for the most part kept his lips closed. He did open them once, and at my expense. Apropos of nothing he said to me, 'I wonder, sir, whether you ever read the remarks upon you in the newspapers. If all the attacks upon your writings which I have seen were collected together they would make an interesting volume.' This was all. He had delivered his soul and relapsed into silence.
From a Puerto Rico merchant I learnt that, if the English colonies were in a bad way, the Spanish colonies were in a worse. His own island, he said, was a nest of squalor, misery, vice, and disease. Blacks and whites were equally immoral; and so far as habits went, the whites were the filthier of the two. The complaints of the English West Indians were less sweeping, and, as to immorality between whites and blacks, neither from my companions in the 'Moselle' nor anywhere afterward did I hear or see a sign of it. The profligacy of planter life passed away with slavery, and the changed condition of the two races makes impossible any return to the old habits. But they had wrongs of their own, and were eloquent in their exposition of them. We had taken the islands from France and Spain at an enormous expense, and we were throwing them aside like a worn-out child's toy. We did nothing for them. We allowed them no advantage as British subjects, and when they tried to do something for themselves, we interposed with an Imperial veto. The United States, seeing the West Indian trade gravitating towards New York, had offered them a commercial treaty, being willing to admit their sugar duty free, in consideration of the islands admitting in return their salt fish and flour and notions. A treaty was in process of negotiation between the United States and the Spanish islands. A similar treaty had been freely offered to them, which might have saved them from ruin, and the Imperial Government had disallowed it. How, under such treatment, could we expect them to be loyal to the British connection?
It was a relief to turn back from these lamentations to the brilliant period of past West Indian history. With the planters of the present it was all sugar– sugar and the lazy blacks who were England's darlings and would not work for them. The handbooks were equally barren. In them I found nothing but modern statistics pointing to dreary conclusions, and in the place of any human interest, long stories of constitutions, suffrages, representative assemblies, powers of elected members, and powers reserved to the Crown. Such things, important as they might be, did not touch my imagination; and to an Englishman, proud of his country, the West Indies had a far higher interest. Strange scenes streamed across my memory, and a shadowy procession of great figures who have printed their names in history. Columbus and Cortez, Vasco Nuñez, and Las Casas; the millions of innocent Indians who, according to Las Casas, were destroyed out of the islands, the Spanish grinding them to death in their gold mines; the black swarms who were poured in to take their place, and the frightful story of the slave trade. Behind it all was the European drama of the sixteenth century – Charles V. and Philip fighting against the genius of the new era, and feeding their armies with the ingots of the new world. The convulsion spread across the Atlantic. The English Protestants and the French Huguenots took to sea like water dogs, and challenged their enemies in their own special domain. To the popes and the Spaniards the new world was the property of the Church and of those who had discovered it. A papal bull bestowed on Spain all the countries which lay within the tropics west of the Atlantic – a form of Monroe doctrine, not unreasonable as long as there was force to maintain it, but the force was indispensable, and the Protestant adventurers tried the question with them at the cannon's mouth. They were of the reformed faith all of them, these sea rovers of the early days, and, like their enemies, they were of a very mixed complexion. The Spaniards, gorged with plunder and wading in blood, were at the same time, and in their own eyes, crusading soldiers of the faith, missionaries of the Holy Church, and defenders of the doctrines which were impiously assailed in Europe. The privateers from Plymouth and Rochelle paid also for the cost of their expeditions with the pillage of ships and towns and the profits of the slave trade; and they too were the unlicensed champions of spiritual freedom in their own estimate of themselves. The gold which was meant for Alva's troops in Flanders found its way into the treasure houses of the London companies. The logs of the voyages of the Elizabethan navigators represent them faithfully as they were, freebooters of the ocean in one aspect of them; in another, the sea warriors of the Reformation – uncommissioned, unrecognised, fighting on their own responsibility, liable to be disowned when they failed, while the Queen herself would privately be a shareholder in the adventure. It was a wild anarchic scene, fit cradle of the spiritual freedom of a new age, when the nations of the earth were breaking the chains in which king and priest had bound them.
To the Spaniards, Drake and his comrades were corsarios, robbers, enemies of the human race, to be treated to a short shrift whenever found and caught. British seamen who fell into their hands were carried before the Inquisition at Lima or Carthagena and burnt at the stake as heretics. Four of Drake's crew were unfortunately taken once at Vera Cruz. Drake sent a message to the governor-general that if a hair of their heads was singed he would hang ten Spaniards for each one of them. (This curious note is at Simancas, where I saw it.) So great an object of terror at Madrid was El Draque that he was looked on as an incarnation of the old serpent, and when he failed in his last enterprise and news came that he was dead, Lope de Vega sang a hymn of triumph in an epic poem which he called the 'Dragontea.'
