There are no people who are quite so vulgar as the over-refined ones.
--Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
We sailed from Calcutta toward the end of March; stopped a day at Madras;
two or three days in Ceylon; then sailed westward on a long flight for
Mauritius. From my diary:
April 7. We are far abroad upon the smooth waters of the Indian Ocean,
now; it is shady and pleasant and peaceful under the vast spread of the
awnings, and life is perfect again--ideal.
The difference between a river and the sea is, that the river looks
fluid, the sea solid--usually looks as if you could step out and walk on
The captain has this peculiarity--he cannot tell the truth in a plausible
way. In this he is the very opposite of the austere Scot who sits midway
of the table; he cannot tell a lie in an unplausible way. When the
captain finishes a statement the passengers glance at each other
privately, as who should say, "Do you believe that?" When the Scot
finishes one, the look says, "How strange and interesting." The whole
secret is in the manner and method of the two men. The captain is a
little shy and diffident, and he states the simplest fact as if he were a
little afraid of it, while the Scot delivers himself of the most
abandoned lie with such an air of stern veracity that one is forced to
believe it although one knows it isn't so. For instance, the Scot told
about a pet flying-fish he once owned, that lived in a little fountain in
his conservatory, and supported itself by catching birds and frogs and
rats in the neighboring fields. It was plain that no one at the table
doubted this statement.
By and by, in the course of some talk about custom-house annoyances, the
captain brought out the following simple everyday incident, but through
his infirmity of style managed to tell it in such a way that it got no
credence. He said:
"I went ashore at Naples one voyage when I was in that trade, and
stood around helping my passengers, for I could speak a little
Italian. Two or three times, at intervals, the officer asked me if
I had anything dutiable about me, and seemed more and more put out
and disappointed every time I told him no. Finally a passenger whom
I had helped through asked me to come out and take something. I
thanked him, but excused myself, saying I had taken a whisky just
before I came ashore.
"It was a fatal admission. The officer at once made me pay sixpence
import-duty on the whisky-just from ship to shore, you see; and he
fined me L5 for not declaring the goods, another L5 for falsely
denying that I had anything dutiable about me, also L5 for
concealing the goods, and L50 for smuggling, which is the maximum
penalty for unlawfully bringing in goods under the value of
sevenpence ha'penny. Altogether, sixty-five pounds sixpence for a
little thing like that."
The Scot is always believed, yet he never tells anything but lies;
whereas the captain is never believed, although he never tells a lie, so
far as I can judge. If he should say his uncle was a male person, he
would probably say it in such a way that nobody would believe it; at the
same time the Scot could claim that he had a female uncle and not stir a
doubt in anybody's mind. My own luck has been curious all my literary
life; I never could tell a lie that anybody would doubt, nor a truth that
anybody would believe.
Lots of pets on board--birds and things. In these far countries the
white people do seem to run remarkably to pets. Our host in Cawnpore had
a fine collection of birds--the finest we saw in a private house in
India. And in Colombo, Dr. Murray's great compound and commodious
bungalow were well populated with domesticated company from the woods:
frisky little squirrels; a Ceylon mina walking sociably about the house;
a small green parrot that whistled a single urgent note of call without
motion of its beak; also chuckled; a monkey in a cage on the back
veranda, and some more out in the trees; also a number of beautiful
macaws in the trees; and various and sundry birds and animals of breeds
not known to me. But no cat. Yet a cat would have liked that place.
April 9. Tea-planting is the great business in Ceylon, now. A passenger
says it often pays 40 per cent. on the investment. Says there is a boom.
April 10. The sea is a Mediterranean blue; and I believe that that is
about the divinest color known to nature.
It is strange and fine--Nature's lavish generosities to her creatures.
