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Well Done

1918


I.


It can be safely said that for the last four years the seamen of Great
Britain have done well. I mean that every kind and sort of human being
classified as seaman, steward, foremast hand, fireman, lamp-trimmer,
mate, master, engineer, and also all through the innumerable ratings of
the Navy up to that of Admiral, has done well. I don't say marvellously
well or miraculously well or wonderfully well or even very well, because
these are simply over-statements of undisciplined minds. I don't deny
that a man may be a marvellous being, but this is not likely to be
discovered in his lifetime, and not always even after he is dead. Man's
marvellousness is a hidden thing, because the secrets of his heart are
not to be read by his fellows. As to a man's work, if it is done well it
is the very utmost that can be said. You can do well, and you can do no
more for people to see. In the Navy, where human values are thoroughly
understood, the highest signal of commendation complimenting a ship (that
is, a ship's company) on some achievements consists exactly of those two
simple words "Well done," followed by the name of the ship. Not
marvellously done, astonishingly done, wonderfully done--no, only just:

"Well done, so-and-so."

And to the men it is a matter of infinite pride that somebody should
judge it proper to mention aloud, as it were, that they have done well.
It is a memorable occurrence, for in the sea services you are expected
professionally and as a matter of course to do well, because nothing less
will do. And in sober speech no man can be expected to do more than
well. The superlatives are mere signs of uninformed wonder. Thus the
official signal which can express nothing but a delicate share of
appreciation becomes a great honour.

Speaking now as a purely civil seaman (or, perhaps, I ought to say
civilian, because politeness is not what I have in my mind) I may say
that I have never expected the Merchant Service to do otherwise than well
during the war. There were people who obviously did not feel the same
confidence, nay, who even confidently expected to see the collapse of
merchant seamen's courage. I must admit that such pronouncements did
arrest my attention. In my time I have never been able to detect any
faint hearts in the ships' companies with whom I have served in various
capacities. But I reflected that I had left the sea in '94, twenty years
before the outbreak of the war that was to apply its severe test to the
quality of modern seamen. Perhaps they had deteriorated, I said
unwillingly to myself. I remembered also the alarmist articles I had
read about the great number of foreigners in the British Merchant
Service, and I didn't know how far these lamentations were justified.

In my time the proportion of non-Britishers in the crews of the ships
flying the red ensign was rather under one-third, which, as a matter of
fact, was less than the proportion allowed under the very strict French
navigation laws for the crews of the ships of that nation. For the
strictest laws aiming at the preservation of national seamen had to
recognise the difficulties of manning merchant ships all over the world.
The one-third of the French law seemed to be the irreducible minimum. But
the British proportion was even less. Thus it may be said that up to the
date I have mentioned the crews of British merchant ships engaged in deep
water voyages to Australia, to the East Indies and round the Horn were
essentially British. The small proportion of foreigners which I remember
were mostly Scandinavians, and my general impression remains that those
men were good stuff. They appeared always able and ready to do their
duty by the flag under which they served. The majority were Norwegians,
whose courage and straightness of character are matters beyond doubt. I
remember also a couple of Finns, both carpenters, of course, and very
good craftsmen; a Swede, the most scientific sailmaker I ever met;
another Swede, a steward, who really might have been called a British
seaman since he had sailed out of London for over thirty years, a rather
superior person; one Italian, an everlastingly smiling but a pugnacious
character; one Frenchman, a most excellent sailor, tireless and
indomitable under very difficult circumstances; one Hollander, whose
placid manner of looking at the ship going to pieces under our feet I
shall never forget, and one young, colourless, muscularly very strong
German, of no particular character. Of non-European crews, lascars and
Kalashes, I have had very little experience, and that was only in one
steamship and for something less than a year. It was on the same
occasion that I had my only sight of Chinese firemen. Sight is the exact
word. One didn't speak to them. One saw them going along the decks, to
and fro, characteristic figures with rolled-up pigtails, very dirty when
coming off duty and very clean-faced when going on duty. They never
looked at anybody, and one never had occasion to address them directly.
Their appearances in the light of day were very regular, and yet somewhat
ghostlike in their detachment and silence.