When Elizabeth died and peace was made with Spain, the adventurers lost something of the indirect countenance which had so far been extended to them; the execution of Raleigh being one among other marks of the change of mind. But they continued under other names, and no active effort was made to suppress them. The Spanish Government did in 1627 agree to leave England in possession of Barbadoes, but the pretensions to an exclusive right to trade continued to be maintained, and the English and French refused to recognise it. The French privateers seized Tortuga, an island off St. Domingo, and they and their English friends swarmed in the Caribbean Sea as buccaneers or flibustiers. They exchanged names, perhaps as a symbol of their alliance. 'Flibustier' was English and a corruption of freebooter. 'Buccaneer' came from the boucan, or dried beef, of the wild cattle which the French hunters shot in Española, and which formed the chief of their sea stores. Boucan became a French verb, and, according to Labat, was itself the Carib name for the cashew nut.
War breaking out again in Cromwell's time, Penn and Venables took Jamaica. The flibustiers from the Tortugas drove the Spaniards out of Hayti, which was annexed to the French crown. The comradeship in religious enthusiasm which had originally drawn the two nations together cooled by degrees, as French Catholics as well as Protestants took to the trade. Port Royal became the headquarters of the English buccaneers – the last and greatest of them being Henry Morgan, who took and plundered Panama, was knighted for his services, and was afterwards made vice-governor of Jamaica. From the time when the Spaniards threw open their trade, and English seamen ceased to be delivered over to the Inquisition, the English buccaneers ceased to be respectable characters and gradually drifted into the pirates of later history, when under their new conditions they produced their more questionable heroes, the Kidds and Blackbeards. The French flibustiers continued long after – far into the eighteenth century – some of them with commissions as privateers, others as forbans or unlicensed rovers, but still connived at in Martinique.
Adventurers, buccaneers, pirates pass across the stage – the curtain falls on them, and rises on a more glorious scene. Jamaica had become the depôt of the trade of England with the western world, and golden streams had poured into Port Royal. Barbadoes was unoccupied when England took possession of it, and never passed out of our hands; but the Antilles – the Anterior Isles – which stand like a string of emeralds round the neck of the Caribbean Sea, had been most of them colonised and occupied by the French, and during the wars of the last century were the objects of a never ceasing conflict between their fleets and ours. The French had planted their language there, they had planted their religion there, and the blacks of these islands generally still speak the French patois and call themselves Catholics; but it was deemed essential to our interests that the Antilles should be not French but English, and Antigua, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada were taken and retaken and taken again in a struggle perpetually renewed. When the American colonies revolted, the West Indies became involved in the revolutionary hurricane. France, Spain, and Holland – our three ocean rivals – combined in a supreme effort to tear from us our Imperial power. The opportunity was seized by Irish patriots to clamour for Irish nationality, and by the English Radicals to demand liberty and the rights of man. It was the most critical moment in later English history. If we had yielded to peace on the terms which our enemies offered, and the English Liberals wished us to accept, the star of Great Britain would have set for ever.
The West Indies were then under the charge of Rodney, whose brilliant successes had already made his name famous. He had done his country more than yeoman's service. He had torn the Leeward Islands from the French. He had punished the Hollanders for joining the coalition by taking the island of St. Eustachius and three millions' worth of stores and money. The patriot party at home led by Fox and Burke were ill pleased with these victories, for they wished us to be driven into surrender. Burke denounced Rodney as he denounced Warren Hastings, and Rodney was called home to answer for himself. In his absence Demerara, the Leeward Islands, St. Eustachius itself, were captured or recovered by the enemy. The French fleet, now supreme in the western waters, blockaded Lord Cornwallis at York Town and forced him to capitulate. The Spaniards had fitted out a fleet at Havannah, and the Count de Grasse, the French admiral, fresh from the victorious thunder of the American cannon, hastened back to refurnish himself at Martinique, intending to join the Spaniards, tear Jamaica from us, and drive us finally and completely out of the West Indies. One chance remained. Rodney was ordered back to his station, and he went at his best speed, taking all the ships with him which could then be spared. It was mid-winter. He forced his way to Barbadoes in five weeks spite of equinoctial storms. The Whig orators were indignant. They insisted that we were beaten; there had been bloodshed enough, and we must sit down in our humiliation. The Government yielded, and a peremptory order followed on Rodney's track, 'Strike your flag and come home.' Had that fatal command reached him Gibraltar would have fallen and Hastings's Indian Empire would have melted into air. But Rodney knew that his time was short, and he had been prompt to use it. Before the order came, the severest naval battle in English annals had been fought and won. De Grasse was a prisoner, and the French fleet was scattered into wreck and ruin.