At least to all of them except man. For those that fly she has provided
a home that is nobly spacious--a home which is forty miles deep and
envelops the whole globe, and has not an obstruction in it. For those
that swim she has provided a more than imperial domain--a domain which is
miles deep and covers four-fifths of the globe. But as for man, she has
cut him off with the mere odds and ends of the creation. She has given
him the thin skin, the meagre skin which is stretched over the remaining
one-fifth--the naked bones stick up through it in most places. On the
one-half of this domain he can raise snow, ice, sand, rocks, and nothing
else. So the valuable part of his inheritance really consists of but a
single fifth of the family estate; and out of it he has to grub hard to
get enough to keep him alive and provide kings and soldiers and powder to
extend the blessings of civilization with. Yet man, in his simplicity
and complacency and inability to cipher, thinks Nature regards him as the
important member of the family--in fact, her favorite. Surely, it must
occur to even his dull head, sometimes, that she has a curious way of
Afternoon. The captain has been telling how, in one of his Arctic
voyages, it was so cold that the mate's shadow froze fast to the deck and
had to be ripped loose by main strength. And even then he got only about
two-thirds of it back. Nobody said anything, and the captain went away.
I think he is becoming disheartened . . . . Also, to be fair, there
is another word of praise due to this ship's library: it contains no copy
of the Vicar of Wakefield, that strange menagerie of complacent
hypocrites and idiots, of theatrical cheap-john heroes and heroines, who
are always showing off, of bad people who are not interesting, and good
people who are fatiguing. A singular book. Not a sincere line in it,
and not a character that invites respect; a book which is one long waste-
pipe discharge of goody-goody puerilities and dreary moralities; a book
which is full of pathos which revolts, and humor which grieves the heart.
There are few things in literature that are more piteous, more pathetic,
than the celebrated "humorous" incident of Moses and the spectacles.
Jane Austen's books, too, are absent from this library. Just that one
omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that
hadn't a book in it.
Customs in tropic seas. At 5 in the morning they pipe to wash down the
decks, and at once the ladies who are sleeping there turn out and they
and their beds go below. Then one after another the men come up from the
bath in their pyjamas, and walk the decks an hour or two with bare legs
and bare feet. Coffee and fruit served. The ship cat and her kitten now
appear and get about their toilets; next the barber comes and flays us on
the breezy deck. Breakfast at 9.30, and the day begins. I do not know
how a day could be more reposeful: no motion; a level blue sea; nothing
in sight from horizon to horizon; the speed of the ship furnishes a
cooling breeze; there is no mail to read and answer; no newspapers to
excite you; no telegrams to fret you or fright you--the world is far, far
away; it has ceased to exist for you--seemed a fading dream, along in the
first days; has dissolved to an unreality now; it is gone from your mind
with all its businesses and ambitions, its prosperities and disasters,
its exultations and despairs, its joys and griefs and cares and worries.
They are no concern of yours any more; they have gone out of your life;
they are a storm which has passed and left a deep calm behind. The
people group themselves about the decks in their snowy white linen, and
read, smoke, sew, play cards, talk, nap, and so on. In other ships the
passengers are always ciphering about when they are going to arrive; out
in these seas it is rare, very rare, to hear that subject broached. In
other ships there is always an eager rush to the bulletin board at noon
to find out what the "run" has been; in these seas the bulletin seems to
attract no interest; I have seen no one visit it; in thirteen days I have
visited it only once. Then I happened to notice the figures of the day's
run. On that day there happened to be talk, at dinner, about the speed
of modern ships. I was the only passenger present who knew this ship's
gait. Necessarily, the Atlantic custom of betting on the ship's run is
not a custom here--nobody ever mentions it.
I myself am wholly indifferent as to when we are going to "get in"; if
any one else feels interested in the matter he has not indicated it in my
hearing. If I had my way we should never get in at all. This sort of
sea life is charged with an indestructible charm. There is no weariness,
no fatigue, no worry, no responsibility, no work, no depression of
spirits. There is nothing like this serenity, this comfort, this peace,
this deep contentment, to be found anywhere on land. If I had my way I
would sail on for ever and never go to live on the solid ground again.
One of Kipling's ballads has delivered the aspect and sentiment of this
bewitching sea correctly:
"The Injian Ocean sets an' smiles
So sof', so bright, so bloomin' blue;
There aren't a wave for miles an' miles
Excep' the jiggle from the screw."