But of the white crews of British ships and almost exclusively British in
blood and descent, the immediate predecessors of the men whose worth the
nation has discovered for itself to-day, I have had a thorough
experience. At first amongst them, then with them, I have shared all the
conditions of their very special life. For it was very special. In my
early days, starting out on a voyage was like being launched into
Eternity. I say advisedly Eternity instead of Space, because of the
boundless silence which swallowed up one for eighty days--for one hundred
days--for even yet more days of an existence without echoes and whispers.
Like Eternity itself! For one can't conceive a vocal Eternity. An
enormous silence, in which there was nothing to connect one with the
Universe but the incessant wheeling about of the sun and other celestial
bodies, the alternation of light and shadow, eternally chasing each other
over the sky. The time of the earth, though most carefully recorded by
the half-hourly bells, did not count in reality.

It was a special life, and the men were a very special kind of men. By
this I don't mean to say they were more complex than the generality of
mankind. Neither were they very much simpler. I have already admitted
that man is a marvellous creature, and no doubt those particular men were
marvellous enough in their way. But in their collective capacity they
can be best defined as men who lived under the command to do well, or
perish utterly. I have written of them with all the truth that was in
me, and with an the impartiality of which I was capable. Let me not be
misunderstood in this statement. Affection can be very exacting, and can
easily miss fairness on the critical side. I have looked upon them with
a jealous eye, expecting perhaps even more than it was strictly fair to
expect. And no wonder--since I had elected to be one of them very
deliberately, very completely, without any looking back or looking
elsewhere. The circumstances were such as to give me the feeling of
complete identification, a very vivid comprehension that if I wasn't one
of them I was nothing at all. But what was most difficult to detect was
the nature of the deep impulses which these men obeyed. What spirit was
it that inspired the unfailing manifestations of their simple fidelity?
No outward cohesive force of compulsion or discipline was holding them
together or had ever shaped their unexpressed standards. It was very
mysterious. At last I came to the conclusion that it must be something
in the nature of the life itself; the sea-life chosen blindly, embraced
for the most part accidentally by those men who appeared but a loose
agglomeration of individuals toiling for their living away from the eyes
of mankind. Who can tell how a tradition comes into the world? We are
children of the earth. It may be that the noblest tradition is but the
offspring of material conditions, of the hard necessities besetting men's
precarious lives. But once it has been born it becomes a spirit. Nothing
can extinguish its force then. Clouds of greedy selfishness, the subtle
dialectics of revolt or fear, may obscure it for a time, but in very
truth it remains an immortal ruler invested with the power of honour and
shame.


II.


The mysteriously born tradition of sea-craft commands unity in a body of
workers engaged in an occupation in which men have to depend upon each
other. It raises them, so to speak, above the frailties of their dead
selves. I don't wish to be suspected of lack of judgment and of blind
enthusiasm. I don't claim special morality or even special manliness for
the men who in my time really lived at sea, and at the present time live
at any rate mostly at sea. But in their qualities as well as in their
defects, in their weaknesses as well as in their "virtue," there was
indubitably something apart. They were never exactly of the earth
earthly. They couldn't be that. Chance or desire (mostly desire) had
set them apart, often in their very childhood; and what is to be remarked
is that from the very nature of things this early appeal, this early
desire, had to be of an imaginative kind. Thus their simple minds had a
sort of sweetness. They were in a way preserved. I am not alluding here
to the preserving qualities of the salt in the sea. The salt of the sea
is a very good thing in its way; it preserves for instance one from
catching a beastly cold while one remains wet for weeks together in the
"roaring forties." But in sober unpoetical truth the sea-salt never gets
much further than the seaman's skin, which in certain latitudes it takes
the opportunity to encrust very thoroughly. That and nothing more. And
then, what is this sea, the subject of so many apostrophes in verse and
prose addressed to its greatness and its mystery by men who had never
penetrated either the one or the other? The sea is uncertain, arbitrary,
featureless, and violent. Except when helped by the varied majesty of
the sky, there is something inane in its serenity and something stupid in
its wrath, which is endless, boundless, persistent, and futile--a grey,
hoary thing raging like an old ogre uncertain of its prey. Its very
immensity is wearisome. At any time within the navigating centuries
mankind might have addressed it with the words: "What are you, after all?
Oh, yes, we know. The greatest scene of potential terror, a devouring
enigma of space. Yes. But our lives have been nothing if not a
continuous defiance of what you can do and what you may hold; a spiritual
and material defiance carried on in our plucky cockleshells on and on
beyond the successive provocations of your unreadable horizons."

