Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

8. Confidence—1919
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
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
half-concealed admiration.
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