A Book of Words XXVII


by Rudyard Kipling

I BELIEVE it is not an offence, under the Use and Custom of the Sea, for shippers to offer a steamer more freight than she can carry: but, if the steamer accepts, and overloads accordingly, it is an offence for which the steamer is responsible. But I never realised what a responsibility this was till I accepted your invitation to speak to the toast that stands in my name to-night.This may be a confession of weakness, but it is a lucky man, not to say ship, that has only one weakness; and among my many weaknesses has been an early, acute, and abiding interest in the Mercantile Marine. I have seen its work. I have watched some of its performances from various craft, including gilt-edged liners, where every effort is made to persuade passengers that they are not at sea, but in a much safer place. I am unworthy of those efforts. For when I embark on such a vessel I know I have only to leave the Tudor grill-room, take the electric lift upstairs, and look out of the window of the more or less Perpendicular library on the top floor, and I shall see that same old grey wolf, the Ocean that harried our forefathers, waiting outside. It is not for me to teach you your business, but believe me, gentlemen, a ship is a ship, and you cannot get away from it.

In the same way this island of ours is a ship, as much as H.M.S. Ascension, with the additional disadvantage of being moored between two Continents, so that we can enjoy the weather, political and otherwise, from both. Furthermore, H.M.S. Great Britain carries a passenger list, including stowaways, of forty-five millions, and, owing to peculiarities of her construction, there are never more than six weeks’ supplies of consumable stores aboard her at one time. The balance must come by ship, and if the shipping does not come, a fortnight would deliver us to panic indescribable, and three months would see us embarked on the gallant adventure of cannibalism. These are the facts which underlie the camouflage of our existence on H.M.S. Great Britain. Naturally, they do not trouble the passengers aboard her, any more than the sight of the sea worries the passengers on your floating palaces.

But once in a while something happens at sea to remind us that a ship can be lost in a few hours. And, on land, we have seen all the Russias—one-sixth of the land-area of the globe—drive under in a few years.

Now, ships are lost for all sorts of reasons, some of which may even appear in the Admiralty Court depositions, but when a nation is lost the underlying cause of the collapse is always that she cannot handle her transport. Everything in life, from marriage to manslaughter, turns on the speed and cost at which men, things, and thoughts can be shifted from one place to another. If you can tie up a nation’s transport you can take her off your books.

We have suffered from one scientific attempt to prove this, which very nearly succeeded. For the moment, however, there is a lull in the wars fought with visible weapons. We are deep now in that world-war which aims to destroy the spirit and will of man in his home and at his work. One sound man whose morale can be gassed and gangrened in time of peace till he condones and helps to create every form of confusion that will ruin himself and his neighbour, is doing his country infinitely more harm than a thousand casualties on the battlefield. It is cheaper to induce your enemy to cut his own throat for what you have persuaded him are lofty motives than to do it for him against his will. And this is the essence of the New Model War—to create ill-will, which is the mother of despair, and through that ill-will to exploit the damnable streak in each of us which leads us to stop our own work and talk about the duties of others. The rest follows by itself.

The aftermath of the war, which still hangs round us like mustard-gas, helps this attack. For if you have driven a densely crowded, highly civilised population through the whole cycle of primitive emotions, they are bound to come out of it shaken to the core of their souls; and in that state they are as open to moral and mental infection as a tired man is to influenza. So we have, now, H.M.S. Great Britain crowded to the rails with passengers—some of them storm-sick, many of them ship-stale—who get in each other’s light at every turn, and spend their time telling each other how the ship ought to be run.

To argue with them is useless. It only sends up their temperatures. Our sane attitude towards each other must be that of good-will—a good-will just a little more persistent, just a little more indefatigable than the ill-will which is being fabricated elsewhere. For if good-will can once more be made normal, with it must return that will to work which is the trade-mark of established health in a people. If the will to work be too long delayed, then, all that our race has made or stands for must pass into the hand of whatever nation first recovers that will.

Our recovery has been held back by the propaganda of ill-will and despair that is meant to wreck all effort at its source. But, do you think the engines of H.M.S. Great Britain can be adapted to burn this kind of fuel? I don’t. Our lives for the past few years may have done for some of us what Government Control of trade in the war did for some big firms—knocked us off taking risks in the open market on small margins. There is no denying that a good many men have ceased to “quote fine”. But the old individual instincts in us are not smothered. At heart we are all gamblers born, and the odds in favour of self-chosen, decontrolled lives are more and more worth taking. For men have grown a little tired of being told off to hate their neighbours by numbers, at the word of command. This reaction may or may not mark a turn of the tide, but, at least, it gives a time of slack-water, during which H.M.S. Great Britain may begin to get under way again and work up to the higher pressures.

And think of the stakes! Think, too, with what an astounding equipment we are now able to play for them. By comparison it was only yesterday that, when a ship was once under the horizon, she passed beyond help or call for, perhaps, half a year. To-day a tramp cannot report a cockroach-leg in a slide-valve without half the North Atlantic coming to her help. Months have been cut down to weeks, and weeks to days in the transport of men and things; and, unless all signs fail, we are on the edge of further unbelievable cuts in time. The transport of thought, which carries with it man’s most intimate associations, has outstripped, not only belief, but the speed of thought itself. Even now, it is an accepted diversion for men and women half across the world to listen to Big Ben strike in London. Before long, any man in any quarter of the Empire will be able to call for and be answered by the voice of his own birthplace at its work or play. Everywhere time and space are coming to heel round us to fetch and carry for our behoof, in the wilderness or the market. And that means that it will be possible for us now, as never before, to fuse our Empire together in thought and understanding as closely as in the interchange of men and things.

And it was the Shipping Industry which, from the first, sought out, found, built up, and bound together the entire fabric of what is now our Empire. This it did at hazard, unsupported, in hope of trade, or led by some dream of new roads across new seas. The Shipping Industry is the mother of the Old Navy as it is the sister of the New; in sober. daily fact, the mainstay of our prosperity and our very lives, and in Law, I believe, “a common carrier.” What burden it bears now, what heavier burden the future may lay upon it, you who inherit its present direction know better than the careless world you serve. We see only that there has never been any malice of wind or weather, or of the King’s many enemies, or of the turn of the markets in a thousand years, that the Shipping Industry has not met and ridden out.

And now H.M.S. Great Britain rides to crossseas. Is it any wonder that we look to you once more to help us build up and bind together, against the new day, those old individual qualities which gave our race its ability to see far and its audacity to “quote fine”?