April 14. It turns out that the astronomical apprentice worked off a
section of the Milky Way on me for the Magellan Clouds. A man of more
experience in the business showed one of them to me last night. It was
small and faint and delicate, and looked like the ghost of a bunch of
white smoke left floating in the sky by an exploded bombshell.
Wednesday, April 15. Mauritius. Arrived and anchored off Port Louis
2 A. M. Rugged clusters of crags and peaks, green to their summits; from
their bases to the sea a green plain with just tilt enough to it to make
the water drain off. I believe it is in 56 E. and 22 S.--a hot tropical
country. The green plain has an inviting look; has scattering dwellings
nestling among the greenery. Scene of the sentimental adventure of Paul
Island under French control--which means a community which depends upon
quarantines, not sanitation, for its health.
Thursday, April 16. Went ashore in the forenoon at Port Louis, a little
town, but with the largest variety of nationalities and complexions we
have encountered yet. French, English, Chinese, Arabs, Africans with
wool, blacks with straight hair, East Indians, half-whites, quadroons--
and great varieties in costumes and colors.
Took the train for Curepipe at 1.30--two hours' run, gradually uphill.
What a contrast, this frantic luxuriance of vegetation, with the arid
plains of India; these architecturally picturesque crags and knobs and
miniature mountains, with the monotony of the Indian dead-levels.
A native pointed out a handsome swarthy man of grave and dignified
bearing, and said in an awed tone, "That is so-and-so; has held office of
one sort or another under this government for 37 years--he is known all
over this whole island and in the other countries of the world perhaps--
who knows? One thing is certain; you can speak his name anywhere in this
whole island, and you will find not one grown person that has not heard
it. It is a wonderful thing to be so celebrated; yet look at him; it
makes no change in him; he does not even seem to know it."
Curepipe (means Pincushion or Pegtown, probably). Sixteen miles (two
hours) by rail from Port Louis. At each end of every roof and on the
apex of every dormer window a wooden peg two feet high stands up; in some
cases its top is blunt, in others the peg is sharp and looks like a
toothpick. The passion for this humble ornament is universal.
Apparently, there has been only one prominent event in the history of
Mauritius, and that one didn't happen. I refer to the romantic sojourn
of Paul and Virginia here. It was that story that made Mauritius known
to the world, made the name familiar to everybody, the geographical
position of it to nobody.
A clergyman was asked to guess what was in a box on a table. It was a
vellum fan painted with the shipwreck, and was "one of Virginia's wedding
April 18. This is the only country in the world where the stranger is
not asked "How do you like this place?" This is indeed a large
distinction. Here the citizen does the talking about the country
himself; the stranger is not asked to help. You get all sorts of
information. From one citizen you gather the idea that Mauritius was
made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.
Another one tells you that this is an exaggeration; that the two chief
villages, Port Louis and Curepipe, fall short of heavenly perfection;
that nobody lives in Port Louis except upon compulsion, and that Curepipe
is the wettest and rainiest place in the world. An English citizen said:
"In the early part of this century Mauritius was used by the French
as a basis from which to operate against England's Indian
merchantmen; so England captured the island and also the neighbor,
Bourbon, to stop that annoyance. England gave Bourbon back; the
government in London did not want any more possessions in the West
Indies. If the government had had a better quality of geography in
stock it would not have wasted Bourbon in that foolish way. A big
war will temporarily shut up the Suez Canal some day and the English
ships will have to go to India around the Cape of Good Hope again;
then England will have to have Bourbon and will take it.
"Mauritius was a crown colony until 20 years ago, with a governor
appointed by the Crown and assisted by a Council appointed by
himself; but Pope Hennessey came out as Governor then, and he worked
hard to get a part of the council made elective, and succeeded. So
now the whole council is French, and in all ordinary matters of
legislation they vote together and in the French interest, not the
English. The English population is very slender; it has not votes
enough to elect a legislator. Half a dozen rich French families
elect the legislature. Pope Hennessey was an Irishman, a Catholic,
a Home Ruler, M.P., a hater of England and the English, a very
troublesome person and a serious incumbrance at Westminster; so it
was decided to send him out to govern unhealthy countries, in hope
that something would happen to him. But nothing did. The first
experiment was not merely a failure, it was more than a failure. He
proved to be more of a disease himself than any he was sent to
encounter. The next experiment was here. The dark scheme failed
again. It was an off-season and there was nothing but measles here
at the time. Pope Hennessey's health was not affected. He worked
with the French and for the French and against the English, and he
made the English very tired and the French very happy, and lived to
have the joy of seeing the flag he served publicly hissed. His
memory is held in worshipful reverence and affection by the French.
