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Tradition

1918


"Work is the law. Like iron that lying idle degenerates into a mass of
useless rust, like water that in an unruffled pool sickens into a
stagnant and corrupt state, so without action the spirit of men turns to
a dead thing, loses its force, ceases prompting us to leave some trace of
ourselves on this earth." The sense of the above lines does not belong
to me. It may be found in the note-books of one of the greatest artists
that ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci. It has a simplicity and a truth
which no amount of subtle comment can destroy.

The Master who had meditated so deeply on the rebirth of arts and
sciences, on the inward beauty of all things,--ships' lines, women's
faces--and on the visible aspects of nature was profoundly right in his
pronouncement on the work that is done on the earth. From the hard work
of men are born the sympathetic consciousness of a common destiny, the
fidelity to right practice which makes great craftsmen, the sense of
right conduct which we may call honour, the devotion to our calling and
the idealism which is not a misty, winged angel without eyes, but a
divine figure of terrestrial aspect with a clear glance and with its feet
resting firmly on the earth on which it was born.

And work will overcome all evil, except ignorance, which is the condition
of humanity and, like the ambient air, fills the space between the
various sorts and conditions of men, which breeds hatred, fear, and
contempt between the masses of mankind, and puts on men's lips, on their
innocent lips, words that are thoughtless and vain.

Thoughtless, for instance, were the words that (in all innocence, I
believe) came on the lips of a prominent statesman making in the House of
Commons an eulogistic reference to the British Merchant Service. In this
name I include men of diverse status and origin, who live on and by the
sea, by it exclusively, outside all professional pretensions and social
formulas, men for whom not only their daily bread but their collective
character, their personal achievement and their individual merit come
from the sea. Those words of the statesman were meant kindly; but, after
all, this is not a complete excuse. Rightly or wrongly, we expect from a
man of national importance a larger and at the same time a more
scrupulous precision of speech, for it is possible that it may go echoing
down the ages. His words were:

"It is right when thinking of the Navy not to forget the men of the
Merchant Service, who have shown--and it is more surprising because they
have had no traditions towards it--courage as great," etc., etc.

And then he went on talking of the execution of Captain Fryatt, an event
of undying memory, but less connected with the permanent, unchangeable
conditions of sea service than with the wrong view German minds delight
in taking of Englishmen's psychology. The enemy, he said, meant by this
atrocity to frighten our sailors away from the sea.

"What has happened?" he goes on to ask. "Never at any time in peace have
sailors stayed so short a time ashore or shown such a readiness to step
again into a ship."

Which means, in other words, that they answered to the call. I should
like to know at what time of history the English Merchant Service, the
great body of merchant seamen, had failed to answer the call. Noticed or
unnoticed, ignored or commanded, they have answered invariably the call
to do their work, the very conditions of which made them what they are.
They have always served the nation's needs through their own invariable
fidelity to the demands of their special life; but with the development
and complexity of material civilisation they grew less prominent to the
nation's eye among all the vast schemes of national industry. Never was
the need greater and the call to the services more urgent than to-day.
And those inconspicuous workers on whose qualities depends so much of the
national welfare have answered it without dismay, facing risk without
glory, in the perfect faithfulness to that tradition which the speech of
the statesman denies to them at the very moment when he thinks fit to
praise their courage . . . and mention his surprise!

The hour of opportunity has struck--not for the first time--for the
Merchant Service; and if I associate myself with all my heart in the
admiration and the praise which is the greatest reward of brave men I
must be excused from joining in any sentiment of surprise. It is perhaps
because I have not been born to the inheritance of that tradition, which
has yet fashioned the fundamental part of my character in my young days,
that I am so consciously aware of it and venture to vindicate its
existence in this outspoken manner.

Merchant seamen have always been what they are now, from their earliest
days, before the Royal Navy had been fashioned out of the material they
furnished for the hands of kings and statesmen. Their work has made
them, as work undertaken with single-minded devotion makes men, giving to
their achievements that vitality and continuity in which their souls are
expressed, tempered and matured through the succeeding generations. In
its simplest definition the work of merchant seamen has been to take
ships entrusted to their care from port to port across the seas; and,
from the highest to the lowest, to watch and labour with devotion for the
safety of the property and the lives committed to their skill and
fortitude through the hazards of innumerable voyages.

That was always the clear task, the single aim, the simple ideal, the
only problem for an unselfish solution. The terms of it have changed
with the years, its risks have worn different aspects from time to time.
There are no longer any unexplored seas. Human ingenuity has devised
better means to meet the dangers of natural forces. But it is always the
same problem. The youngsters who were growing up at sea at the end of my
service are commanding ships now. At least I have heard of some of them
who do. And whatever the shape and power of their ships the character of
the duty remains the same. A mine or a torpedo that strikes your ship is
not so very different from a sharp, uncharted rock tearing her life out
of her in another way. At a greater cost of vital energy, under the well-
nigh intolerable stress of vigilance and resolution, they are doing
steadily the work of their professional forefathers in the midst of
multiplied dangers. They go to and fro across the oceans on their
everlasting task: the same men, the same stout hearts, the same fidelity
to an exacting tradition created by simple toilers who in their time knew
how to live and die at sea.

