The seamen hold up the Edifice. They have been holding it up in the past
and they will hold it up in the future, whatever this future may contain
of logical development, of unforeseen new shapes, of great promises and
of dangers still unknown.
It is not an unpardonable stretching of the truth to say that the British
Empire rests on transportation. I am speaking now naturally of the sea,
as a man who has lived on it for many years, at a time, too, when on
sighting a vessel on the horizon of any of the great oceans it was
perfectly safe to bet any reasonable odds on her being a British
ship--with the certitude of making a pretty good thing of it at the end
of the voyage.
I have tried to convey here in popular terms the strong impression
remembered from my young days. The Red Ensign prevailed on the high seas
to such an extent that one always experienced a slight shock on seeing
some other combination of colours blow out at the peak or flag-pole of
any chance encounter in deep water. In the long run the persistence of
the visual fact forced upon the mind a half-unconscious sense of its
inner significance. We have all heard of the well-known view that trade
follows the flag. And that is not always true. There is also this truth
that the flag, in normal conditions, represents commerce to the eye and
understanding of the average man. This is a truth, but it is not the
whole truth. In its numbers and in its unfailing ubiquity, the British
Red Ensign, under which naval actions too have been fought, adventures
entered upon and sacrifices offered, represented in fact something more
than the prestige of a great trade.
The flutter of that piece of red bunting showered sentiment on the
nations of the earth. I will not venture to say that in every case that
sentiment was of a friendly nature. Of hatred, half concealed or
concealed not at all, this is not the place to speak; and indeed the
little I have seen of it about the world was tainted with stupidity and
seemed to confess in its very violence the extreme poorness of its case.
But generally it was more in the nature of envious wonder qualified by a
That flag, which but for the Union Jack in the corner might have been
adopted by the most radical of revolutions, affirmed in its numbers the
stability of purpose, the continuity of effort and the greatness of
Britain's opportunity pursued steadily in the order and peace of the
world: that world which for twenty-five years or so after 1870 may be
said to have been living in holy calm and hushed silence with only now
and then a slight clink of metal, as if in some distant part of mankind's
habitation some restless body had stumbled over a heap of old armour.
We who have learned by now what a world-war is like may be excused for
considering the disturbances of that period as insignificant brawls, mere
hole-and-corner scuffles. In the world, which memory depicts as so
wonderfully tranquil all over, it was the sea yet that was the safest
place. And the Red Ensign, commercial, industrial, historic, pervaded
the sea! Assertive only by its numbers, highly significant, and, under
its character of a trade--emblem, nationally expressive, it was symbolic
of old and new ideas, of conservatism and progress, of routine and
enterprise, of drudgery and adventure--and of a certain easy-going
optimism that would have appeared the Father of Sloth itself if it had
not been so stubbornly, so everlastingly active.
The unimaginative, hard-working men, great and small, who served this
flag afloat and ashore, nursed dumbly a mysterious sense of its
greatness. It sheltered magnificently their vagabond labours under the
sleepless eye of the sun. It held up the Edifice. But it crowned it
too. This is not the extravagance of a mixed metaphor. It is the sober
expression of a not very complex truth. Within that double function the
national life that flag represented so well went on in safety, assured of
its daily crust of bread for which we all pray and without which we would
have to give up faith, hope and charity, the intellectual conquests of
our minds and the sanctified strength of our labouring arms. I may
permit myself to speak of it in these terms because as a matter of fact
it was on that very symbol that I had founded my life and (as I have said
elsewhere in a moment of outspoken gratitude) had known for many years no
other roof above my head.
In those days that symbol was not particularly regarded. Superficially
and definitely it represented but one of the forms of national activity
rather remote from the close-knit organisations of other industries, a
kind of toil not immediately under the public eye. It was of its Navy
that the nation, looking out of the windows of its world-wide Edifice,
was proudly aware. And that was but fair. The Navy is the armed man at
the gate. An existence depending upon the sea must be guarded with a
jealous, sleepless vigilance, for the sea is but a fickle friend.
It had provoked conflicts, encouraged ambitions, and had lured some
nations to destruction--as we know. He--man or people--who, boasting of
long years of familiarity with the sea, neglects the strength and cunning
of his right hand is a fool. The pride and trust of the nation in its
Navy so strangely mingled with moments of neglect, caused by a
particularly thick-headed idealism, is perfectly justified. It is also
very proper: for it is good for a body of men conscious of a great
responsibility to feel themselves recognised, if only in that fallible,
imperfect and often irritating way in which recognition is sometimes
offered to the deserving.