"It is a land of extraordinary quarantines. They quarantine a ship
for anything or for nothing; quarantine her for 20 and even 30 days.
They once quarantined a ship because her captain had had the
smallpox when he was a boy. That and because he was English.
"The population is very small; small to insignificance. The
majority is East Indian; then mongrels; then negroes (descendants of
the slaves of the French times); then French; then English. There
was an American, but he is dead or mislaid. The mongrels are the
result of all kinds of mixtures; black and white, mulatto and white,
quadroon and white, octoroon and white. And so there is every shade
of complexion; ebony, old mahogany, horsechestnut, sorrel, molasses-
candy, clouded amber, clear amber, old-ivory white, new-ivory white,
fish-belly white--this latter the leprous complexion frequent with
the Anglo-Saxon long resident in tropical climates.
"You wouldn't expect a person to be proud of being a Mauritian, now
would you? But it is so. The most of them have never been out of
the island, and haven't read much or studied much, and they think
the world consists of three principal countries--Judaea, France, and
Mauritius; so they are very proud of belonging to one of the three
grand divisions of the globe. They think that Russia and Germany
are in England, and that England does not amount to much. They have
heard vaguely about the United States and the equator, but they
think both of them are monarchies. They think Mount Peter Botte is
the highest mountain in the world, and if you show one of them a
picture of Milan Cathedral he will swell up with satisfaction and
say that the idea of that jungle of spires was stolen from the
forest of peg-tops and toothpicks that makes the roofs of Curepipe
look so fine and prickly.
"There is not much trade in books. The newspapers educate and
entertain the people. Mainly the latter. They have two pages of
large-print reading-matter-one of them English, the other French.
The English page is a translation of the French one. The typography
is super-extra primitive--in this quality it has not its equal
anywhere. There is no proof-reader now; he is dead.
"Where do they get matter to fill up a page in this little island
lost in the wastes of the Indian Ocean? Oh, Madagascar. They
discuss Madagascar and France. That is the bulk. Then they chock
up the rest with advice to the Government. Also, slurs upon the
English administration. The papers are all owned and edited by
"The language of the country is French. Everybody speaks it -has
to. You have to know French particularly mongrel French, the patois
spoken by Tom, Dick, and Harry of the multiform complexions--or you
can't get along.
"This was a flourishing country in former days, for it made then and
still makes the best sugar in the world; but first the Suez Canal severed
it from the world and left it out in the cold and next the beetroot sugar
helped by bounties, captured the European markets. Sugar is the life of
Mauritius, and it is losing its grip. Its downward course was checked by
the depreciation of the rupee--for the planter pays wages in rupees but
sells his crop for gold--and the insurrection in Cuba and paralyzation of
the sugar industry there have given our prices here a life-saving lift;
but the outlook has nothing permanently favorable about it. It takes a
year to mature the canes--on the high ground three and six months longer
--and there is always a chance that the annual cyclone will rip the
profit out of the crop. In recent times a cyclone took the whole crop,
as you may say; and the island never saw a finer one. Some of the
noblest sugar estates in the island are in deep difficulties. A dozen of
them are investments of English capital; and the companies that own them
are at work now, trying to settle up and get out with a saving of half
the money they put in. You know, in these days, when a country begins to
introduce the tea culture, it means that its own specialty has gone back
on it. Look at Bengal; look at Ceylon. Well, they've begun to introduce
the tea culture, here.
"Many copies of Paul and Virginia are sold every year in Mauritius. No
other book is so popular here except the Bible. By many it is supposed
to be a part of the Bible. All the missionaries work up their French on
it when they come here to pervert the Catholic mongrel. It is the
greatest story that was ever written about Mauritius, and the only one."