INTIMATIONS OF IMPERIAL MORTALITY


Who reads Captain Marryat today? Certainly, with his rousing adventure stories in which good trumps evil under the wise hand of Providence, he is not the kind of author who would make it onto the national curriculum. And he was writing at a time (he retired from the sea to write in 1830 and died in 1848) when the British Empire was in full expansion mode, with all the disastrous consequences that that is said to have inflicted on the planet, among them, according to post-colonialist historians in our own country, the white settlement of Australia. If you consulted some kind of cosmic central casting saying you needed a racist-imperialist author to hold up as an example of all that correct opinion now considers reprehensible in nineteenth-century British attitudes, and Kipling was already booked, Frederick Marryat would do just as well.

And yet, one wonders. Did British empire-builders and explorers really hold the arrogant and superior attitudes to other races and nations commonly imputed to them in the modern academy? Or is that an Aunt Sally thought up by the academy itself to mock and deride the patriotism and pride in our history that is so uncongenial to the dealers in Marxist-lite platitudes whose views constitute contemporary intellectual orthodoxy?

Perhaps some did hold those attitudes, though I suspect that it is unlikely any servant of the empire with the liberal classical education of the day did. Could an arrogant believer in the unique virtue of Britishness have written the lucid and realistic account of the rise and fall of his own country's fortunes that Marryat offers in Chapter XXVII of his Masterman Ready, the novel I have been reading?

It is clear from the conclusion but not from the text that Marryat intended Masterman Ready as a children's book, in which case either my taste is infantile or it is one of those happy children's books which appeal just as much if not more to adults, such as Richmal Crompton's William stories. In any event, the tale tells of a shipwrecked family, the Seagraves, marooned on an uninhabited South Seas island in the company of the second mate of the lost ship, the eponymous Masterman Ready. The book was published in 1841 but set probably 25 years earlier.

Mr Seagrave is a cultivated man, a colonial official who was bringing his family back to Sydney after home leave in England when their ship was wrecked. During the days the family and Ready work from dawn to dusk building a house and cultivating a garden in expectation of a long sojourn on the island. Ready is the acknowledged leader of the group, a class inversion of the sort later examined by J. M. Barrie in his play The Admirable Crichton. Mr and Mrs Seagrave and Ready are by today's standards unfashionably devout and give thanks to God morning and night for their preservation. Before evening prayers, Mr Seagrave spends some time on the instruction of his eldest son, William, a twelve-year-old full of such nowadays outmoded attributes as character and self-help, and it is in the course of one of these lessons that the account I refer to is given.

Mr Seagrave has explained to William what colonies are and how they are acquired, and how the most successful of the colonising nations since the days of the Romans was "Portugal, that was once the most enterprising nation in the world [but] is now a mere cipher." "'Now, father, answer me another question,'" says William. "'Will England ever fall, and be of no more importance than Portugal is now?'

"'We can only decide that question by looking into history,'" replies Mr Seagrave, "'and history tells us that such is the fate of all nations. We must, therefore, expect that it will be the fate of our own dear country. At present we see no appearance of it, any more than we perceive the latent seeds of death in our own bodies; but still the time arrives when man must die, and so it must be with nations. Did the Portuguese, in the height of their prosperity, ever think that they would be reduced to what they are now? Would they have believed it? Yes, my boy, the English nation must in time meet with the fate of all others. There are various causes which may hasten or protract the period: but, sooner or later, England will be no more mistress of the seas, or boast of her possessions all over the world.'"

Queen Victoria had been on the throne for four years when those words were written. Was not that the height of an era in which Britain is now generally supposed to have been in the full flood of its rapacity, its greed masquerading as a mission to civilise as it aggressively expropriated other people's wealth and territories to establish an empire on which the sun would never set? If so, Captain Marryat, through Mr Seagrave, would seem to have been atypical in taking a more realistic view of his country's imperial prospects.

As to the number one evil in today's canon of wrongdoing, "racism", Mr Seagrave has no illusions about the intrinsic superiority of any national or ethnic group. "'Recollect," he tells his son, "'that when the Roman Empire was in the height of its power Great Britain was peopled by mere barbarians and savages. Now Rome has disappeared, and is only known in history and by the relics of its former greatness, while England ranks among the highest of nations. How is the major portion of the continent of Africa peopled - by barbarians and savages: and who knows what they may become some future day?'

"'What!'" says William, in a reaction more in conformity with the modern stereotype, "'the negroes become a great nation?'

"'That,'" replies his father, "'is exactly what the Romans might have said in former days. What? the British barbarians become a great nation? And yet they have become so.'" Colour, Mr Seagrave goes on to explain, is no barrier to civilisation and accomplishment. "'As to the darkness of the skin, the majority of the Moors are quite as black as the negroes, yet they were once a great nation, and, moreover, the most enlightened nation of their time, with a great many excellent qualities - full of honour, generosity, politeness and chivalry. They conquered and held the major part of Spain for many hundred years, introduced arts and sciences then unknown, and were as brave and heroic as they were virtuous and honourable.'" (Perhaps Mr Seagrave would not have regarded a second Islamification of parts of Europe predicted by the writer Mark Steyn and others as anything to be alarmed about.)

If the racial terminology is a little strong for contemporary sensibilities the sentiments are impeccable. As impeccable as those of the maligned Kipling at the other end of Victoria's reign when, in Recessional, the hymn he wrote for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, he foresaw a time when Britain would have to face the fact that

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Perhaps in one way Marryat and Mr Seagrave were wrong that there was nothing historically out of the ordinary about the British. Must there not be a quality beyond the commonplace in a culture whose most articulate voices, at the height of their country's prosperity and attainment, understand that decay inevitably awaits and who can express their awareness in words that still speak to anyone with ears to listen in an era of rising and declining global powers?

13 March 2014