But the Merchant Service had never to suffer from that sort of
irritation. No recognition was thrust on it offensively, and, truth to
say, it did not seem to concern itself unduly with the claims of its own
obscure merit. It had no consciousness. It had no words. It had no
time. To these busy men their work was but the ordinary labour of
earning a living; their duties in their ever-recurring round had, like
the sun itself, the commonness of daily things; their individual fidelity
was not so much united as merely co-ordinated by an aim that shone with
no spiritual lustre. They were everyday men. They were that, eminently.
When the great opportunity came to them to link arms in response to a
supreme call they received it with characteristic simplicity,
incorporating self-sacrifice into the texture of their common task, and,
as far as emotion went, framing the horror of mankind's catastrophic time
within the rigid rules of their professional conscience. And who can say
that they could have done better than this?
Such was their past both remote and near. It has been stubbornly
consistent, and as this consistency was based upon the character of men
fashioned by a very old tradition, there is no doubt that it will endure.
Such changes as came into the sea life have been for the main part
mechanical and affecting only the material conditions of that inbred
consistency. That men don't change is a profound truth. They don't
change because it is not necessary for them to change even if they could
accomplish that miracle. It is enough for them to be infinitely
adaptable--as the last four years have abundantly proved.
Thus one may await the future without undue excitement and with unshaken
confidence. Whether the hues of sunrise are angry or benign, gorgeous or
sinister, we shall always have the same sky over our heads. Yet by a
kindly dispensation of Providence the human faculty of astonishment will
never lack food. What could be more surprising for instance, than the
calm invitation to Great Britain to discard the force and protection of
its Navy? It has been suggested, it has been proposed--I don't know
whether it has been pressed. Probably not much. For if the excursions
of audacious folly have no bounds that human eye can see, reason has the
habit of never straying very far away from its throne.
It is not the first time in history that excited voices have been heard
urging the warrior still panting from the fray to fling his tried weapons
on the altar of peace, for they would be needed no more! And such voices
have been, in undying hope or extreme weariness, listened to sometimes.
But not for long. After all every sort of shouting is a transitory
thing. It is the grim silence of facts that remains.
The British Merchant Service has been challenged in its supremacy before.
It will be challenged again. It may be even asked menacingly in the name
of some humanitarian doctrine or some empty ideal to step down
voluntarily from that place which it has managed to keep for so many
years. But I imagine that it will take more than words of brotherly love
or brotherly anger (which, as is well known, is the worst kind of anger)
to drive British seamen, armed or unarmed, from the seas. Firm in this
indestructible if not easily explained conviction, I can allow myself to
think placidly of that long, long future which I shall not see.
My confidence rests on the hearts of men who do not change, though they
may forget many things for a time and even forget to be themselves in a
moment of false enthusiasm. But of that I am not afraid. It will not be
for long. I know the men. Through the kindness of the Admiralty (which,
let me confess here in a white sheet, I repaid by the basest ingratitude)
I was permitted during the war to renew my contact with the British
seamen of the merchant service. It is to their generosity in recognising
me under the shore rust of twenty-five years as one of themselves that I
owe one of the deepest emotions of my life. Never for a moment did I
feel among them like an idle, wandering ghost from a distant past. They
talked to me seriously, openly, and with professional precision, of
facts, of events, of implements, I had never heard of in my time; but the
hands I grasped were like the hands of the generation which had trained
my youth and is now no more. I recognised the character of their
glances, the accent of their voices. Their moving tales of modern
instances were presented to me with that peculiar turn of mind flavoured
by the inherited humour and sagacity of the sea. I don't know what the
seaman of the future will be like. He may have to live all his days with
a telephone tied up to his head and bristle all over with scientific
antennae like a figure in a fantastic tale. But he will always be the
man revealed to us lately, immutable in his slight variations like the
closed path of this planet of ours on which he must find his exact
position once, at the very least, in every twenty-four hours.
The greatest desideratum of a sailor's life is to be "certain of his
position." It is a source of great worry at times, but I don't think
that it need be so at this time. Yet even the best position has its
dangers on account of the fickleness of the elements. But I think that,
left untrammelled to the individual effort of its creators and to the
collective spirit of its servants, the British Merchant Service will
manage to maintain its position on this restless and watery globe.
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