Allowed to share in this work and in this tradition for something like
twenty years, I am bold enough to think that perhaps I am not altogether
unworthy to speak of it. It was the sphere not only of my activity but,
I may safely say, also of my affections; but after such a close
connection it is very difficult to avoid bringing in one's own
personality. Without looking at all at the aspects of the Labour
problem, I can safely affirm that I have never, never seen British seamen
refuse any risk, any exertion, any effort of spirit or body up to the
extremest demands of their calling. Years ago--it seems ages ago--I have
seen the crew of a British ship fight the fire in the cargo for a whole
sleepless week and then, with her decks blown up, I have seen them still
continue the fight to save the floating shell. And at last I have seen
them refuse to be taken off by a vessel standing by, and this only in
order "to see the last of our ship," at the word, at the simple word, of
a man who commanded them, a worthy soul indeed, but of no heroic aspect.
I have seen that. I have shared their days in small boats. Hard days.
Ages ago. And now let me mention a story of to-day.

I will try to relate it here mainly in the words of the chief engineer of
a certain steamship which, after bunkering, left Lerwick, bound for
Iceland. The weather was cold, the sea pretty rough, with a stiff head
wind. All went well till next day, about 1.30 p.m., then the captain
sighted a suspicious object far away to starboard. Speed was increased
at once to close in with the Faroes and good lookouts were set fore and
aft. Nothing further was seen of the suspicious object, but about half-
past three without any warning the ship was struck amidships by a torpedo
which exploded in the bunkers. None of the crew was injured by the
explosion, and all hands, without exception, behaved admirably.

The chief officer with his watch managed to lower the No. 3 boat. Two
other boats had been shattered by the explosion, and though another
lifeboat was cleared and ready, there was no time to lower it, and "some
of us jumped while others were washed overboard. Meantime the captain
had been busy handing lifebelts to the men and cheering them up with
words and smiles, with no thought of his own safety." The ship went down
in less than four minutes. The captain was the last man on board, going
down with her, and was sucked under. On coming up he was caught under an
upturned boat to which five hands were clinging. "One lifeboat," says
the chief engineer, "which was floating empty in the distance was
cleverly manoeuvred to our assistance by the steward, who swam off to her
pluckily. Our next endeavour was to release the captain, who was
entangled under the boat. As it was impossible to right her, we set-to
to split her side open with the boat hook, because by awful bad luck the
head of the axe we had flew off at the first blow and was lost. The
rescue took thirty minutes, and the extricated captain was in a pitiable
condition, being badly bruised and having swallowed a lot of salt water.
He was unconscious. While at that work the submarine came to the surface
quite close and made a complete circle round us, the seven men that we
counted on the conning tower laughing at our efforts.

"There were eighteen of us saved. I deeply regret the loss of the chief
officer, a fine fellow and a kind shipmate showing splendid promise. The
other men lost--one A.B., one greaser, and two firemen--were quiet,
conscientious, good fellows."

With no restoratives in the boat, they endeavoured to bring the captain
round by means of massage. Meantime the oars were got out in order to
reach the Faroes, which were about thirty miles dead to windward, but
after about nine hours' hard work they had to desist, and, putting out a
sea-anchor, they took shelter under the canvas boat-cover from the cold
wind and torrential rain. Says the narrator: "We were all very wet and
miserable, and decided to have two biscuits all round. The effects of
this and being under the shelter of the canvas warmed us up and made us
feel pretty well contented. At about sunrise the captain showed signs of
recovery, and by the time the sun was up he was looking a lot better,
much to our relief."

After being informed of what had been done the revived captain "dropped a
bombshell in our midst," by proposing to make for the Shetlands, which
were _only_ one hundred and fifty miles off. "The wind is in our
favour," he said. "I promise to take you there. Are you all willing?"
This--comments the chief engineer--"from a man who but a few hours
previously had been hauled back from the grave!" The captain's confident
manner inspired the men, and they all agreed. Under the best possible
conditions a boat-run of one hundred and fifty miles in the North
Atlantic and in winter weather would have been a feat of no mean merit,
but in the circumstances it required uncommon nerve and skill to carry
out such a promise. With an oar for a mast and the boat-cover cut down
for a sail they started on their dangerous journey, with the boat compass
and the stars for their guide. The captain's undaunted serenity buoyed
them all up against despondency. He told them what point he was making
for. It was Ronas Hill, "and we struck it as straight as a die."

The chief engineer commends also the ship steward for the manner in which
he made the little food they had last, the cheery spirit he manifested,
and the great help he was to the captain by keeping the men in good
humour. That trusty man had "his hands cruelly chafed with the rowing,
but it never damped his spirits."

They made Ronas Hill (as straight as a die), and the chief engineer
cannot express their feelings of gratitude and relief when they set their
feet on the shore. He praises the unbounded kindness of the people in
Hillswick. "It seemed to us all like Paradise regained," he says,
concluding his letter with the words:

"And there was our captain, just his usual self, as if nothing had
happened, as if bringing the boat that hazardous journey and being the
means of saving eighteen souls was to him an everyday occurrence."

Such is the chief engineer's testimony to the continuity of the old
tradition of the sea, which made by the work of men has in its turn
created for them their simple ideal of conduct.


Joseph Conrad