Ah, but the charm of the sea! Oh, yes, charm enough. Or rather a sort
of unholy fascination as of an elusive nymph whose embrace is death, and
a Medusa's head whose stare is terror. That sort of charm is calculated
to keep men morally in order. But as to sea-salt, with its particular
bitterness like nothing else on earth, that, I am safe to say, penetrates
no further than the seamen's lips. With them the inner soundness is
caused by another kind of preservative of which (nobody will be surprised
to hear) the main ingredient is a certain kind of love that has nothing
to do with the futile smiles and the futile passions of the sea.

Being love this feeling is naturally naive and imaginative. It has also
in it that strain of fantasy that is so often, nay almost invariably, to
be found in the temperament of a true seaman. But I repeat that I claim
no particular morality for seamen. I will admit without difficulty that
I have found amongst them the usual defects of mankind, characters not
quite straight, uncertain tempers, vacillating wills, capriciousness,
small meannesses; all this coming out mostly on the contact with the
shore; and all rather naive, peculiar, a little fantastic. I have even
had a downright thief in my experience. One.

This is indeed a minute proportion, but it might have been my luck; and
since I am writing in eulogy of seamen I feel irresistibly tempted to
talk about this unique specimen; not indeed to offer him as an example of
morality, but to bring out certain characteristics and set out a certain
point of view. He was a large, strong man with a guileless countenance,
not very communicative with his shipmates, but when drawn into any sort
of conversation displaying a very painstaking earnestness. He was fair
and candid-eyed, of a very satisfactory smartness, and, from the officer-
of-the-watch point of view,--altogether dependable. Then, suddenly, he
went and stole. And he didn't go away from his honourable kind to do
that thing to somebody on shore; he stole right there on the spot, in
proximity to his shipmates, on board his own ship, with complete
disregard for old Brown, our night watchman (whose fame for
trustworthiness was utterly blasted for the rest of the voyage) and in
such a way as to bring the profoundest possible trouble to all the
blameless souls animating that ship. He stole eleven golden sovereigns,
and a gold pocket chronometer and chain. I am really in doubt whether
the crime should not be entered under the category of sacrilege rather
than theft. Those things belonged to the captain! There was certainly
something in the nature of the violation of a sanctuary, and of a
particularly impudent kind, too, because he got his plunder out of the
captain's state-room while the captain was asleep there. But look, now,
at the fantasy of the man! After going through the pockets of the
clothes, he did not hasten to retreat. No. He went deliberately into
the saloon and removed from the sideboard two big heavy, silver-plated
lamps, which he carried to the fore-end of the ship and stood
symmetrically on the knight-heads. This, I must explain, means that he
took them away as far as possible from the place where they belonged.
These were the deeds of darkness. In the morning the bo'sun came along
dragging after him a hose to wash the foc'sle head, and, beholding the
shiny cabin lamps, resplendent in the morning light, one on each side of
the bowsprit, he was paralysed with awe. He dropped the nozzle from his
nerveless hands--and such hands, too! I happened along, and he said to
me in a distracted whisper: "Look at that, sir, look." "Take them back
aft at once yourself," I said, very amazed, too. As we approached the
quarterdeck we perceived the steward, a prey to a sort of sacred horror,
holding up before us the captain's trousers.

