A Book of Words – XXXV

“France and Britain”

by Rudyard Kipling

A FEW WEEKS AG0 I visited your wonderful Colonial Exhibition, and it recalled to me the time when as a boy of twelve I came to Paris with my father to the Exposition of ’78.

He was in charge of the Fine Arts exhibits from India, and the arrangement of them kept him very busy, for in those days expositions were not always complete even after they had been formally opened. So he presented me with a free pass to everything and told me to run away and play while he worked. I obeyed him—filially I obeyed him for five glorious weeks.

There stood in the Trocadero gardens the bronze head of your great Bartholdi’s statue of Liberty enlightening the world. For a sou one could climb up into that vast and vacant cranium and look out through its empty eyeballs into the secure and gracious world of Paris beneath.

I went there often, and one time the Guardian said to me, ‘See here, you small Englishman—never forget that for once in your life you have looked through the very eyes of Liberty herself.’ And I did not forget.

But I omitted to notice then—what I have often noticed since—that Liberty has not eyes at the back of her head to guard against dangers that may overtake her. It is bold to look forward. It is wise to look backward.

Our two countries can look back together for many years. They were the first to disentangle themselves from the confusion that followed the fall of Rome and to stand apart as civilising nations.

During that process it was organically necessary for England to assimilate the French conquerors which you had sent over. They would not learn English. It was equally vital for France to eliminate the English invaders whom we had sent over to you. It is true that they had tried for a hundred years to improve your tactics and strategy. You complained and with justice that they ruined your country.

Now we have evolved the exclusively English-speaking tourist who annually invades your pleasant land but who does not ruin your country—in the same way. This minor adjustment, typical of so many others, took only five or six hundred years. Naturally it was accompanied by certain differences of opinion: but long before the end of that epoch those differences were regulated by conventions almost as strict as those which rule the composition of your classical poetry or the etiquette of our national English game.

As an instance do you remember your Commodore Du Casse’s immortal letter to our Admiral Benbow? It was after a sea-fight near Hayti—nearly two hundred and thirty years ago—when for personal or political reasons five of Benbow’s ships deserted him at the beginning of the action. Benbow attacked Du Casse’s squadron of four ships with his rermaining two. He was beaten off, and returned to Jamaica in his battered flagship wounded to die.

A few days after the action Du Casse sent in by a frigate under cartel a letter to Benbow, which I quote textually: ‘Sir, I had little hope on Monday last but to have supped in your cabin’ (meaning, of course, “as your prisoner”). ‘But it pleased God to order it otherwise. I am thankful for it. As for those cowardly captains who deserted you, hang them up, for by God they deserve it.’

My friends, our unregenerate ancestors used language which we, their more highly civilised sons, must deplore; but mon Dieu! they understood each other jusqu’au bout. At the present moment the background against which these gallant gentlemen played their parts has vanished as utterly as their wooden ships. All the apparatus they employed has been changed beyond recognition, except, curiously enough, the anchor which prevents vessels from drifting.

In place of these things mankind everywhere has been overtaken by the magic of new mechanism, which has saved them so much labour that it seems to save the exertion of thought.

We have caused space to shrink so enormously that in another generation it will practically cease to exist. We have added such far-reaching powers to our senses that a fly’s footfall on paper or the murmur of a weak heart can be amplified to equal the reverberations of a drum.

Is it any wonder that this congestion—this apoplexy —of daily wonders should waken hope that the world itself can be speeded up and amplified so as to give men without too much thought an immediate millennium?

The obstacle to this achievement is man’s inveterate instinct not to confide his weight to a branch till he has tested it.

At any rate the instinct forms part of the reserve of earliest experience by which the lives of men are unconsciously stabilised. And our two peoples between them possess the largest reserve of this experience in our first-hand proven knowledge of each other’s characters, failings, and necessities.

This triple knowledge has served us well. It has led us through the ages to a very distinguished respect for each other, ashore or afloat. It furnishes to each of us patience and confidence through our recent ordeal by fire. And it now underlies our friendship.