De Grasse had refitted in the Martinique dockyards. He himself and every officer in the fleet was confident that England was at last done for, and that nothing was left but to gather the fruits of the victory which was theirs already. Not Xerxes, when he broke through Thermopylae and watched from the shore his thousand galleys streaming down to the Gulf of Salamis, was more assured that his prize was in his hands than De Grasse on the deck of the 'Ville de Paris,' the finest ship then floating on the seas, when he heard that Rodney was at St. Lucia and intended to engage him. He did not even believe that the English after so many reverses would venture to meddle with a fleet superior in force and inspirited with victory. All the Antilles except St. Lucia were his own. Tobago, Grenada, the Grenadines, St. Vincent, Martinique, Dominica, Guadaloupe, Montserrat, Nevis, Antigua, and St. Kitts, he held them all in proud possession, a string of gems, each island large as or larger than the Isle of Man, rising up with high volcanic peaks clothed from base to crest with forest, carved into deep ravines, and fringed with luxuriant plains. In St. Lucia alone, lying between St. Vincent and Dominica, the English flag still flew, and Rodney lay there in the harbour at Castries. On April 8, 1782, the signal came from the north end of the island that the French fleet had sailed. Martinique is in sight of St. Lucia, and the rock is still shown from which Rodney had watched day by day for signs that they were moving. They were out at last, and he instantly weighed and followed. The air was light, and De Grasse was under the high lands of Dominica before Rodney came up with him. Both fleets were becalmed, and the English were scattered and divided by a current which runs between the islands. A breeze at last blew off the land. The French were the first to feel it, and were able to attack at advantage the leading English division. Had De Grasse 'come down as he ought,' Rodney thought that the consequences might have been serious. In careless imagination of superiority they let the chance go by. They kept at a distance, firing long shots, which as it was did considerable damage. The two following days the fleets manœuvred in sight of each other. On the night of the eleventh Rodney made signal for the whole fleet to go south under press of sail. The French thought he was flying. He tacked at two in the morning, and at daybreak found himself where he wished to be, with the, French fleet on his lee quarter. The French looking for nothing but again a distant cannonade, continued leisurely along under the north highlands of Dominica towards the channel which separates that island from Guadaloupe. In number of ships the fleets were equal; in size and complement of crew the French were immensely superior; and besides the ordinary ships' companies they had twenty thousand soldiers on board who were to be used in the conquest of Jamaica. Knowing well that a defeat at that moment would be to England irreparable ruin, they did not dream that Rodney would be allowed, even if he wished it, to risk a close and decisive engagement. The English admiral was aware also that his country's fate was in his hands. It was one of those supreme moments which great men dare to use and small men tremble at. He had the advantage of the wind, and could force a battle or decline it, as he pleased. With clear daylight the signal to engage was flying from the masthead of the 'Formidable,' Rodney's ship. At seven in the morning, April 12, 1782, the whole fleet bore down obliquely on the French line, cutting it directly in two. Rodney led in person. Having passed through and broken up their order he tacked again, still keeping the wind. The French, thrown into confusion, were unable to reform, and the battle resolved itself into a number of separate engagements in which the English had the choice of position.
Rodney in passing through the enemy's lines the first time had exchanged broadsides with the 'Glorieux,' a seventy-four, at close range. He had shot away her masts and bowsprit, and left her a bare hull; her flag, however, still flying, being nailed to a splintered spar. So he left her unable to stir; and after he had gone about came himself yardarm to yardarm with the superb 'Ville de Paris,' the pride of France, the largest ship in the then world, where De Grasse commanded in person. All day long the cannon roared. Rodney had on board a favourite bantam cock, which stood perched upon the poop of the 'Formidable' through the whole action, its shrill voice heard crowing through the thunder of the broadsides. One by one the French ships struck their flags or fought on till they foundered and went down. The carnage on board them was terrible, crowded as they were with the troops for Jamaica. Fourteen thousand were reckoned to have been killed, besides the prisoners. The 'Ville de Paris' surrendered last, fighting desperately after hope was gone till her masts were so shattered that they could not bear a sail, and her decks above and below were littered over with mangled limbs. De Grasse gave up his sword to Rodney on the 'Formidable's' quarter-deck. The gallant 'Glorieux,' unable to fly, and seeing the battle lost, hauled down her flag, but not till the undisabled remnants of her crew were too few to throw the dead into the sea. Other ships took fire and blew up. Half the French fleet were either taken or sunk; the rest crawled away for the time, most of them to be picked up afterwards like crippled birds.
So on that memorable day was the English Empire saved. Peace followed, but it was 'peace with honour.' The American colonies were lost; but England kept her West Indies; her flag still floated over Gibraltar; the hostile strength of Europe all combined had failed to twist Britannia's ocean sceptre from her: she sat down maimed and bleeding, but the wreath had not been torn from her brow, she was still sovereign of the seas.