Bronzed men with brooms and buckets in their hands stood about with open
mouths. "I have found them lying in the passage outside the captain's
door," the steward declared faintly. The additional statement that the
captain's watch was gone from its hook by the bedside raised the painful
sensation to the highest pitch. We knew then we had a thief amongst us.
Our thief! Behold the solidarity of a ship's company. He couldn't be to
us like any other thief. We all had to live under the shadow of his
crime for days; but the police kept on investigating, and one morning a
young woman appeared on board swinging a parasol, attended by two
policemen, and identified the culprit. She was a barmaid of some bar
near the Circular Quay, and knew really nothing of our man except that he
looked like a respectable sailor. She had seen him only twice in her
life. On the second occasion he begged her nicely as a great favour to
take care for him of a small solidly tied-up paper parcel for a day or
two. But he never came near her again. At the end of three weeks she
opened it, and, of course, seeing the contents, was much alarmed, and
went to the nearest police-station for advice. The police took her at
once on board our ship, where all hands were mustered on the quarterdeck.
She stared wildly at all our faces, pointed suddenly a finger with a
shriek, "That's the man," and incontinently went off into a fit of
hysterics in front of thirty-six seamen. I must say that never in my
life did I see a ship's company look so frightened. Yes, in this tale of
guilt, there was a curious absence of mere criminality, and a touch of
that fantasy which is often a part of a seaman's character. It wasn't
greed that moved him, I think. It was something much less simple:
boredom, perhaps, or a bet, or the pleasure of defiance.

And now for the point of view. It was given to me by a short,
black-bearded A.B. of the crew, who on sea passages washed my flannel
shirts, mended my clothes and, generally, looked after my room. He was
an excellent needleman and washerman, and a very good sailor. Standing
in this peculiar relation to me, he considered himself privileged to open
his mind on the matter one evening when he brought back to my cabin three
clean and neatly folded shirts. He was profoundly pained. He said:
"What a ship's company! Never seen such a crowd! Liars, cheats,
thieves. . . "

It was a needlessly jaundiced view. There were in that ship's company
three or four fellows who dealt in tall yarns, and I knew that on the
passage out there had been a dispute over a game in the foc'sle once or
twice of a rather acute kind, so that all card-playing had to be
abandoned. In regard to thieves, as we know, there was only one, and he,
I am convinced, came out of his reserve to perform an exploit rather than
to commit a crime. But my black-bearded friend's indignation had its
special morality, for he added, with a burst of passion: "And on board
our ship, too--a ship like this. . ."

Therein lies the secret of the seamen's special character as a body. The
ship, this ship, our ship, the ship we serve, is the moral symbol of our
life. A ship has to be respected, actually and ideally; her merit, her
innocence, are sacred things. Of all the creations of man she is the
closest partner of his toil and courage. From every point of view it is
imperative that you should do well by her. And, as always in the case of
true love, all you can do for her adds only to the tale of her merits in
your heart. Mute and compelling, she claims not only your fidelity, but
your respect. And the supreme "Well done!" which you may earn is made
over to her.


III.


It is my deep conviction, or, perhaps, I ought to say my deep feeling
born from personal experience, that it is not the sea but the ships of
the sea that guide and command that spirit of adventure which some say is
the second nature of British men. I don't want to provoke a controversy
(for intellectually I am rather a Quietist) but I venture to affirm that
the main characteristic of the British men spread all over the world, is
not the spirit of adventure so much as the spirit of service. I think
that this could be demonstrated from the history of great voyages and the
general activity of the race. That the British man has always liked his
service to be adventurous rather than otherwise cannot be denied, for
each British man began by being young in his time when all risk has a
glamour. Afterwards, with the course of years, risk became a part of his
daily work; he would have missed it from his side as one misses a loved
companion.

The mere love of adventure is no saving grace. It is no grace at all. It
lays a man under no obligation of faithfulness to an idea and even to his
own self. Roughly speaking, an adventurer may be expected to have
courage, or at any rate may be said to need it. But courage in itself is
not an ideal. A successful highwayman showed courage of a sort, and
pirate crews have been known to fight with courage or perhaps only with
reckless desperation in the manner of cornered rats. There is nothing in
the world to prevent a mere lover or pursuer of adventure from running at
any moment. There is his own self, his mere taste for excitement, the
prospect of some sort of gain, but there is no sort of loyalty to bind
him in honour to consistent conduct. I have noticed that the majority of
mere lovers of adventure are mightily careful of their skins; and the
proof of it is that so many of them manage to keep it whole to an
advanced age. You find them in mysterious nooks of islands and
continents, mostly red-nosed and watery-eyed, and not even amusingly
boastful. There is nothing more futile under the sun than a mere
adventurer. He might have loved at one time--which would have been a
saving grace. I mean loved adventure for itself. But if so, he was
bound to lose this grace very soon. Adventure by itself is but a
phantom, a dubious shape without a heart. Yes, there is nothing more
futile than an adventurer; but nobody can say that the adventurous
activities of the British race are stamped with the futility of a chase
after mere emotions.

The successive generations that went out to sea from these Isles went out
to toil desperately in adventurous conditions. A man is a worker. If he
is not that he is nothing. Just nothing--like a mere adventurer. Those
men understood the nature of their work, but more or less dimly, in
various degrees of imperfection. The best and greatest of their leaders
even had never seen it clearly, because of its magnitude and the
remoteness of its end. This is the common fate of mankind, whose most
positive achievements are born from dreams and visions followed loyally
to an unknown destination. And it doesn't matter. For the great mass of
mankind the only saving grace that is needed is steady fidelity to what
is nearest to hand and heart in the short moment of each human effort. In
other and in greater words, what is needed is a sense of immediate duty,
and a feeling of impalpable constraint. Indeed, seamen and duty are all
the time inseparable companions. It has been suggested to me that this
sense of duty is not a patriotic sense or a religious sense, or even a
social sense in a seaman. I don't know. It seems to me that a seaman's
duty may be an unconscious compound of these three, something perhaps
smaller than either, but something much more definite for the simple mind
and more adapted to the humbleness of the seaman's task. It has been
suggested also to me that the impalpable constraint is put upon the
nature of a seaman by the Spirit of the Sea, which he serves with a dumb
and dogged devotion.

Those are fine words conveying a fine idea. But this I do know, that it
is very difficult to display a dogged devotion to a mere spirit, however
great. In everyday life ordinary men require something much more
material, effective, definite and symbolic on which to concentrate their
love and their devotion. And then, what is it, this Spirit of the Sea?
It is too great and too elusive to be embraced and taken to a human
breast. All that a guileless or guileful seaman knows of it is its
hostility, its exaction of toil as endless as its ever-renewed horizons.
No. What awakens the seaman's sense of duty, what lays that impalpable
constraint upon the strength of his manliness, what commands his not
always dumb if always dogged devotion, is not the spirit of the sea but
something that in his eyes has a body, a character, a fascination, and
almost a soul--it is his ship.

There is not a day that has passed for many centuries now without the sun
seeing scattered over all the seas groups of British men whose material
and moral existence is conditioned by their loyalty to each other and
their faithful devotion to a ship.

Each age has sent its contingent, not of sons (for the great mass of
seamen have always been a childless lot) but of loyal and obscure
successors taking up the modest but spiritual inheritance of a hard life
and simple duties; of duties so simple that nothing ever could shake the
traditional attitude born from the physical conditions of the service. It
was always the ship, bound on any possible errand in the service of the
nation, that has been the stage for the exercise of seamen's primitive
virtues. The dimness of great distances and the obscurity of lives
protected them from the nation's admiring gaze. Those scattered distant
ships' companies seemed to the eyes of the earth only one degree removed
(on the right side, I suppose) from the other strange monsters of the
deep. If spoken of at all they were spoken of in tones of
half-contemptuous indulgence. A good many years ago it was my lot to
write about one of those ships' companies on a certain sea, under certain
circumstances, in a book of no particular length.

That small group of men whom I tried to limn with loving care, but
sparing none of their weaknesses, was characterised by a friendly
reviewer as a lot of engaging ruffians. This gave me some food for
thought. Was it, then, in that guise that they appeared through the
mists of the sea, distant, perplexed, and simple-minded? And what on
earth is an "engaging ruffian"? He must be a creature of literary
imagination, I thought, for the two words don't match in my personal
experience. It has happened to me to meet a few ruffians here and there,
but I never found one of them "engaging." I consoled myself, however, by
the reflection that the friendly reviewer must have been talking like a
parrot, which so often seems to understand what it says.

Yes, in the mists of the sea, and in their remoteness from the rest of
the race, the shapes of those men appeared distorted, uncouth and
faint--so faint as to be almost invisible. It needed the lurid light of
the engines of war to bring them out into full view, very simple, without
worldly graces, organised now into a body of workers by the genius of one
of themselves, who gave them a place and a voice in the social scheme;
but in the main still apart in their homeless, childless generations,
scattered in loyal groups over all the seas, giving faithful care to
their ships and serving the nation, which, since they are seamen, can
give them no reward but the supreme "Well Done."


Joseph Conrad